Last night, when I went to clean the ferret cage, I immediately noticed something amiss. Potion, our eldest ferret, was already awake and eagerly waiting a chance to run around outside their cage. Puck wasn’t in sight. She usually slept inside a brown hammock I made. She was always lazy and slow to rise, especially since her health started to decline, but she was usually up and ready to go by the time her roommate was. When I gave the hammock a gentle nudge, there wasn’t any movement. After doing this a few more times and calling her name, I reached in the hammock and knew right away that she had passed away when I felt her cold skin.
I felt like two people all at once; a grieving animal mama and someone more matter-of-fact all at once. I knew I had to take the hammock out of the cage and keep our healthy, living ferret away from it until I could clean. I knew we shouldn’t put the hammock on the bed because there were bodily fluids. I knew we should take her to the bathroom. I knew I had to wash her little, limp body. And yet as my body went about all these necessities, my mind and heart wept. Her death, while inevitable, still felt out of nowhere. She’d been losing fur and weight since winter of 2009. We knew she was sick but, being such a small critter, we opted to give her the best life we could until her time came. She was always a bouncy, playful, hungry little thing. She seemed that way right up until my discovery last night.
It’s said that animals hide their pain really well. I’ve always worried that she was less comfortable than she was letting on. All the same, she always poked her head out of her hammock to say hello each morning and I always rubbed her nose and said hello. I’m pretty sure that ritual happened yesterday morning. But then I became so wrapped up in everything else. The cats needed feeding; the plants needed watering, the dishes needed to be done; laundry needed to be folded and put away. To top it off, I have a big, work-related exam coming up and I spent some time studying yesterday. I also made meals, ran, and, yes, watched some shows on Netflix with my husband. It was one of those days where I didn’t spend as much time around the ferrets as I could have. When I found her like that, I felt so terrible. It seemed as if it had only happened maybe an hour at most before I went to clean the cage. Would it have been any better if I found her before? In her hammock, she looked like she had passed away in her sleep. I hope that’s so. I hope she didn’t suffer long. More than anything, I wish I had been able to tell her I loved her one last time, maybe give her another treat. I hope she knew how much she meant to us, that she always made us smile and laugh. She was such a goofball. When we got her as a kit, the pet store clerk thought she was a boy, so we named her Puck. Shortly after, we realized she was female, but we kept the name since she was such an imp. That’s just how she was with her little bandit mask. Even towards the end, she was always playing, chasing, nipping, and giggling in that way ferrets do. She was such a thief. Puck always stole our shoes, wallets, and keys. She wasn’t afraid to chase our two female cats, Esmerelda and Samus. They’d all grown to know each other and we weren’t afraid to have them play together. Puck loved it when I put her under sheets and parachuted them up and down – she’d jump up and go “Dook! Dook! Dook!” She sometimes fought with Potion, but they played and snuggled more than anything. Whenever I picked Puck up, she licked my face. After a shower, she loved to lick my toes. She loved to dig and no houseplant was ever safe from her strong claws. It was annoying and endearing at the same time. I’m going to miss all of these things about her. When I woke up to take a shower today, and brought Potion in the bathroom to play while I did, there was only one ferret licking my toes. Today there was only one face peeping out of a hammock. It’s not often the eldest pets outlive their younger companions. I hope Potion isn’t too lonely without her friend.
After finding Puck, Weretoad helped me wash and dry her little body. It was so small and flat seeming suddenly. Her fur looked dull and her beady black eyes less shiny. Whenever I’ve lost an animal companion in the past, another family member always dealt with it. I mourned, but I wasn’t cleaning or burying. This was the first time I took direct responsibility. For a long time after, we just looked at her and stroked her fur as if she were still alive. Her body went through the motions – twitching, gurgling. It was uncanny and sad. At times I worried she really was still alive and suffering, but she was cold and there wasn’t any pulse or breath. My husband and I both cried.
Weretoad suggested I wrap her in linen so I cut out a rectangle of black linen. Arranging her on it, we each gave her one last kiss and pinned the fabric over her. I used pins with red and green heads to symbolize the blood of death and the green of rebirth. I pinned a sprig of juniper onto her burial shroud – once more to symbolize new life. Again, it was me as two people – mourning yet doing things very purposefully. My spirituality was there, giving meaning and strength to me as I fumbled.
We buried her this afternoon. It stormed in the morning but that finally subsided. We decided to bury her in the moon garden so that we could take her with us when we finally get our own home. It just didn’t feel right to bury her in a place we wouldn’t always be able to visit. So I told the plants growing in the half barrel moon garden what was happening and almost instantly got the feeling that it was ok. I carefully removed some stones and a few of the plants. I gathered some incense and water. We placed her in the soil and said, “In the name of fire, water, and earth, we give you back to the Earth mother.” We poured the water, lit the incense, and gingerly returned the earth and plants to their places. We said goodbye and shared our love. It was a simple ritual, but it felt right that way. The Kindreds who care most were listening, that I’m sure of. The gate I opened and closed was a hole in the dirt. The Earth Mother is the ultimate Gatekeeper of death.
It’s so hard to say goodbye to a beloved animal companion, even when we know they are no longer suffering and that death is just part of life. When you take a furry baby in, you do so knowing that you will probably outlive him or her. They are with you for but a short time, and you learn from each other and give each other joy. That is all life is – comings and goings. Sometimes our encounters have great significance and lasting impact on us. Someone once told me that pets leave pawprints on our hearts. It’s very true – even when they are as small as our Puckapuck was.
May the Kindreds welcome you to the Otherworld, little imp. We will miss you and see you again down the road.