It had been exceedingly busy in the Eby household lately. My mind was on anything but the gerbil: the trailer park responsibilities, the new therapy schedule, the trip to Indianapolis for a medical procedure. In hindsight we all saw the signs that Lilly was slipping but paid no attention to them in the busyness of life.
When I woke up a few hours later I asked Hannah when she last fed Lilly. She said she'd fed her yesterday, and that appeased my worry while I made oatmeal for the kids. When the breakfast rush had settled I remembered Lilly again and went to check on her. I rustled her cage bars and she stirred inside her bedding burrow. I told Hannah that Lilly might feel better if we cleaned her cage. I opened the top and jiggled the bedding off of the top of Lilly, expecting her to run, but she barely moved. She was shaky on her feet and refused to open her eyes. She stumbled a few steps, panted, fell, and curled back up in her nest.
"Oh, Hannah," I said sadly as reality registered in my mind, "Lilly's not doing well at all. She's very sick, Honey, and I think she might not live much longer."
Hannah, in disbelief tried to think of anything to help Lilly, "But what if we cleaned her cage? Can we take her to the vet? What's wrong with her?"
Hannah quickly went to tell the other kids and as we stood over Lilly's cage, we all realized that things hadn't been right for a few days now.
"She hasn't been coming for treats very well anymore," Naomi remembered, "and I had to really coax her a lot to come this morning. She didn't seem right, but I didn't want to wake you up, and then I guess I forgot."
"I just thought she was becoming nocturnal," Hannah added, "I knew she was sleeping most of the day, but I thought she was up at night. I didn't realize she was sleeping all the time. I didn't know she was sick."
Our neighbor, who has had lots of small pets, came over to see Lilly and to tell the girls about how she had lost pets before too. I called our cat's veterinary office to ask some phone advice, but the vet seemed to think that Lilly was pretty old for a gerbil at one and a half years and that there was probably little that could be done to help her.
I tried putting Lilly's water bottle to her mouth, but she wouldn't drink. We put a few small pieces of strawberry and apple in front of her and she ate a little. I wondered if that would perk her up at all, but it was not to be. Lilly sat in her nest breathing shallowly and rapidly most of the day. We tried to go about our day, but kept coming back to check on her. When Matt came home about 2pm we told him that Lilly was likely dying and he came to say his good-byes and to comfort the girls. Around 4pm Lilly lay down and was clearly in her last hours. We gathered around her cage once more and then the tears flowed.
I told the kids they needed to each tell her good-bye. They told her that they loved her. They told her she was a good gerbil and that they would miss her. Naomi had two special songs that she used to sing to Lilly every day, multiple times a day. One of them is entitled "A Gerbi's Life is Fun, Fun, Fun," and the other is, "Lillyfuss is a Good Gerbil." When Naomi leaned close to Lilly and sang those songs with tears running down her face, even I lost it. Matt played the piano for Lilly because she had always enjoyed his piano playing. She used to jump up on her perch and watch him or run on her wheel when he played, so he played one more time the theme to Dances with Wolves and we all watched her struggle to breathe and we cried. We watched the video of the early-Christmas morning of December 23rd 2013 when we had first given Lilly to the kids. We remembered how cute and healthy she had been and how happy they had been.
Not knowing how long it would go on, I started dinner and distracted the kids with computer games. They periodically got up and checked on her and came with tear-streaked faces into the kitchen to report on how she was doing. I finally suggested that the girls work on making a coffin for Lilly from a small card-board box and filling it with things Lilly would like. They prepared a box with bedding, a blanket, and a toilet paper tube. Around 7pm I checked on Lilly again. She was only taking a breath every few seconds, and then there were no more breaths.
We gathered around her cage one more time. Liana hopped up on her towel where she had sat or laid many hours beside Lilly's cage. She looked at Lilly's lifeless body with concern and looked at all of us crying with bewilderment. I put on some gloves and lifted Lilly's body out for the kids and the cat to see one last time. We each said our last good-byes. Naomi sang one last time, "Lillyfuss was a Good Gerbil," and it really broke my heart. We closed up the cardboard box and buried it with snow in the window well below the window that Lilly's cage had sat by, because the ground was frozen. The final burial will have to wait for spring.
We were all in shock as I finished a very late dinner. The girls cleaned out Lilly's cage, washed it thoroughly, and put it in the basement. When all the necessary tasks were past, I think it really began to sink in.
"You know," Naomi said, choking on tears and wiping her red, puffy eyes with her sleeve, "I was just in the bathroom and saw the pile of toilet paper tubes there and thought, 'Lilly's really going to have fun with those,' but then…I remembered. It all just happened so fast. I haven't gotten used to it yet."
More group hugs and group tears followed. A few minutes later Naomi came back again. Her lip quivered and her voice shook,"I tried to go see Liana for some comfort, but after I pet her for a few minutes it seemed like she was saying, 'Can't a cat get any rest around here?' I think what I'm really going to miss the most about Lilly is that whenever I was feeling upset I could always go talk to her and she was always really interested to listen. She always made me feel better. And…I'm really going to miss that. Sometimes she almost felt like a person to me."
It was true. Lilly was happy to run to the front of the cage and listen intently when Naomi talked to her or sang to her. Lilly was very curious and social. She had a way of being interested in you that made you feel like she really cared, even though she occasionally nipped people for getting too close. She used to jump up on her perch and watch all the activities of the house, even the kids' bed-time TV shows. Lilly's favorite show as the A-Team. She never missed an episode. She loved to tease Liana and Liana loved the company. She had enough personality to seem like a little person.
We had even celebrated her first birthday last October (because we figured she must be at least a year old by then) with a little apple and carrot cake and a trip to the pet store for some presents.
Matt and I tucked two tired boys and three grief-stricken girls into bed this evening. Hannah's eyes were so swollen and red that she said, "Mom, look at me. I look like a zombie," and we laughed, and then we cried. "I just have this horrible, horrible feeling," she cried between sniffles, "I've never had anyone die before that I really loved. It feels horrible." I told her that I knew it hurt, and that it would keep hurting for awhile, and then I told her to rest and that her heart would heal in time.
When I came back down Liana was looking around the house for something: watching, listening, looking at me, looking at Matt. She hopped up on the table where Lilly's cage had sat and looked around and looked back at me. Even our cat was mourning the loss of her best friend. I gave her a pet and a nuzzle, but she is restless even still.
The house is quiet tonight, too quiet, and it probably will be for some time now.