How a Rat (Kind of) Saved My Life

Listen: I don’t care that you clicked on this article out of sheer confusion! This is kind of a self-imposed therapeutic exercise, so I really don’t mind. I will tell you that if you expect this to be a tale of rodent heroism and a damsel in distress, you’re sadly in the wrong place — although if you do find that article, I would love the link — because what this little guy did for me was so much more fundamental. 10 days nurturing a baby rat may not seem particularly significant to you, having just opened this article, but those 10 days changed me in a way that few experiences in our lives can.

There isn’t anything quite as alarming as getting a three-hour notice that without your help, something is going to die — I would NOT be helpful in a Mission Impossible scenario. I received a message right before an in-person class along the lines of, “Hey, I know you like rats, and there’s a three-day-old that’s going to get fed to a snake unless you take it in.” So, without any time to prepare (and with an in-person class to attend), I had to frantically Venmo money for supplies and spend my class time researching infant rodent care. I couldn’t even remember to feed myself more than a pack of Pop-Tarts a day — so the thought of hourly formula feedings to a creature without sight or hearing was daunting, to say the least — but there was no way I was going to let an innocent creature die. To quote the mantra of my favorite web-head: “With great power comes great responsibility.” If I could help, I had to try.

So that’s how I found myself loading a box of supplies and a cage with the sleeping rat into my car on a Monday evening. I was so anxious; I clamped my right hand over the cage while driving over speed bumps, desperate to keep the sleeping baby calm. I hustled up to my room, set him on my bedside table, and proceeded to spiral further into a nervous breakdown. He was squirming about oddly, the materials at the bottom of his cage weren’t fit for a baby, and he wasn’t taking his bottle. Not only that, but he couldn’t fix any of these things! That’s the terrifying thing about pets: You can never 100% know what they need, and they usually can’t help themselves. This creature was going to be entirely reliant on me, especially given that it had never had a mother and was still lacking several of its crucial senses.

But when I held him, there was something about the smooth feel of his fur that calmed me. I know that probably sounds cheesy, but it’s true: the more I acquainted myself with him, my anxieties gave way to admiration. He was crawling blindly around on my arms and trying to mischievously sneak up my sleeves; he occasionally made little squeaking noises that broke my heart and put it back together again in a single instant. I had taken him in with the caveat that I might have to rehouse him once he had been nursed, but I knew almost immediately that I would never be able to give him up.

I’m not going to lie: The hourly feedings were brutal, especially the 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. shifts. Having to stimulate him to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night — icky, I know — required more brainpower than the half-asleep can provide, as I had to watch closely for signs of dehydration. The smell of the kitten formula made me nauseous, reheating a sock full of rice to keep him warm was painfully repetitive, and his knack for hiding underthings in his cage left me consciously anxious. My family and friends teased me for dedicating so much more to a rat, of all things, than I ever had to myself. He was often referred to as a “lump” or “thing” that drained me of my time and energy. But while I have never been so exhausted and consistently anxious in my entire life — and am now incredibly wary of having kids when I’m older — I always jumped to his defense.

Why? Because for the 10 days that he spent in my room, he was always there to keep me company. If my roommate was out with friends or my boyfriend couldn’t come over, I would let him out of his cage and watch cartoons as he burrowed into the folds of my sweatshirt, squeaking happily. I defended him because at 2:00 a.m. when it was just the two of us, he needed me in a way that nothing and no one else ever could. Somehow, I needed him just as much. The COVID depression had exacerbated my preexisting mental health issues, but having a responsibility that I genuinely loved enthused and energized me. I defended him because I was holding him when he opened his eyes for the first time. That’s a connection that no flowery prose can fully describe.

A torn pink paper heart strung on white string with a black background. Photo by Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash

And even when he died in mid-October —  a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night, which no one could have anticipated — it was the harshest loss I’ve felt in a very long time, if ever. To hold something cool and stiff in your hand that was once warm and in constant motion is nothing short of soul-crushing. He depended on me. I had poured countless hours, dollars, and love into his care, and it seemed that none of it had mattered. I cried for days after burying him, even going so far as to take leave from work to go stay with my parents for the following week. But it was actually in the very first phone call to my parents that I found the solace that has gotten me through.

My mom could tell that I was actively suppressing tears, and she told me that those two weeks he had been alive were two weeks that he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. My time and energy hadn’t been wasted: he had had fun and been so dearly loved for the entirety of his abbreviated lifespan. Every reheated rice sock and fold of my comforter made a home for him, and I had spared no effort. Pouring my heart and soul into it hadn’t been a waste, but rather a gift.

So no, the rat — who we nicknamed ‘Ratothy’ for simplicity’s sake — did not drag me from a burning building or perform CPR in my dire hours. Rather, he taught me that regardless of the results, it's always best to put energy into the things that matter. The sense of aimlessness and apathy that COVID depression has emphasized in my life is now combatted by knowledge that I carry with absolute certainty: caring matters, even if it hurts sometimes. You have to love if you really want to live. And I’m trying harder every day.

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