In the last six months, as the rats have gotten older, the house has slowly been taken over by the machinery of animal care: little twists of plastic and bits of tape, hollow-tipped needles, a smudged yellow machine that compresses air. And the care has become ever more complex: at first, a spoonful of yogurt with antibiotics in it; later, a nebulizer, 60 mL syringes of sterile saline and what feels like dozens of little bottles of medication.
Before, a snuggle before bed would be all the special attention they needed, but now, it's three am and a sound like the click of a windshield wiper wakes you: the little rat, gasping for breath, frantic. You pick him up to comfort him and he feels like a baby bird - all sinew and fluff - and you hold him against your bare skin in the dark until he quiets down, eyes half-lidded with exhaustion and pain.
It is heartbreaking and yet somehow easy to care for an animal like this, when their life is so short, and the ferocity of your love is returned in such equal measure. But this time is also a mirror of loss; a compact echo of the hardships faced in our human lives. A little seedling of that fear and grief that we all face, in illness and dying and the finality of loss.
So you take what you can. The little paw holding steady on your knuckle when the big rat needs help standing up to wash his face, a nudge and a sandy little lick as thanks. The sigh and wiggle into the crook of your elbow when the little rat finishes his medicine, a bead of yogurt perched at the end of his whiskers. These small gestures of trust that carry you, that may come back to you in a dark moment in the future when the loss is not a small creature but a person, with a constellation of feelings and memories reflected in their eyes. Because we are not so different, the animals and us, in dying and in love: the size may be different, but our hearts are much the same.