“Mom, can Ralph spend the weekend with us?”
“Sure, as long as it’s okay with his Mom.”
Ryan, my eight-year-old son, posed the question while I was in the middle of cooking dinner. This is a difficult feat he knows requires all of my attention, thereby making me an easy mark for granting requests. But when Ryan went off to do his homework, the truth hit me.
Ryan doesn’t have a friend named Ralph. As I soon discovered, Ralph was a white rat that lived in the third grade classroom. Everyone took turns babysitting Ralph for the weekend then wrote about his adventures in a journal to share with the rest of the class.
When I picked Ryan up from school on Friday, he was sitting on the grass surrounded by at least a dozen kids. Ralph had made my son instantly popular.
Ryan carried Ralph’s cage while I got the backpack filled with shavings for his bed, his food, a book about rats and a list of instructions.
While I can’t say the weekend was an unqualified success, (Ralph got lost in the living room for a couple of hours the first day and our dog knocked the cage over twice), I do know that Ralph changed my mind about the idea of dogs and cats as traditional pets for kids. As soon as Ralph went back to school, Ryan started to beg for a rat of his own.
“I’ll take care of it myself, you won’t have to do a thing,” he promised.
“We already have a pet,” I said, reminding him of our family dog.
“That’s different, Mom. Baron belongs to the whole family. I want a rat that belongs to just me.”
Although I understood the desire, I had trouble adjusting to the idea of a rodent taking up permanent residence in our home. I ignored Ryan’s request until the night he approached me with an oatmeal carton in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. He handed me the paper. On it he had listed the cost of a rat, cage, food for two months and the necessary shavings. Then he dumped the oatmeal carton out on the table. Out came piles of nickels and dimes, quarters and pennies.
“I sold Joey four baseball cards,” he said, pulling two crumpled dollars out of his pocket. “It’s my money and I think I should be able to spend it on what I want. I really want a rat of my own. Please, Mom. And if I don’t take care of it, you can get rid of it, I promise.”
The next weekend, Shadows, who looked a lot like Ralph, came to live with us.
“You have to remember to feed him every day and . . .”
“I know, Mom. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of him.”
True to his word, Ryan did.
Every day after school Ryan disappeared into his room. He’d sit on his bed, hold Shadows and talk. Shadows heard all about Ryan’s day at school, his fight with a neighbor and how learning math wasn’t fair. Shadows knew when Ryan was picked last for baseball, when he forgot to do his homework and why he didn’t think he should be forced to eat green beans.
Shadows was better than a diary. His whiskers tickled and made Ryan laugh. He couldn’t tell anyone the secrets Ryan shared. He gave unconditional love and he gave it only to Ryan.
I got used to seeing Shadows sit on Ryan’s shoulder as Ryan vacuumed around the house or took out the garbage. I began to notice other changes. Ryan’s room stayed cleaner because it made it easier to find Shadows when he let him loose. His homework got done with less fuss, so he had more time to play with Shadows. And he had learned how to save money from his allowance to buy Shadows a bigger cage or his favorite sunflower seed treats.
Suddenly, after four years of devoted friendship, Shadows died. Ryan, now twelve years old, was heartbroken.
“I don’t understand, Mom. I fed him. I cleaned his cage. I loved him. Why did he die?”
I wrapped my arms around my son and held him as he cried. I had no easy answers. As a mother wanting to shield her child from every hurt and disappointment, I was angry. If only I had said no to getting the rat. If only I had known that rats have a very short life span. If only I could have kept him from being hurt.
Together, Ryan and I buried Shadows in the backyard and planted a red geranium bush nearby to give him some shade.
I soon forgot all the wonderful times Shadows and Ryan had shared. I forgot, but Ryan didn’t, not even after he got Rocky, his second rat.
Ryan is thirteen now, and every once in a while, he’ll look out at the bright red geranium blossoms, smile, and say, “Hey, Mom, remember when I had Shadows? We sure had a lot of fun. He was my best friend.”
And I have to smile back. Having a best friend is important, even if he is a rat.