Tilly never tried to get into the kitchen. Or the living room. Or out of the office. Or out of the cage. If we wanted her in another room, we had to pick her up and take her there. Open doors held absolutely no interest for her. She was happy right where she was.
I still can’t believe … was.
Yesterday Tilly was breathing really hard, like she’d run a marathon, and I could feel her little heart pounding right through her rib cage. We rushed her to the vet. Having ferrets is living in terror of illness, because when ferrets get sick, it goes like this: Day one theyr’e fine. Day two they’re a little mopey. Day three they’re in critical condition.
The vet ruled out an intestinal blockage. He ruled out trauma, like falling or being stepped on. He ruled out a hernia. He ruled out a cold, the flu, pneumonia. She showed no indications of cancers. That was when I started to get really scared.
Heart conditions aren’t terribly common in ferrets Tilly’s age. She wasn’t even two.
But that was all we were left with. Fluid was building up in her chest and she couldn’t breathe. Her heart was enlarged, crushing down on her lungs. It might have been building for a while, and it hit a tipping point, they think. The vet gave her drugs to try to draw the fluids out. He tried to draw the fluid out with a syringe. He had to shave a patch of her beautiful coat. She had the softest fur I’ve ever felt on a ferret, like baby fluff. She shed like a cat. I was always covered in her no matter how much I lint-rolled myself.
She spent the night in an aquarium, with oxygen. When I left her yesterday she thought the tank was hilarious. She kept trying to nudge me through the glass. She kept batting at the little tube like it was a toy.
By morning the fun was over. Her breathing had gotten worse. She was gasping now even in the oxygen. She couldn’t find a comfortable place to sleep, kept turning over and over. Her kidneys were being compromised by the heart medications. There were options, the vet told me on the phone, so gently, but they’re all horrible. They could keep tapping her chest to draw out the fluid. They could say the hell with the kidneys and keep going with the meds. More invasive tests. Exploratory surgery.
I don’t know why this happened. She had had an exam at the vet just two months ago. There was nothing — no heart murmur, no lung problems — to indicate this was going to happen. She was starved when we got her, absolutely starved. It’s possible that weakened her heart and this was always there. She was always an exceptionally lazy pet. It’s possible this was congenital. It’s possible there was a tumor in there somewhere, undetected.
After we got her I spent three weeks hand-feeding her. She spent most of her time on my lap or in my arms or on the couch or in the bed. She loved being held. She loved being cuddled. She liked nothing more than to ride around in Mr. A’s sweatshirt pocket. I once watched Jerry Maguire twice in a row one Sunday because she was passed out on top of me and I couldn’t bear to move her. She was warm and soft and every once in a while would turn over and whack me in the nose with one of her paws.
She was so layabout it worried me sometimes, so I made a concerted effort to get her to exercise. She chased a feather thing on a stick and took a run at Claire’s catnip fish and even chased Bucky and Riot. We called her five-mile-an-hour-Tilly. She could work up a good head of steam, and when she’d try to turn a corner her legs would go out from under her and she’d skid like an ice skater before she righted herself.
Oh, how she made us laugh. Every day. Every day of the ten short months she was ours.
But she never did make for the door. Bucky and Riot and even Claire will dash for the kitchen if I go inside to get something. They’ll always go right for the opening I don’t want them to get through. Tilly, meanwhile, hung back, watching in amusement as they got reprimanded and carried out. She waited, letting me come and pick her up and put her back in the cage.
Seeing her breathing get harder, hearing that the meds they could give her would only break some other part of her tiny little body, knowing she was hurting and it wasn’t going to get any better if we waited a day or an hour, we held her while the vet gave her a sedative. We petted her and told her she was loved, and thanked her for loving us for as long as she could.
And we told her to ignore all her instincts. We told her there was a meadow beyond that door up ahead, and when she saw it open, she shouldn’t hang back. She shouldn’t wait.
Run, we told her. Run.