It must have been around 6:30am when I awoke. There was a subtle blueish tinge to the light trickling through the curtains, and it was mostly silent. The bed was warm and cosy, and I had nothing to get up for apart from the usual. So what had woken me? Ellie was in bed beside me, quietly sobbing. At first I wondered whether it was just the hormones kicking in, as the final stages of pregnancy draw upon us. But then another explanation came to mind, which seemed the more likely, and meant that I really did have to wake up and comfort her – not that that was difficult, of course, I was unusually wide awake by this point already.
Diamond, one of our two 18 month old gerbils, had been quite ill the past week or so. The first thing we noticed was that she was licking the side of the cage. At first we thought it was just funny, another oddity of her personality. But as the days went past and she carried on acting strangely, we also noticed that she was losing weight. Her breathing was becoming more laboured, she wasn’t eating or drinking as much, and she seemed quite lethargic. Not the skittish little gerbil we knew and loved.
And that was the start of it. We took Diamond into the vet to find out what the prognosis was. Ellie was already very worried by that point, and shed a few tears at the thought of not bringing her home again. It was a nervous drive into town, for both of us, and an even more nervous time sat in the waiting room, watching Pearl frantically running around the little travel cage exploring everything, while Diamond sat curled up in the bed most of the time not appearing to care about the change in scenery.
The vet was very friendly, and very honest. She explained that it was always difficult providing healthcare for animals so small, partly because of the lack of medical research in comparison to animals such as cats or dogs, and partly because they are so small that anything invasive is almost impossible anyway. She admitted that she couldn’t be sure if it was a growth in Diamond’s stomach or whether she was just nervous and tensing her muscles. If it was a tumour, there wasn’t much that could be done. If she just had a stomach infection, on the other hand, antibiotics might help clear that up. So we went away with a little more hope, with both girls still with us, and with a tiny bottle of medicine that might save our gerbil.
The following days Ellie tended to Diamond diligently and consistently, squeezing the antibiotics into her mouth with the syringe twice a day and feeding her with baby food as often as she’d accept it. Pearl loved the baby food, incidentally – couldn’t keep her away from it! Diamond still took some persuasion though, and it was always with hesitation and perhaps reluctance that she ate anything. She was still active, but it was infrequent and sporadic. Many times she would come out of the nest to do something and fall asleep half way through in the middle of the cage, as if she’d simply run out of energy on the spot. Pearl tried her best to help, in the only way she knew how, by trying to wash Diamond’s fur for her. This was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help, though, as she didn’t always choose a convenient moment to lend her efforts – if a friend has ever tried to give you a shower when you were asleep in bed then you’ll know what that feels like.
There were good days and bad days really, with no obvious pattern or progression. Some days she was lethargic as could be and had to be persuaded out of the nest. Other times she was running around the cage as if nothing was wrong (if only for short periods of time). The one observable trend we saw though was her weight. As the days dragged on, her skin began to become less and less padded, as her fat reserves simply disappeared. One day we could feel her spine all the way along. A few days later we could feel her ribs. It was frightening. And still we had no idea what the outcome would be. She didn’t seem ready to give up just yet, but her body was wasting away, in spite of the baby food, sunflower seeds, cheese and boiled egg we gave her.
So when I woke up that morning to find my wife in tears, I had a pretty good idea what the cause might be. She explained how she’d gone downstairs to check on them, and Diamond seemed almost lifeless, making no attempt to respond to the gentle prods and strokes that would ordinarily have had her out and about in seconds. It was as if she was giving up, having run out of energy to fight it.
We spent a while just laid in bed. Ellie cried into her pillow, while I stared up at the ceiling. It had come at last. We had both hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t come to this, that it would just be an infection and she’d recover to her normal cheeky self in time. But apparently that was no longer a likelihood.
In the end I had to get up. I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep, and I was beginning to feel hungry, but above all else I wanted to see her. Just in case she wasn’t going to last much longer. I had to see her. I had to be able to say good bye. So we got up. Down in the lounge, in the hollowed-out coconut that was their nest, two little bundles of fur slept together. When I reached in and woke them, both heads instantly popped out to see what was going on, which I thought was a good sign. Pearl got out to enquire further as to the interruption, but Diamond slinked back into her bed. I put my finger in to stroke her (something that shouldn’t be possible with a gerbil, they’re too inquisitive to stay still long enough). She was nothing but skin and bones. It felt so wrong, being able to feel her ribs like that without even trying.
Ellie and I sat there for several minutes, watching her curled up in the nest, not doing anything. Tears were shed. It wasn’t a feeling I’ve had before, and wasn’t one I was particularly comfortable with. It was a feeling of dread, a feeling of loss, a feeling of sadness, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I didn’t know what to do. Diamond was slipping away. And I didn’t know what to do.
In silence we watched as nothing happened.
After breakfast I called the vets. I told them of how we’d been giving her the antibiotics, and that she’d had her ups and downs all week, and that she’d taken a turn for the worse overnight. The receptionist booked us in for that morning. I said thank you and put the phone down. Again we both sat in silence for a while. I took comfort in a cup of tea. Ellie continued her attack on the tissue box.
