Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Biter's Tale

"I'm going to call him Biter," Em says, looking down at the tiny opossum who is chewing on the shirt she's wrapped him in.

We're sitting in the office of a not-exactly-local veterinary practice, a place--I've been told by the local opossum rescue folk--where they will evaluate and treat Biter at no cost to me.

"You know, sweetie," I say for the umpteenth time, "we can't keep him. If he's OK, we'll take him to the opossum rescue lady. If he's not, they'll keep him here and try to make him better. But we can't keep him at our house. It's not safe there, with the cat and the bunnies."

"I know," she says again. But there are tears in her eyes.

She slides a little bit away from me on the bench and bends her head for a moment. Then she slides back and looks at me, the tears gone. "OK," she says. "I've said my goodbyes. I'm ready."

I stroke her hair, and we wait for the vet tech to come take Biter away.


Em found Biter outside, by the neighbor's house. He's obviously a baby, though how young, I can't possibly know. From an experience we had last year trying to save a baby squirrel, I know what to do when Em announces that "we just have to help him before he gets run over by a car." I go online, look up opossum rescue organizations, find the number of one who's local, and ask my neighbor to give her a call. (I'm in the middle of making dinner, and the neighbor has asked what she can do to help.) With instructions in hand, I send Em out to see if she can herd the opossum into a box; her friend Kevin uses his shoe and accomplishes the task in seconds. We bring the as-yet-unnamed Biter into the house, and I get to work mashing up some bananas, mixing up some Pedialyte and water, setting a heating pad under half the box.

My neighbor comes by to see if we need anything more from her. She offers to take the opossum, if I want. She'll drop it off at a local park, she says, looking at me meaningfully. I know what she's saying. She's a bit bemused that I'm taking in yet another wild animal, I think, that I'm trying to save this baby. And really, if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that if Em weren't there, I wouldn't have done any of this. I say as much to my neighbor. She understands. She has three kids of her own. She knows that I'm doing this mostly to be a positive role model to Em, to encourage that part of her that loves all living creatures and wants to help them. I love that about her. And I love that she thinks first of coming to me for help when she finds one. That she thinks I'm the same sort of person. She doesn't realize that she's the one who's made me be this way. It's only one of many ways in which my children have made me a better person.

After dinner, I take Biter out of his box and wrap him in a cotton cloth and put him under my shirt to warm him up a bit. He's clearly injured. His head leans to one side, and while he's getting around well, he's doing so while dragging one or both legs. It's hard to tell exactly what's wrong, but I don't hold out much hope for him. Still, I syringe-feed him Pedialyte-and-water while Em watches intently. (N and Baroy are in New York on a boys' weekend; Em and I are boding at home on the opposite coast.) He really is cute, for a ratty little thing.


The next morning, he's still alive. I try not to show how surprised I am. He's even produced, um, fecal matter. I'm thinking I may have been overly pessimistic about his chances.

We take him over to the vet, Em insisting that she hold him on her lap in the car rather than consigning him to a box for his one and only trip with us. I warn her to be gentle, then let her do as she wishes. He squirms around so that he's facing out, facing forward, his two little paws over the edge of the shirt she's wrapped him in. He's a marsupial baby, and he's found familiarity in that pose, I guess. He seems calm. I don't know what an opossum looks like when it's happy, so I won't hazard any further of a guess than that.

Everyone at the vet's office praises Em for being so caring about an orphaned animal. She beams. When the vet tech does come out, they ask us to wait, and we do. The vet herself has us come back when she's finished examining him.

"Well, I did notice the way his head is leaning to one side," she says. "And I don't feel any breaks in the big bones in his legs that would explain the dragging. So I'm inclined to say he's broken his back. But what I'd like to do is to dose him with a lot of steroids, to see if it's only a fracture or something. Sometimes they make a big recovery that way."

I nod, point out that it's not my money--the funds come from the opossum rescue people--and that we trust that they will the best for him. Em asks to see him one more time, and we go into the back room where he's in a little cage under a heating lamp. Em coos at Biter, the vet thanks Em again for taking care of him, and we leave.

As we're walking down the street, Em looks up at me and asks, "Do you think he's going to be OK?"

"I don't know, sweetie," I say, because I'm not one to sugar-coat. "I don't think so, but I guess there's a chance."

"Can we call in a little while and find out?"

"Let's give it a few days, and then I'll call," I say.

Yesterday, five days after we found Biter, I call. Em seems to have forgotten about my promise, though she's still talking about Biter and taking care of him. But I need to know. I need to have closure. And I know that she will ask me one of these days.

It's as I suspected. Biter was euthanized a few days after we brought him in. I feel sadder than I thought I would. I keep seeing his pointy little nose peeking over the shirt, his tiny sharp-clawed paws holding onto the front rim of this makeshift pouch. Poor little guy. Part of me wishes we'd just kept him at our house, let him live out his days. But maybe he was in pain. Maybe he's better off. I don't know.

I still haven't told Em. I will. But somehow the right moment hasn't come yet. As if there is a right moment for this.

RIP, Biter.

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