by Dani

“Papa, do you want some string cheese?”

“No. That’s for rats”

“Papa, you’re not supposed to feed the rats people food”

“They love bread. I give them bread and cheese” (and fig newtons and pizza and Ritz crackers…)

“Papa, if you over feed them they will die”

“So. They die. Everyone dies.”

This interaction between a seven year old and a seventy-seven year old…

We begged for hamsters as kids. Rodents of our very own.  It was years before mom acquiesced but she did give in and it was the best day ever. Two cuddly little hamsters, Yogi and Boo Boo. Sweet little balls of fur. To be clear, hamsters don’t like people. Which is why they bite. (Exit Boo Boo).  They don’t want our giant hands mauling them. They don’t like to run around in vented plastic balls for our amusement. (Exit Yogi) Hamsters are a commodity. A fun filled furry idea created by pet stores. They are the pet equivalent of the Hallmark holiday. So when my kids begged for hamsters I didn’t say no. I remembered.

The sign in the hamster cage read “I bite”. (Petco clearly could use some help in the Marketing department).

I was advised to bypass the hamsters (they bite), skip gerbils (they run) and head straight for the rats. I swallowed the wave of nausea in my throat and reached for the small black rat. He climbed up on my shoulder and started washing his face. The wave receded and $10.98 later I was on my way home with two smiling kids and one small cardboard box carrying “Pepper” and “Michael McCarthy.”

The ratties have turned out to be a good pet choice. They check off the right boxes on the pet menu. They are clean (relatively), social, and smart. Rats potty train. Did I mention they only live 3-5 years? I won’t be caring for rats when my kids are in college.

Rats become more social the more you interact with them. So it makes sense that a relatively solitary old man and a couple of domestic rats would share a room. They seem to like the daily grind of reclining in front of the tv watching Cinemax and enjoying the spoils of the mini fridge. Papa doesn’t mind sharing his space either. He actually enjoys the company. Yet when we tell him that the constant feedings of pizza, cookies, and Polly-O Stringsters will shorten the lives of his ratties, he  says “So?”

I think this may be the long term effect of being a depression era child. The philosophy of  “They’ll die fat, but they won’t die hungry.”

Papa is a diabetic. His sugar levels are so high that he refuses to test them. Normal people would be dead by now. Not Papa. He still kills wasps with his thumb and believes that there is nothing some good dirt and duct tape can’t heal. But the facts don’t lie so he avoids facing facts. I try not to nag and truth be told, he did make it to seventy without my assistance.  I do believe that these last seven years belong to me. Borrowed years that are a direct result of improved care and feeding.

When I suggested he lay off the 20 oz Cokes, he switched to Root Beer. When I told him Little Debbie snack cakes were all sugar, he switched to Fig Newtons. He tries. I try. But in the end we both know that there is no real middle ground and we just appreciate our time together hoping we’ll both outlive the ratties.