She came into our lives just about a year ago; the beginning of a year that would turn out to be one of the most stressful and tumultuous our family has undergone.
She was an early birthday present for Ty. His second grade class had a gerbil for a mascot, and as eight year old boys tend to do, he was going through a “rodent” phase, and thought it would be fun to have a gerbil of his very own.
Tyler’s friend Cay was over for the day. Cay is a great kid but one who speaks twenty to forty decibels above everyone else. Taking the two boys to the pet store would be stressful enough—Lisa asked me to go first on a recon mission to check out the gerbil situation and report back. We also had a conversation about guinea pigs. I felt a guinea pig might be a little better choice for a pet since they are a little larger and as a result, more robust.
I walked into the local Albuquerque Petco prepared to talk guinea pig. But after a lengthy conversation with a knowledgeable saleslady, I soon came around to the idea of a pet rat. The lady quickly informed me that guinea pigs were not ideal. She told me they were “high maintenance.” They required “fresh” alfalfa on a daily basis, had extreme requirements for vitamin c, and if they got deficient, quickly expired. They were also, in her words, “dirty and stinky.”
“What you really need,” the lady said after I gave her all the pertinent details about Ty and the home where the pet would reside, “is a rat.”
I have to admit to being taken aback. After all, when I think of a rat, I think of some filthy, disgusting animal living in a sewer and sneaking out at night to terrorize innocent sleeping children and paranoid housewives. I would never have considered one for a pet.
But the saleslady was insistent that these were not your garden variety “sewer rats.” She said that rats are cleaner than virtually any other rodent pets, they are more social and have a generally higher intelligence. Also, a guinea pig was going to run about forty dollars, but we could get a rat for seven. As if everything else she’d not told me wasn’t enough that clinched the deal.
About that time Lisa showed up with the three kids—Ty and his friend, as well as Lorelei, who was about two at the time. There was a lot of commotion involving rats being handed to kids to pet, a quick briefing of the various rat attributes and within twenty minutes Ty walked out of Petco, the proud owner of his very own pet rat.
When asked about a name, he said he’d decided on Rocky, until we figured out the rat was a female. Lisa took one look at her and said she looked like a “Lucy.” Ty smiled and added “Rockstar. Her name is Lucy Rockstar.”
Lucy took up residence in Tyler’s bedroom, quickly setting up her tiny household within the confines of her cage. She was a beautiful animal as rats go. The front half of her body was a rich sable brown with a stripe that went down her back. Her back half was white. She had bright little eyes, translucent ears and tiny front paws that she used like hands to hold her food and groom herself.
After the first few days, Lucy got into the habit of nipping fingers whenever someone would reach into the cage to take her out. We theorized that as a nocturnal animal her daylight vision was not good, and I’m sure the specter of a giant out-of-focus hand coming toward her was quite terrifying. So Tyler and I devised a system of placing a small towel on our hand and resting it in the door to her cage, waiting for her to venture out on her own. Once out, she was always friendly and inquisitive.
Fast forward to Christmas when Lisa and Matt decided they had to move to Missouri. It is never optimal to move in December or January, but our second trip from Albuquerque, driving the kid’s Suburban, Hank, stacked to the gills, pulling a UHaul trailer and with Tyler and Lucy in tow, we hit a legendary winter storm in Oklahoma and Missouri, packing fifty mile an hour winds and sub-zero temperatures.
Rolling into Oklahoma City at dusk, the roads a sheet of ice and the front window defroster barely keeping usable visibility, Lisa called us with the details on the hotel she’d booked us into for the night. We had thought about the Lucy problem—she was ensconced in her cage at the very back of Hank, perhaps baffled by the view out the back window as the only home she’d ever really known disappeared on the horizon. We had Tucker with us, and having traveled extensively with a dog, we knew he wouldn’t be a problem, but acknowledged there probably isn’t a hotel on the planet that would welcome a rat.
With the frigid temperatures, bringing her into our room with us was imperative, as she would quickly become a ratcicle if left in the truck overnight. Unfortunately, the hotel had no “back stairs,” so we had to devise a plan involving a very large box from Home Depot and a lot of smiling and shuffling past a curious front desk clerk to get to the elevator and up to our room.
Being natural enemies, we worried about having Tucky and Lucy as roommates, but they both seemed to understand that the situation wasn’t going to change, and organized a terse peace agreement where Lucy agreed to keep a low profile and Tucky agreed not to bark and terrorize her.