I’ve never really experienced death before. I have had the enormous privilege of being able to live in a bubble almost all my life, with none of my family members passing away, none of my close friends being taken away from me. Even our household pet, our black cat Lucy, was put to sleep when I was far away. She wasn’t ill, she was just old, and my parents were moving house and didn’t think she’d survive the move, so chose to have her put to sleep instead. It all happened when I was at uni, so there was nothing I could do. In fact, I wasn’t even told it was happening until it had already happened. Admittedly I wasn’t particularly close to Lucy, but I never really mourned for her. I missed her, or rather, I missed having a cat, on brief occasions. If anything I mourned more when my Dad dug up the apple tree at the end of the garden. I loved that tree. But on the whole I have never had to deal with loss.
Ellie was absolutely right. It was this in-between time that was the worst. Knowing that the end was nigh, that there was nothing more we could do. It was crushing.
In the end I had to take my cup of tea upstairs and distract myself with work, ploughing into something mundane and mind-numbingly tedious, as an escape from the emotion that had welled up inside me and was drowning my usually positive nature. I had about an hour before we had to go out. I used my time immersing myself in a laborious copy-and-paste chore, shutting out everything else. The impending doom was but an echo, a dull throb off in the semi-distance, which reared its head occasionally as an urge to drink more tea.
The journey in the car began with a musical accompaniment. As I turned the key the radio came on, and Classic FM was playing Wagner’s Prelude to Tannhauser, a rousing and regal orchestral waterfall of beauty and power. An appropriate send off, I thought to myself as we drove off. I had to hold back the tears though, if only so that I could see the road.
Other than the radio, we sat in silence. It wasn’t a long journey, not more than 15 minutes. The sky was grey, but not particularly oppressive or intimidating. Just calm and respectful. We finally pulled into the vets (or “the Bad Place” as it is referred to in a certain story about pets) and went and sat in the waiting room. There was a young boy sat opposite playing on a red Nintendo DS. Every now and then he would glance up at us. I tried to avoid eye contact. I wondered what he must have thought of us, two grown adults with a little gerbil, both probably looking thoroughly miserable. Should we put on a brave face for his sake? Would he have guessed that the gerbil was going to be put down in the next room in a matter of moments? What effect would it all have on him? And, more to the point, why on earth was I worrying about the feelings and psychological state of a boy I’d never met before?
My name was called, and we went through to the treatment room. It was a different vet, I think, but she seemed to know what was going on. She felt Diamond’s tummy, and her face said it all. “Yes,” she said, “there’s definitely something wrong there.” It was confirmation of what we both knew, and were both expecting, but it still came with a hefty clout of finality. I could feel the emotion welling up in us both, despite our efforts to keep it together. Why not cry, I wondered? Surely the vet is more than accustomed to this sort of thing? She was very sensitive, though, in the way she explained it all to us. Putting the gerbil to sleep was the best thing now.
Then she asked us whether we wanted to bury the body ourselves or whether we wanted it cremated. I hadn’t even thought about that. It was probably obvious in my face. She said she would give us a moment to think about it, with the excuse that she had to go and find a consent form out back. On reflection, I’m sure those forms would have been somewhere easy to find and wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of seconds to dig out, but it was a kind gesture that allowed us a minute or two to think about it. Ellie said it was up to me. I’m still not sure whether that was because she wanted to allow me to have my way, or whether she just wasn’t up to making the decision herself. I didn’t really have a preference either way, and said as much. Ellie told me that the decision was mine, because I would be the one doing the digging. That pretty much clinched it. The thought of taking a lifeless gerbil home and burying it was almost more than I could bear at that moment, and cremation suddenly sounded a much more attractive option.
And so it was that we said our silent goodbyes to Diamond, giving her a gentle and loving stroke behind the ears, and looking for the last time into her fathomless black eyes, before lowering her into a plastic box. It would be painless, we were told. Basically an overdose of gas. The bill would be forwarded on to us later, we were told. Another kind gesture. I’m not sure I would have been able to remember my pin code at that point.
Ellie and I sat in the car for almost an eternity. A large part of me wanted to rush back in there and reclaim our gerbil. I wanted to go back and say goodbye again. I wanted to hold her one more time. I wanted it never to have happened. I wanted to run away and hide somewhere. I wanted a hug from my wife and my two best friends. And I knew that the only one I could have was my wife.
And then we went home. And I had another cup of tea.
I do feel much better about it now. As I sit, writing this all down, I feel a sense of catharsis, of release. Telling Diamond’s final story has allowed me to temporarily distance myself from it all, as if it had all happened to someone else, as if it was all a work of fiction. If only that were true. I’m sure we will both still feel those pangs of loss as we continue to look after Pearl, who will now be very lonely in the cage on her own.
So long, Diamond. Maybe we’ll see you again one day, where the grass is greener and the sky is wider and the angels sing more loudly…