When Leah resigned from teaching public elementary school, she found herself with stacks of teaching materials and two male gerbils, Thompson and Thompson. She kept the teaching materials, but she did not want the gerbils. She offered them to PJ and me, along with a wire cage, a bag of gerbil food, and a two-story see-through plastic cage. We accepted the package and found ourselves the proud owners of two gerbils.
Thompson and Thompson were a set. They looked exactly alike except that one was slightly smaller than the other. My son pointed out the difference to us after he announced that he had chosen names for them, Rachel Thompson and Ari Thompson after Leah's children. At first, the gerbils were the center of attention. I found a way to connect the plastic cage with the wire cage, and I placed their new home in a prominent corner of the dining room. We stopped at the cage and chatted with them on our way out the back door. We used the huge cardboard box that our new mowing machine came in as a corral in which the children and the gerbils could play together. The family's relationship with Thompson and Thompson was quite an agreeable one. Unlike most dogs and cats, gerbils are quiet and make very few demands on their owners. As far as I could tell, they were happy with their living quarters, their food, the water tube, and the workout wheel. I'm not sure they particularly enjoyed the attention we gave them.
The children asked questions about gerbils that PJ and I could not answer; after all, who knows a whole heck of a lot about gerbils? We did what we always did in such situations; we checked some books out of the library. It seems gerbils are prolific breeders, which explained why Thompson and Thompson were both male. Gerbils are desert rodents and not natural to the United States. They subsist on seeds, greens, and fruits. They need little water. They like to gnaw on something, so if you don't want them to chew the cage to pieces, it is a good idea to throw in a stick or two with them.
Gerbils are interesting looking rodents. They come in different color schemes; ours were brown, the color of sand almost. They would stand on their long hind legs, like miniature kangaroos and sniff through the wire bars of their cage. They looked like mice or small rats, prominent incisors and a long tail.
Soon, however, our fascination with Thompson and Thompson waned. We moved their cages from its prominent spot near the back door to the rather dark and out of the way utility room. The children didn't play with them as much. They were left mostly to themselves.
Before Thompson and Thompson, before my wife and kids, I made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins, who found themselves alone too when their daughter married and left the country. When I met them, they were in their eighties and living alone in an enormous house in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts.
Mr. Wilkins had served in the First World War as a pilot. He distinguished himself and returned home with medals, a German Luger, and a piece of the airplane he flew. He also had a box filled with pictures, of the sights and horrors he had seen. His favorite was a black and white picture of himself waving from the open cockpit of his bi-plane. The sun is setting over his right shoulder; his face is in shadows; the flaps of his flight cap are blown up by the plane's propellers. He liked the mystery of it, the play of light and shadows, but he never did anything with the picture. It stayed in the box locked in the footlocker up in that little room at the top of the stairs. After the war, Mr. Wilkins returned to Boston, accepted a job with the FBI, and soon settled into a managerial position until he retired with a commemorative plague and a gold watch. He spent the rest of his life waiting on Mrs. Wilkins.
Mrs. Wilkins spent World War I without her husband. She and two other women formed a trio and toured the USO clubs around Boston. She took in a British soldier, training with the Yanks, into their home. She had a box of pictures in the little room too. Black and whites of a pretty young women with a slightly long face, a strong jaw, wavy hair in the twenties style, a short dress, and a neckerchief tied around her hair. Two other young women stand on either side of her. All three smile at the camera. Her favorite was a picture of a young British soldier whispering in her ear. She is leaning away from him, staring into the camera with an embarrassed smile. The solder is standing. His right hand rests on her shoulder for support. He seems oblivious to the camera. She is seated in the chair, padded and flowered, located by the front door. Her hands rest on the chair arms as if she were preparing to stand. I wonder what he says to her. Was it a flirt?
After Mr. Wilkins returned from the war, life returned to a certain kind of normalcy. She fell into the role of housewife and mother and raised a child who married a serviceman and left home. Then Mr. Wilkins retired, and they started another routine.
