My cell phone rang. I sputtered a ˙Yes, dear?Ó into the phone, which I had wedged awkwardly between my shoulder and chin while attempting to toss my backpack behind the driver_s seat of the ambulance.
I heard a faint, ˙Dad?Ó
Then I heard a sniff. ˙Dad?Ó
Uh oh,I thought. I shifted the phone to my right hand, even though the contents of my backpack were now being spewed about the cab. (This was secondary to me neglecting an unsecured zipper. One tends to make little mistakes like that after staying up half the night to hold vigil over a sick gerbil.)
I pretty much already knew the answer to the question I was about to ask, but I posed it anyway. ˙Dear, is Jib Jib dead?Ó
Parental reflex instinctively made me extend my right arm 2.5 feet from my ear a millisecond before a loud ˙Waaaaaaaaaah!Ó echoed through the bay. My partner checked the siren switch to see if I had accidentally triggered it.
˙I_m so sorry, angel buttons,Ó I whispered into the cupped cell phone while turning away with raised shoulders from my nearby smirking peers.
˙Come home, Daddy. You promised!Ó
Stupid freaking gerbil, I thought. Couldn_t he have died before my shift started? Oh, no, that would be too convenient.
˙You promised, Dad,Ó she echoed.
Fortunately, it was the beginning of a slow Sunday morning shift and my supervisor, who has kids of his own, granted my partner and me the opportunity to switch districts. After all, we had a funeral to perform, and Jib Jib deserved a full, formal send-off.
I instructed my two young_uns to write a brief eulogy and find a box in which to place Jib Jib and his favorite things. I figured this would keep them busy for a while in case we got an alarm on the way to my house.
We_ve had pets die before, and it_s a foregone conclusion most families will outlive their pets. It_s one of those important life lessons that provides children with an opportunity to grieve and prepare for the bigger losses that are inevitable in life.
The loss of a pet fish is a good initial stepping stone for kids, because they really can_t get that physically or emotionally tight with their scaly pets. Bonding just doesn_t work in tepid water. Fish are hard to pet, and they like to eat not only their own babies but also their own waste.
My daughter killed her first fish. She thought putting the fish in her cereal bowl would help it build strong bones. We had no way of knowing it was lactose intolerant.
I tried to gather my thoughts on the way home. I was searching for words of comfort I could offer about Jib Jib_s passing. ˙He lived three years longer than most gerbils.Ó No, that would just remind them of how long he had been a part of our family. ˙He sure could spin in that wheel for countless hours at a time, huh kids? Usually, into the wee hours Ú making that loud, consistent, irritating metal-squeaking noise Ú pausing just long enough to see if he had made any progress, only to begin again and again and again.ÓStupid gerbil!
Looking back, I realize part of Jib Jib_s undaunted spirit to spin may have been attributed to PTGD (post-traumatic gerbil disorder), which was imprinted into his small brain a few years earlier when our cat brought a mouse from the forest into the house just so he could torture and consume it in front of Jib Jib_s cage. On that particular night, Jib Jib_s wheel spun fast enough to powerLas Vegas. Ahh, good times. On second thought, maybe it would be best to say nothing and just maintain a kind presence.
As we pulled into my driveway, the kids were already prepared for the burial. They were dressed in their Sunday best, holding flowers they had uprooted from our freshly potted garden.Stupid gerbil.
I should have been more specific. I was expecting to see a shoebox for Jib Jib_s coffin.
Instead, Jib Jib was lying in state in a cardboard box the size of a TV. Apparently Jib Jib hada lot of favorite things. What was worse was the negative public image we were no doubt casting as motorists drove through our neighborhood and saw an ambulance crew digging aburialplot next to our parked rig.
I must admit, the eulogy was beautiful despite the fact that the little rat itself cost only $1.95 (plus $3,200 in accessories).
As a seasonedEMS provider, I_ve witnessed a lot of death and misery through the years without letting it get in, much less outwardly reveal itself. But watching my daughter take on one of life_s hardest initial lessons with such pure honesty and heartfelt compassion moved even this old dog to blurred sclera. Seeing this, she turned to me and said, ˙It_s okay to cry Daddy. How can you let go of your pain if you don_t feel it first?Ó
Who_s teaching whom life lessons?Stupid freaking gerbil.JEMS
Steve Berryhas been a paramedic for the past 25 years in the southernColorado region. He_s the author of the cartoon book series I_m Not An Ambulance Driver and invites you to join him and others of theEMS community to ride in the 2009 National EMS Memorial Bike Ride(www.muddyangels.org).Visit his Web site atwww.iamnotanambulancedriver.comto purchase his books or CDs.