Cuddles’ So-called Life

I almost ignored it.

I was raking thatch out back, watching the kids pretend long, fallen branches left over from winter storms were light sabers, and our willow tree Darth Vader. Vader had won this battle and the kids were headed in, the youngest crying at his loss, when I saw something shimmery and black wiggle a little in the grass. I thought for a second it was a trick of the light, but then remembered the baby copperhead we found a couple of months ago and figured it was better to be safe than sorry.

Three steps later and I was staring at a mostly naked baby mouse, no mama mouse in sight.

I had no idea what to do. It was too young and cute for me to have the typical “mouse” reaction, and besides, it was barely breathing, let alone moving. What could it possibly do?

I dropped my rake and ran in, calling for the kids to come outside. Aaron resisted at first, still crying but now sitting at the kitchen island. “But Aaron,” I said. “It’s a baby mouse!”

If that mouse does nothing else in its entire life, it can always say it stopped a four-year-old’s tears.

The three of us went to look, the kids getting too close, while I went through the various scenarios in my head.

We couldn’t kill it. And we couldn’t keep it. And we couldn’t just dump it over the fence and make it someone else’s problem. Maybe drive it to a field and let it go? No. It was too little; it would die.

I decided to call Andy, who was still at work, but thankfully his office is in our basement so he didn’t have far to travel when I said, “Come to the backyard ASAP, please.”

He didn’t know what to do, either.

“If we leave it alone its mom might come back,” he said.

“No.” I’ve worked with neglected children long enough to see the signs, even in a 5-inch long rodent. “It’s been abandoned. It’s going to die.”

We took pictures. We hemmed and hawed. We told the kids not to get too close or to touch. We shushed all the pleadings to take on a new pet.

“I’m making an executive decision,” Andy said.

I immediately got nervous. I don’t do executive decision too well, unless I’m the executive.

“We’re leaving it alone to see if its mom comes back. I’ll check on it in a couple of hours.”

We agreed and went in the house, but went straight to the window overlooking the shiny, black, clearly dying lump of almost-hairlessness in our backyard.

I started dinner.

The kids and Andy played Uno.

The dog wanted out.

“Oh no. He might eat the mouse.”

“He wouldn’t eat a mouse.”

“He tried to eat the copperhead.”

“Yeah, but snakes are tasty.”

“Andy…”

“Well, Winston eating it might save the mouse from something worse.”

Rachel started screaming.

“I’m also worried about Winston bringing mouse-mouth into the house!”

“Oh, right.”

Rachel was still screaming.

“We aren’t going to let him eat the mouse, Rachel. Sit at the window to play cards. If Winston gets near the mouse tell me and I’ll get him.”

Winston didn’t eat the mouse. He didn’t even try to.

I kept cooking and they kept playing cards. Every 5 to 10 minutes, one of us would check on the mouse to see if it was still breathing. It always was.

As I cooked I thought, what are we doing? This is crazy. A month from now I’d try to kill that mouse if I saw it. We have mouse traps in our basement for crying out loud. And babies are always cute. Then they grow up and turn into adults and sometimes become completely unlikeable.

But still.

This was a baby. Its eyes were still closed. It wriggled and writhed in the grass, clearly rooting for its mama and her milk.

I called Petco.

“No, we don’t take wild animals. Sorry.”

I called our vet.

“No, we don’t take wild animals. Sorry.”

I started to say thank you and hang up.

“But let me give you a number,” I heard just in time. I wrote it down, but it was 4:55 on a Friday. What could be done?

I called the number anyway and got a woman’s voicemail telling me she was only accepting baby birds on a limited basis. She didn’t mention mice, I thought, so that must mean she’s taking them in droves. Score! I left a message.

We ate. We checked the mouse. We told the kids to eat. We checked the mouse. We finished dinner. We checked the mouse. We started to pick up. The phone rang.

It was the limited-number-of-birds lady.

“Sure. It won’t be the only mouse I’ve ever raised.”

She told me where to go – a town 30 minutes away. On a Friday. At rush hour. Right before the kids’ bedtime. And those kids also need baths.

But still.

She told me how to transport it safely. How to warm it if it were cold to the touch. How to cup it in my hands and rub life into it and give it sugar water in just the tiniest amounts because otherwise I could drown it.

I donned gloves. I filled a Tupperware with Kleenex. I grabbed a dipping bowl and medicine syringe and headed out back, the kids begging to do the work for me.

I noticed it had rained while we were eating. The mouse was now even slicker, shinier. Colder.

I scooped it into my hands.

“It’s a boy!” I said to the three people gaping at me through our open living room window.

I carried it inside. I laid it in its box. I let the kids touch it, ever so gently. I dribbled sugar water into its mouth.

“Was he cold when you touched it?” I asked the kids. They nodded.

Well crap.

I would now incubate a mouse.

And it worked. Slowly he started to wiggle more in my hands. His heartbeat became stronger. He twitched his little mouth and drank the sugar water. His ears – once flattened against his head – were somewhat softer. Perkier. After a few more minutes, he wriggled more. Became ever more alive. And I didn’t want to put him down. Feeling that life come into fuller being in the palm of my hand was … miraculous. Somewhat indescribable, although not entirely.

Eventually I put him in the Tupperware, leaving one corner open just like the limited-birds woman told me.

“Y’all better hurry. She said time was of the essence.”