Thompson and Thompson fell into a routine too, once they were removed from the prominent location near the back door. They spent most of their days buried under cedar chips in the empty coffee cans I placed at the bottom of the two-story plastic cage. Occasionally one or both would venture out to nibble at the seeds we set out for them daily, sip from the water tube, or take a brief spin on the work out wheel. But mostly they slept. At night, while the rest of the family slept, Thompson and Thompson came out of hiding to throw a rodent party that included running on the rodent wheel, spreading the seeds and cedar and pine chips all over their cage and the utility room floor, or chewing on the cage or the twigs the books told me to place in there for them.
Occasionally, we broke their routine and pulled them out of their daytime hibernation and played with them. The gerbils appeared more irritated by the break in routine than pleased with the attention they received. They had become comfortable strangers to the family.
Then one day PJ noticed that one of the Thompsons, the one my son called Rachel, seemed to be unsteady on his feet and losing weight.
Mr. Wilkins first noticed he had a problem when he started losing weight. Already a thin man, he became alarmingly so. The bones in his face became prominent. His clothes hung on him. Finally, he saw a doctor, whose diagnosis was colon cancer. The news upset him and Mrs. Wilkins, but did little to disturb their well-ordered world.
Every morning, Mr. Wilkins still woke up first and brewed the coffee. Mrs. Wilkins followed him shortly and cooked breakfast, usually something light. Then they sat on the screened porch on the west side of the house, weather permitting, and read the Globe through and then turned to a book or magazine depending on their interest. Lunch was usually light; a bowl of Campbell's Mushroom Soup, a salad, or sandwich. After lunch, Mr. Wilkins fixed a couple of drinks, Scotch whiskey and water, and they talked and listened to classical music on the radio. When the drinks ran out, they chatted or read until the evening meal, unless someone came by and upset the routine, which was seldom. The evening meal usually consisted of a meat entree, three vegetables (a green and two colored or two green and one colored), bread, a dessert, a glass of wine, and iced coffee with cream. After supper, Mr. Wilkins fixed two more drinks, and they settled down to watch television—the Boston Pops was their favorite program. After the late evening news, they trudged upstairs and went to sleep.
The routine did not vary, even after Mr. Wilkins found out he had cancer. When he became too ill to carry out his part of the routine, Mrs. Wilkins took over his chores. A week later, he died.
Rachel Thompson lost weight quickly, too. His fur lost its sheen. His bones showed through his skin. He held his head to the side, and he had trouble standing; a trip to the feeding bowl usually involved several tumbles until he made it. PJ and I knew he would die, so we prepared the children for his death. For a couple of days, they stared at Thompson and Thompson with curiosity. Finally, my son asked the question we were all wondering.
"When is Rachel going to die?"
We didn't know. We only knew that death was inevitable.
Rachel Thompson held on dearly to life for two more weeks until finally succumbing. I found his body early one school morning, placed it into one of the coffee cans, placed a lid on it, and buried the gerbil in the backyard. His passing barely caused a ripple in our family routine. We were sorry he was gone, of course, but he had never been a big part of the family.
Mrs. Wilkins seemed dazed by Mr. Wilkins' death. She stopped eating and started relying more on the drinks to sustain her. When she did talk to anyone, she talked about Mr. Wilkins and their life together. She no longer read the newspaper in the mornings. She no longer watched the Boston Pops on television in the evening. She left her bedroom only because her granddaughter forced her to. Then she sat in her chair opposite Mr. Wilkins' faded old green recliner. She drank and stared at the empty chair
Less than a month after Mr. Wilkins' death, Mrs. Wilkins was admitted to the hospital.
"She simply does not want to live," the doctor told the granddaughter. "There's absolutely nothing I can do for her."
Three days later, Mrs. Wilkins no longer recognized people, not even those close to her. She spent her time between sleep in long conversations with her deceased husband. A day later, she joined him. Cause of death: no will to live.
