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Of Mice and Women

October 9th, 2003 · 2 Comments

apologies to Steinbeck, of course….

…. yesterday I began blogging about our adventures this week, hinting that perhaps we had discovered who was nibbling on zucchini in our garden..

Tuesday morning we had plans to get together with a friend at her home. The girls and I headed out to the garage. As was my routine, I opened the side door, then pushed the button for the automatic door. My eye went from the van door, sliding open so the girls could get inside, in a straight path along the side of the garage to the lawn mower’s grass catcher attachment near the corner. On the mesh, I saw a gray ball of fur and a long pink tail: a mouse.

Before going further in this story, I need to explain my experience. After college graduation, I spent three years working in an immunology laboratory manipulating mice. I bred mice. I bled mice. I operated on them. And yes, I killed them. The surgeries and babies I enjoyed, but the “sacrificing” (to use the scientific term) of mice for experiments and eugenics was something I, a childhood animal lover, had to harden myself to do. But I learned a lot. I learned how to handle them with bare hands, although I often wore gloves. I spent hours moving mice between cages, and occasionally even pursuing stray ones that had jumped onto the floor. I caught them with forceps and fingers. I warmed them in my hands after surgery, stroking their fur and watching their eyes waken. I am familiar with mice.

So why was it that, once I saw the mouse, I shrieked? It was not a loud cry and I stopped myself, yet the response seemed automatic to me. I think I even said, “Eeek!” like a stereotypical cartoon. Despite my years of handling these animals, in almost mechanical routines, something in me reacted to the mouse in my garage. Was it shock, fear, surprise? Or was it something feminine in me? I find myself yelping about spiders I spy creeping across the carpet, even though a moment later, I will be the one crushing it inside a Kleenex. I don’t sit around idly shrieking and waiting for my husband to come rescue me from creepy crawlies. Or for him to come out to the garage. I knew I had to handle it myself. And I knew I could handle it myself. But, why, then did I cry? Why did I have to scream like a frightened girl? And why is it that girls and women are expected to be afraid, to shriek and cry? Despite my laboratory training, is there still some part of me? Or a little girl not yet grown up?

What happened next was a mother’s dilemma. Being a microbiologist and mouse handler by training, what I wanted to do was get the mouse out of the garage and away from the girls and me, so that we would be safe in case it was rabid or wanted to jump on us.

So I did what was easiest, given the situation. Mouse had its claws dug into the grass catcher. I carried the grass catcher out of the garage and tried to toss Mouse off of it.

Knowing what I know about mice, I thought that Mouse would handle the leap well. In the laboratory, I had seen mice escape, jump five feet down and then race around the room. But Mouse landed on the pavement and seemed to move slowly. I felt horrified, hoping I hadn’t hurt it.

Then I had a real dilemma. I knew how to take care of Mouse, how to take Mouse out of misery. But by then, my two daughters wanted to know what was happening. They had come out of the van and saw Mouse stumbling around on the walkway. I didn’t think I wanted them to see me kill Mouse with my hands. What would they think of Mommy? And I wasn’t sure I really wanted to touch Mouse anyway. I wouldn’t want to get a bite or a virus from a rodent. By now too I was late getting to my friends’ home.

So I came up with a compromise. I managed to catch Mouse inside a flower pot. It was slow enough that it was easy to do. Then I left Mouse there, with a baby food jar lid filled with water along with it in the flowerpot. I figured that if Mouse was well enough to jump out, it could do so and escape to freedom in health. If Mouse needed some water to survive, it would be able to make it until we came home again. And if Mouse was not going to make it, then at least it would die in a contained place, safely.

Knowing what I know about mice though, I had some idea what was about to happen. When I looked at Mouse, I saw a patch of fur below its face that seemed pressed and injured. I don’t think that the fall from the toss inflicted that wound. Also when I looked in its eyes, I could see that one of the eyes was blinded. And the other looked injured also. I felt sad that Mouse was in such a state. I hoped that I had not hurt it. I don’t think I did. Mouse seemed emaciated, and I suspect it was already weakened, perhaps from being trapped in the garage.

We went to see our friends and came home later than I had imagined, after three hours. Right after we pulled into the driveway, I ran out to look at Mouse. I felt more horror as I saw it lying on its side stiffly in the flowerpot, dead as I had predicted. Both the girls were sad, telling Ted the moment they saw him at lunch. They stared at it, mourning it more than I did, until I told them to go in the house. I felt sad, but my training in the laboratory had numbed me. I think I was also selfishly relieved that the situation had resolved itself, that my dilemma had ended. The way my family reacted revealed to me how callous I was about Mouse.

With the girls inside the house, I came out alone, plastic bags in hand, and put Mouse away. No Eek this time. Icky maybe but not Eek. It was hard to be afraid of the ball of fur with stiff straight limbs. It was easy to have pity on Mouse, who had died at my house outside in a flower pot, a victim perhaps of my vigor. And Mouse only reminded me of many other mice I had seen die in the laboratory. I put it inside a the bags, tying a knot. Then I buried Mouse in the trash can. I didn’t scream. But maybe I should have cried.

Tags: mice

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 enoch // Oct 10, 2003 at 8:55 pm

    it was a mouse, julie, not a Mouse 😉 But i loved reading your tension and knowing what you had been up to @ Brown made it doubly humorous. Your prose helped mouse became Mouse as i read your story… would it have stayed mouse if your kids had not been around? Well written!

  • 2 apple // Jan 6, 2004 at 11:48 am

    pls write more detail about mice and women