Yes, it certainly was unexpected. After more than two months of caring for her and watching her take her small but steady steps toward recovery, I no longer expected Pepper to die. I don’t believe I expected my little rescue possum to come out of her healing journey as strong as King Kong, but I certainly did not expect her to die after all the progress we’d made together.
But she did die, at my hands, by injection.
For those of you who have been following the story of Pepper, the possum, you may remember that she had returned to my care after being with another caregiver, Beverly, for two weeks.
I could not believe how much I’d missed her while she was gone. I returned to spending evenings with her curled in my lap by the TV where I’d stroke her gently and whisper to her in baby talk. She would look at me with those black-buttons eyes and respond in her own special way, usually by sighing, yawning, or washing her face and tail—and just as often my fingers.
During her days and nights, Pepper slept away her hours in a wooden possum hut in my straw-filled ex-chicken house. I used my TV intimate time with her in the evenings to keep a close eye on how her health was progressing. However, when the actual downhill slide began, I misinterpreted the early evidence completely.
It started one evening as I was holding her—as usual—and she was behaving nothing like usual. Her body was tense. She did not yawn, she did not once clean her sweet face. She tried to hide her head under my elbow and her body felt tense and stiff.
I don’t know why her sudden change in behavior that evening passed over me without setting off any alarm inside my head. I turned to Carter and said, “She’s not wanting this attention anymore. I think she’s coming back to her wild self.”
“That’s good,” he answered and smiled. “It means she must be feeling better all the time.”
When I carried her back to her chicken coop that night, she fought to get out of my arms and trundled clumsily into her hutch. “I’m sorry Pepper,” I whispered to her. “I didn’t I realize now that the cuddling is something I still want, but you no longer need. I’ll give you your space, little girl.”
And so I did. Next evening, I did not bother her in her hutch, beyond poking my nose in to give her medication. I wrote off the fact that she did not eat well the night before, left her fresh food bowl close to the hutch door, and headed back to bed, oblivious. Next morning, Pepper’s food dish sat untouched. She hadn’t eaten anything in two days.
Now, the alarm bells sounded. I picked her up and hurried her indoors. I offered her all her favorite treats: strawberry yogurt with apple juice, a scrambled egg, peanut butter. At each gourmet delight, she would wiggle and huff and act like she was near starved, but turn away from the food after only a bite or two. She felt agitated in my hands, as though she wanted to get away from me, so I set her on the carpet for a moment. My heart skipped when I saw she could not longer move her front legs in any way but to push away from herself. She only looked in one direction. Her back legs had no coordination at all.
Stricken, I cradled her to me baby-fashion, something she had always enjoyed. She gripped my fingers hard with her front paws. Then, suddenly, she sighed and went limp and relaxed in my arms. It lasted for only a moment before she tensed and stretched her body out full length, pushing me away.
Suddenly, I realized that her eyes were pulsing back and forth, back and forth. My breath caught in my throat. Pepper was not returning to her wild self at all. She was having small seizures, a string of them, back to back. Now I knew why she hadn’t eaten. She didn’t eat because she could not keep her face in the dish. It kept jerking out. And I knew, also, why she acted as though she were pushing me away the night before. Her front arms were going rigid in a repetitive motion.
I put her in a carrier and headed off to WildCare. I wanted others at the center to see Pepper and to give me their own take on what was happening to her, and why. My plan was to get Pepper to our wildlife veterinarian for evaluation. I was planning to stop for lunch with a friend first, but of course that never happened.
I imagined that Pepper would be examined, given tests and more medicine, and that we would keep traveling the healing journey together. But somewhere in the course of the next two hours, I would see the situation differently. Pepper was suffering. Her recovery had been small but steady and she had been comfortable, cared for, and loved. Now, she was frightened and flailing. I had no idea when or—if—we could turn her situation around. The chances were terribly small, at best. Meantime, she would be suffering in a way I could not even imagine. How many more hours or days of this could she take?
I chose euthanasia for her as the kindest, most responsible act on her behalf. Her passing was slow and very calm. She relaxed in my arms, sighed, and licked my fingers as soon as we gave her the tranquilizer shot. Possums have a very slow metabolism, and seem to absorb certain medications slower than many other mammals. For Pepper, it meant that she would take nearly an hour to expire in my arms.
It was a profound hour, passing gently and peacefully. Pepper returned to herself again as the drugs kicked in, breathing calmly, yawning, and licking her paws and my fingers. When death called her, she left with a contented sigh.
I have loved and lost many animals in my time. Probably owing to the antidepressants I take, I find that grief over these wildlife losses passes blessedly quickly for me these days. I believe without question that animals do not particularly care if they are in the body or out of it. Their spirits are far more connected to universal consciousness, or God, than we humans, and they can access this connection in or out of physical body. What remains for me in the loss is a usually unconflicted sadness and loneliness at their passing.
And so I my reaction to losing Pepper was completely unexpected. I felt that I had been deflated, or that my batteries had been removed. I went into a state of numbing sadness and sorrow. I felt as though I had lost a life-long friend. It was as though my grandmother had died. And the feeling lasted. It lasts still. I reflect on the meaning of Pepper coming to me, and leaving me, and I find myself missing her more instead of less as the days pass. Yes, I knew she was a teacher for me. But I had no idea how deep her lessons went.
I can’t stop looking at old photos of her, or stopping in the middle of a day to go sit in the chicken coop where she lived, just to sit with her memory. I put my nose to her last sleeping towels and inhale her musky, comforting scent. I replay her passing in my mind and chide myself for choosing euthanasia. But then I remember her terrified eyes and spastic body, and know in my bones I made the right choice. Right choice or not, I cannot yet find myself a path across the void she has left in my heart.
When I had found Pepper sick and dying in an old leaf pile, I believed she had come to me for comfort and healing. What I find in truth is that she came to me for my own comfort and healing. Many are the ways she touched me in her short life, but many more are the ways she is reaching out to me in her death. I’ll share that in another post, soon, when I can find a way to put these swirling insights and healings to words.