I expected the same sort of response toward Rachel Thompson's death from Ari Thompson. During the gerbil’s sickness leading to his death, the two rodents developed a wonderfully close relationship. Perhaps I imagined it, but there seemed to be a closeness between the rodents that wasn't there before. They slept together curled against each other so closely that it was impossible to tell one from the other. Ari Thompson seemed to encourage his companion: He led the way to the food and water; Rachel stumbled behind him. Toward the end, Rachel Thompson couldn't make it up the two-story plastic cage to the wire cage where the food and water was kept. At night, when I checked on them, Ari Thompson seldom ventured out of the bottom of the plastic cage.
I was surprised when I saw Ari Thompson running on the work out wheel the morning I buried Rachel Thompson. He had returned to the routine that he and Rachel Thompson had before the illness. He slept during the daylight hours, except to eat or drink, and he reserved most of his activities for the evening. If he was lonely, I couldn't detect it. We took him out, placed him in a huge plastic globe, and let him roll around the house. Sometimes I think it was more punishment for him than anything else, an unwanted break in his routine.
I met Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins before Mr. Wilkins found out about the cancer. They were not afraid to display their affection for each other in public. They touched. They kissed. They called each other by pet names. People were always amazed to see them together, as if old people could not be affectionate.
After the funeral, friends and family gathered in Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins' kitchen and drank Scotch and reminisced about the dearly departed.
"She loved granddaddy so much that she died from a broken heart," the granddaughter cried. The mourners all raised their glasses in agreement.
"Here. Here," a long-time friend said. "They were a set."
The mourners drank in unison.
"Ari doesn't seem to be too broken up about Rachel's death," PJ said to me after I came in from burying the dead gerbil. "You'd think he would be lonely or something."
We stood in front of the cage and watched as Ari cracked a sunflower seed and did a turn or two on the work out wheel.
"I don't know," I told her. "He doesn't seem as chipper as he used to be." PJ looked carefully at Ari examining us with his nose stuck through the wire cage.
"How can you tell?" she asked and we laughed. Ari climbed through the plastic tunnel leading to the two-story plastic cage and dropped down to the bottom level. He climbed into the remaining coffee can, spread the cedar chips around a little, and curled up and went to sleep.
"They were such a set," I mused. "It's kind of hard to think of them in the singular." But PJ was already in the kitchen, busy with something else. She didn't hear me.
I moved into Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins' house after the mourners left. Living in their house was a lonely event. I sat in Mr. Wilkins' recliner and read the newspaper while the classical music played in the background. At night, I climbed the stairs to sleep in the same bed they had slept in. I found a case of Campbell's Mushroom Soup in the pantry and had soup and sandwiches for my lunch. I searched for the Scotch in the liquor cabinet, but the mourners had emptied it. I found the little room at the head of the stairs three weeks after I'd been there. I spent two days going through all the memorabilia. I looked through boxes of pictures portraying people loving, living, and dying together. I listened to old seventy-eights that someone had boxed up and placed in a corner: Spike Jones, Bing Crosby, and The Andrews Sister. I found sheet music. I found personal letters, bills, and notes. I found ribbons, stickers, and badges. I found pieces of airplanes, pistols, and articles of clothing. I found their life together in a ten by ten room at the top of the stairs.
Gerbils, mercifully, do not collect pieces of their lives and box them up for others to stagger upon later. Gerbils live and they die—death is merely an interruption of the routine. They don't collect memories, and leave behind mementos of their lives together, except maybe a scent or a few chewed-up sticks. After death, the routine is resurrected and life marches on until the next interruption.
Ari Thompson died in his sleep several weeks after Rachel died. I found his lifeless body buried under cedar chips. There was no warning. I took his little body and placed it in a coffee can and buried him next to his brother gerbil. I placed two bricks side by side, like miniature tombstones. As soon as I ran over the bricks with my mower and nearly broke the blade, I moved them back to the stack near the back deck. It didn’t matter. Rachel and Ari Thompson were firmly implanted into my mind. There was something almost human in their relationship that simply fascinated me. It seemed like love to me, but without all that baggage we humans carry with us.