Somehow we made it to Missouri, rat and dog intact and still alive. Lucy once again set up camp in Tyler’s room, and kept Grant and I awake those first few nights with her constant furniture re-arranging.
Matt soon got into the habit of bringing her into the living room in the evenings to spend time with the family. The three couches were set up in a horseshoe-shaped arrangement and Lucy, once set loose, would frolic back and forth between the couches, pausing at each member of the family for a scratch behind the ears or a Goldfish cracker, which would quickly be stashed under the nearest pillow. She enjoyed any treat offered, and many were carefully cached for future enjoyment. The exceptions were pieces of bell pepper, her favorite, or the occasional nut. These she’d grab with her little hands and nibble away until they were gone. Then she’d take a few moments to clean her paws, her face and comb her whiskers. She was always very fastidious and cleanliness was a high priority to her.
The house in Missouri, un-insulated, was extremely cold. Lucy shredded the old blanket that Lisa placed over her cage during the day, and made herself a small nest. She plumped up a bit and spent a fair amount of time curled into a tight ball, trying to stay warm. At one point, she was moved from Ty’s room to the front hall, and then down to the basement for a while.
You’d think Lucy would love being in the basement, but she’d gotten used to her “people,” and rebelled by continuously chewing through her plastic water bottle in protest. Eventually Lisa moved her back into Ty’s room, and the chewing stopped.
Occasionally the subject of Ty’s pet rat would come up in conversation, and we usually got a response something like, “Eeeeew, a Rat?” As a family, we became protective of her and the reputation she was born into. Lucy couldn’t help it if she was a rat. She had edged her way into our hearts and was teaching us all invaluable lessons. We’d reached a point where we couldn’t remember life without Lucy in it.
In July, another move, this time to Florida, found Lucy once again in the back of Hank. This time the issue was not cold, but heat. One day she and I sat in the parking lot of a Chinese Buffet restaurant in some obscure town in the Deep South while the kids took a short break to get some food. I ran the engine and the air conditioner the whole time. Later one of us brought up the fact that we certainly went to a lot of trouble and expense for a seven dollar rat, but then we all looked at each other, shrugged and said in unison, “but it’s Lucy.”
She quickly settled into her new digs in Tyler’s room in Florida. The only thing missing was Tyler himself, and Lucy mourned the loss of her roommate. She still got to come out with the family in the evenings, and those were the times she was happiest, surrounded by her little “pack.” After every Lucy visit, we’d invariably find a small stack of crackers under a sofa pillow, and carry it in to dump in her little bowl for later.
Recently, Lisa’s family came to visit us for a few days in Montana. I flew back with her and Lorelei, to help with the baby and the bags. Lucy had been left in the care of a couple of the neighbor kids, and when we arrived home, we went straight to check on her. The cage door was wide open and the water bottle was bone dry.
Panicked, we raced around the house, frantically looking under all the furniture and any place we thought a rat might hide. After a thorough search, we gave up hope and collapsed on the couch. Within fifteen or twenty minutes, I heard Lisa exclaim, “Lucy.” There she was, trotting across the carpet. She must have heard us and come out of hiding to welcome us home. We got her some food and water and settled back in her cage.
For several days, she seemed fine, but then she stopped eating and drinking, and became lethargic. Halloween morning, Lisa found her lifeless little body on the bottom of the cage. She must have eaten something while she was on the lamb that slowly poisoned her.
Right before I left Florida to come home I stopped by her cage to say goodbye. She’d been curled up asleep, but she came to my side of the cage and blinked in her near-sighted way. I gave her a corner of a corn chip, which she promptly ate eagerly. That was the last time I saw her alive.
Why do I feel compelled to eulogize a rat?
I have a strong belief that every being that comes into our lives comes for a reason. Lucy taught us so much about prejudice, family values and unconditional love. She was so much more than “just a rat.” She was a beloved pet, a member of the family and we were members of her “pack.” I’ve known people whose personal habits of cleanliness did not match hers. And while she never stopped expressing her basic rat nature, she did it with sweetness and with class. She was truly a Rockstar.
Lucy we will miss you. Thank you for sharing this crazy year with us during which we all had to say so many goodbyes. You were one of the constants in our lives, you were always a bright spot in our day, you loved us unconditionally and for all of that we will be forever grateful. If there is a rat version of heaven, we hope you are there and that there is a never-ending supply of your favorite treats.
R.I.P. Lucy Rockstar.