I was clearing some brush in my sister’s yard in California when I noticed the dogs getting excited about something. They’re always devouring gophers so I went over, thinking I’d just see the last little bit of a gopher disappearing down one of their throats but no: there, laying in the leaves, squeaking, was a tiny little baby mouse. So kill it, right? I’ve probably killed hundreds of mice in the 15 years I’ve been in NY because mice are vermin. Every time I hear a trap go off I’m like AHA I gotcha! But I bent over and scooped it up. It was covered in dog slobber. Its eyes weren’t even open. Trying to save it would probably just prolong its suffering. But maybe I could get it to eat something? I mixed up a little powdered milk and got a drop on the end of a toothpick and put it near the mouse’s mouth. He slurped it right up and then nursed on the end of the toothpick like a little baby. I fed him some more and then he fell asleep in my hand. Ah hell.
I read about it online and I figured out the mouse was about a week old. I would have to feed him every 2 hours or he would definitely die and even if I did, he would probably die anyway. This would be even worse than trying to have a girlfriend. But I kept feeding him.
My sister’s kids freaked out when they came home from school. What did you name him? Let’s call him Mr. Cheese Fries! No, I said, he could die at any second. He could die right now. He will almost certainly die in the night. But if he doesn’t… well, then we’ll give him a name. My niece said “Uncle, I already know what dress I’m going to wear to the funeral.” Children are horrible.
That night, I locked myself in my room and set the alarm on my phone to wake me up every 90 minutes. I love sleeping. I hate waking up. Each time the alarm went off, I’d hate myself, and then I’d hate the mouse… and then I’d feed him and he’d fall right asleep, I’d fall asleep and then my alarm would go off again. You know the hatred you feel when your alarm goes off in the morning? Imagine that happening six times in a night. But throw in some terror—if you accidentally fall back asleep, you won’t miss the bus, your infant child will die.
It was one of the strangest nights of my life. It reminded me of the winter I was hooked on Opana, nodding off just to wake up a couple hours later and rail lines till I knodded off again. Except that this experience was the exact opposite: instead of trying to kill something, I was trying to keep something alive. We did have some moments together. I felt like we were the last two beings alive in the world, just my tiny little mouse-child and me, his huge terrifying mother.
God, it was a delicate operation. The mouse wasn’t just tiny and delicate, he was squirmy. Trying to get the tip of the toothpick in his mouth was like trying to solder a wire in the back of a pickup truck on a gravel road. I had to exert just the right amount of pressure to hold him still—not enough and he’d slip out of my hand, too much and I’d injure him. Or worse.
Yes, more than once I thought about just crushing his tiny skull between my thumb and forefinger like you would pop a grape, or wished that I had just stepped on him in the yard. No one would know. Well, I would know. For some reason, I had chosen not to kill him, but to save him. He was in my care now and there was no turning back. Somehow, the next morning, after the longest night of my life, the mouse was still alive. So I gave him a name—Mishkalito. Like little Mishka, you know? It was the obvious choice.
Over the next 3 days, as I got weaker and crazier from sleep deprivation, Mishkalito got stronger and healthier. A toothpick wasn’t enough to feed him with so I upgraded to a little paintbrush. He wouldn’t drink his milk cold, so when I woke up, I’d have to stumble down stairs and microwave it for 8 seconds exactly and THEN feed him. I started posting pics of him on Facebook and it was INCREDIBLE. People who haven’t spoken to me in years were liking every single thing I posted and even commenting “OMG, look at his little mouseknuckles!” It was the most rewarding and the most miserable three days of my life.
I had to come back to NY so I turned him over to my Mom. As we’re driving to the airport, I’m giving her a lecture on how to take care of him: don’t let him play with the cat; warm milk, not cold and not hot, at least every two hours but more often if you can swing it; you have to massage his little tummy with a Q tip to remind him to poop because he gets a little backed up sometimes. My mom said “Mishka, I think I can handle a little mouse. I raised you, didn’t I?” Yeah, look how I turned out, Mom! This little mouse is a second chance for both of us!
The day after I get home, my sister calls me. My sister never calls me. She’s got 4 kids, the only phone call she makes is to 911 because someone fell off the trampoline again. “Do you have a minute?” she says. Folks, if you have to give someone bad news, just spit it out—Mom died. The house burned down—don’t build up to it slowly because it’s too brutal. Long story short, Mishkalito, my little boy, the child I never had… is dead. One of the kids—not her kids, but a rotten neighbor kid—went into the house for something and opened the door to Mishkalito’s room and didn’t close the door and the cat got in there and there was just nothing left. She’s crying, apologizing to me.
This is just a little mouse. Not even like my little finger, like one third of a little finger. I walked into my room and I WEPT. When Obama cries, one tear comes out of the corner of each eye—Presidential tears—and he wipes each one away and every woman watching him on TV thinks “I would SO have relations with that man!” These were not Presidential tears. This was an ugly cry, the ugliest of crys, a 220 pound man with bad tattoos and back hair crying like a baby with a beesting. I cried so long and so hard that a four-inch-long snot dripped out of my nose and just hung there, a snot heavier than my beloved Mishkalito, a snot woven out of pure grief. After a while, I pulled myself together enough to post a little obituary to him on Facebook: “In loving memory of our beloved Mishkalito, 2014 to 2014. Stupid cats rot in Hell.”
I started to get mad at myself for being so sad because it was just a little mouse! But then I started thinking about other losses. When my friend died in a freak boating accident, I felt sadness but also disbelief—it couldn’t be real. When my friends died from injecting heroin or injecting cocaine or just drinking themselves to death, I felt sadness but also anger at them. When my friend was murdered by someone we both knew and when my friend blew his head off with a shotgun, I felt sadness but I also wanted to destroy the entire world. When my little mouse died, I felt only sadness. Just pure sadness. I had saved his life and had kept him alive when he was totally helpless, but I hadn’t been able to keep him alive long enough to open his eyes so we could just look at each other.
I was laying on my bed, in this sweet spot of pure sadness, just useless with grief, when my phone buzzed. A text from my sister. Two words. Mouse alive. Turns out the kid had left the door open, the cat had gotten in and HAD HAD MISHKALITO IN HER MOUTH and then somehow he had escaped and then had fallen down not one not two but sixteen stairs and then waited there, freezing, not getting eaten by the dogs, not getting eaten by the cat, just freezing and starving for five hours till my sister and her husband and their four kids came in and didn’t step on him but saved him again. The next day, he opened his eyes.
Now, I don’t know what the future holds, for me or for Mishkalito. I know that I love him. But he lives in California and I live in New York and our lives are very different. I don’t know if he’ll ever get to see the guy who saved his life. But it’s okay. He doesn’t owe me anything. It’s I who owe him something. I’ve been pretty shut down for a long time and that little mouse, that little teaspoonful of animal reminded me that we’re here to love, to be vulnerable, to be human.