Before going the bed last night, I stepped out into our gazebo to make one final attempt to save a tiny life that serendipitously crossed into our family’s path yesterday. Earlier in the day, my wife found a field mouse, perhaps less than a few days old inside the gazebo, with no evidence of a nest or mother to be seen. It was a day full of emotion, as her own grandmother lay in an emergency room an hour away, clinging to life.
She called me at work to update me on her grandmother, but also to tell me that she had decided to nurse this new life to the point where it might be able to survive on its own in our garden. But since she was leaving to be by her grandmother’s side, the mouse’s health would be up to me and my son. Using a medical syringe and a formula for infant mammals, my son and I tried to prevent the mouse from getting dehydrated. The mouse seemed to be swallowing the formula, so we were cautiously optimistic.
When I made my final check on the mouse a little after midnight, it seemed sluggish and didn’t respond well to feeding. I fell asleep worried about the fate of both my wife’s grandmother and this new life that snuggled between two towels in a shoebox on our gazebo table.
I awoke this morning with my son snuggled up against me. He had crawled into bed with me an hour earlier. Checking my email, I saw a message from my wife saying that her grandmother had passed away shortly after midnight, nearly the same time I gave the mouse the last drop of formula.
While my son continued to sleep on my pillow, I quietly slipped into the bathroom as my emotions welled. My memories of my grandmother-in-law focused immediately on one of the lowest moments of my life when she had been there for me with a warm heart and caring ear. Tears began to stream down my face as I remembered the day at her lake cottage, more than 17 years earlier, a few days before my wedding. I had just gotten off the phone with my mother, who gave me the news that my father had fallen ill and couldn’t travel to my wedding, and that my entire immediate family would miss my wedding as a result.
I hung up the old rotary phone that sat at the bottom of the cottage stairs, held my face in my hands and wept uncontrollably. But in my sadness and disappointment, my grandmother-in-law came over to me, without saying a word, and gently put her hand on my back to let me know that I wasn’t alone.
All the emotions of that day came back to me this morning, as I tried to collect myself so I could tell my son that his great-grandmother — the only great-grandparent he has ever known — had passed away. As I sat on the side of the bed, my hand on his back, I told him the sad news. He didn’t cry. He didn’t even bat an eye. He was just silent, as if he were processing the news slowly. As we continued on our morning together, he seemed to be pensive, but not sad.
When I checked on the mouse after leaving the bedroom, it lay motionless in the shoebox. I quietly placed its body in the garden, and decided not to tell my son of its fate until he asked. I didn’t want to compound the emotion of the day any more. As the day went on, I kept expecting him to ask about the mouse, but it seemed to be out of his consciousness for the time being.
As my son nuzzled his head down for sleep tonight and I sat on the floor next to his bed, brushing his hair with my hand, he asked, “Dad, what did you do with the mouse today?”
I answered, “The mouse didn’t live through the night. He was just too little to survive without his mother. We did everything we could do to help him, but it wasn’t enough.”
He buried his head, as small muffled sobs emerged from his sheets. I slowly rubbed his back and let him express himself at his own pace. After a few minutes, he raised his head.
He looked at me through glassy eyes and said, “I didn’t cry for great-grandma because she lived a long life. The reason I’m crying is because the mouse didn’t even get to live a week. Maybe less.”
All I could say was, “It doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
I lay on his bed next to him, as his breathing became slower and more controlled. I don’t know what he will feel when he wakes up in the morning, any more than I know how to explain the seeming unfairness inherent in life.
All I know is that I hope he never loses that ability to be moved when life seems unfair. Carrying an expectation of fairness may often lead to disappointment, but he will also expect it of his own actions. And that can only serve him and those around him well.