But still I stood there, plastic box, tissue paper, and life grasped in my hand.

I told Rachel that she was the mouse keeper. She would have to be the one to keep him safe during the thirty-minute Hanauer Medi-Vac trip. Her smile was huge.

Aaron, however, sat at the table, sad.

“Should I take him?” Andy mouthed to me, gesturing slightly towards Aaron.

“Why not? It’s Friday. May as well.”

I said good-bye to Cuddles, placing him safely in the van, Rachel’s keen eye watching the whole time.

I turned to go in and saw a box against the garage. A delivery.

Well crap again. I knew already what was in it.

Inside, I grabbed the scissors, sliced open the box, and saw before me peppermint oil – mice don’t like it – and mouse traps. Ordered two days ago, BC: Before Cuddles. Before I became an incubator.

Earth Day is tomorrow. The next day is Sunday. I could hear the Sunday School lesson forming in my head as I stared at those traps, then realized I wasn’t teaching that week. What a shame. I’m sure there’s a lesson in this somewhere.

Just as I sat down to post this, the phone rang. I noticed the call was coming from the town 30 minutes away.

“Hello?”

“Do you have a cat?”

It’s the bird lady.

“No, just a dog.”

“Well, he’s a bunny.”

“My dog?”

“No, the mouse. He’s a bunny.”

Of course he is.

Things That Are and Could Have Been

She—my baby girl Rachel—so badly wants babies. And we tell her: go to college, get married, have babies, in that order. She’s cool with this (she’s five), but the problem is: she really doesn’t like boys. Except her big brother, and sometimes her dad, and even less often her little brother. Boys, she says, are the losing team. They stink, and have too much body hair, and if they nursed babies it would be dirt-milk. So how to achieve her goal of motherhood? This, I want to tell her, is a problem women have faced for centuries.

She informed us tonight at dinner that men aren’t necessary for the birth of babies. My husband took umbrage at this and sought my support in convincing our daughter otherwise. I cocked my eye at him and said, “That’s a fine line, dear. She’s talking about carrying the baby inside and giving birth and nursing it. Do you really want to cross that line and tell her just exactly how it is that men contribute?” That put an end to that, and our daughter remains convinced that mamas are all that are needed. A lot of mamas think this too, and it’s kind of dragging us womenfolk down, all this hard work of going at life and parenting alone.

I should know: I did the single parent thing for right at twelve years. Technically I was married for about 18 months of those 12 years, but not in such a way that anyone would’ve noticed. Overall, those single years were some of the happiest of my life. My son makes for a wonderful life companion and I am the most introverted of introverts so being alone kind of suited me. But while happy, those years were also extremely, extremely hard. Like Chris Rock says, “Sure, you can be a single mom, but should you be?” It depends, of course, so I’ll just leave that one alone. Too many caveats.

I remember this girl from law school who was pretty much the most anti-marriage woman I’d ever met outside of a punk club. “It’s the worst contract for women ever! It’s killing us and bringing us down! We’re losing our selves, our careers, our potential!” And so on and so forth. That (wonderful) woman is now happily married with two kids and often posts Pinterest-worthy photos of homemade crafts on her Facebook page. She also is now “self-employed,” which we female lawyer-types know is really shorthand for “I want more flexibility than the jerks who run law firms (and some non-profits) will let me have.”

There is also the infamous case of Gloria Steinem who said women need men like fish need a bicycle (as in, not at freakin’ all). She is now married as well. I’m not sure if she’s happy or not because I haven’t checked. But regardless.

My personal ambivalence towards marriage could be because my first marriage was such an abomination. It was full of abuse, affairs, bar fights, and lots of drugs, none of which were perpetrated, had, started, or used by me. The innocent party stands highly wronged here, and though I’ve reached a level of forgiveness, the PTSD is a little harder to shake. What did come from that first marriage are two of the most beautiful people God ever created, and lots of what some might call “wisdom,” but only because it’s stuff I learned before the age of fifty; to anyone over fifty it’s mere common knowledge.

For some Godforsaken reason I decided to get marriage at fifteen. I think being pregnant had something to do with it. My parents yelled and screamed and forbade the marriage (as they should have), but his parents were gleeful and facilitated the whole shebang. I realize now the reasons for this were many. One, they were happy that their oldest son, whom they worried about greatly, had found a gentle and God-fearing partner who could influence him for good. Two, seeing as how I was pregnant, and that they were fundamentalists Christian types in a kindly and charismatic spirit-led sort of way, they figured we better make things legal to please Jesus.

So off we went in the middle of the night in an old Mustang that ended up stranding us halfway to the airport. Me, scared, pregnant, and hungry. Him, just happy to be doing something frowned upon by the establishment.

That baby, the one making me hungry, is the one who later died at not quite one year old. But even after that the ex and I stayed together and soon had another baby. That baby is now eighteen, in college, and the love of my life. Without him—as I often say while loving and hugging him hard—I’d probably have wound up in a cardboard box somewhere, spanging and dumpster diving with a tear tattooed on my face.

But instead, I’m here.

In case I haven’t mentioned it thus far, let me now say with emphasis: things happen for a reason. So I try not to even question it, this voluptuously curvaceous life, choosing instead to marvel at the mundane, squint so as not to bat my eyes at the ironic and absurd, and keep focused on the faithful, such as finding myself squarely in these middle years, strangely, dizzily, ironically, married.

Again.