As I slide the harness over Stanley’s head and fasten the Velcro around her middle, I shake my head. I envisioned an empty nest. An EMPTY nest. One where my five children had all moved out and moved on with their lives, be it in college or at work, dropping by for a Sunday dinner every so often or flying home from college for the holidays.
I knew they would leave things behind. My oldest son’s Marine duffle is still in my attic. I have framed paintings by my oldest daughter lining my upstairs hallway. My youngest son’s room has a box of his Boy Scout stuff in the closet (though his room is looking more like a guest bedroom every day). My youngest daughter’s room is still crammed full of her crap, but she just left for college and I’m not so heartless as to pack it up before she comes home for her first winter break.
I Thought My Empty Nest Would Really Be Empty.
Nevertheless, as a widowed mom, I thought an empty nest meant being beholden to no one. It means I can sleep nude, potty with the door open, leave candy on the counter and it still be there tomorrow. I can stay out all night, even if I prefer to be in bed by 10. I can watch Game of Thrones sex scenes on the big screen tv or schmaltzy romantic Hallmark movies and no one will judge me. My DVR has only my shows on it and the remote is where I left it. When I want to take a trip, I can pack a bag, lock the front door and bon voyage!
Or so I thought.
You see, Stanley lives upstairs. She (yes, Stanley is a girl) sits in her pen in the playroom, silently hounding me for attention, gaping her needle-toothed mouth, yearning to be fed. I have to clean up her poop, refresh her water, and fill her food bowl twice a day. Worse, I have to love her and play with her. Every. Day. And it’s not easy. You see, Stanley is a ferret.
I’m no stranger to weird pets. Over the course of 18 years raising children, I’ve also managed quite the zoo. We’ve had three goldfish named Dorothy, though my daughter thought there was just one. We’ve had three pet rats, two dogs, two rabbits, two water turtles, one cat, one hamster, a box turtle, a king snake, a lizard, a parrot and two ducklings which floated and pooped in my tub for two weeks.
I have spent thousands of dollars on pet feed, shavings and litter, aquariums and cages. And don’t get me started on vet bills. I’ve paid hundreds on end-of-life care for tiny critters to stop tiny children from crying. I have paid for pet checkups, grooming, vaccinations and anal gland expressions.
We Bought My Daughter a Pet After Her Dad Died
So a ferret wasn’t a stretch for us. She was an impulse buy for my grief-stricken daughter not long after my husband passed away last year. I thought a new pet would be a pleasant distraction and bring an occasional smile back to her face. After all, having a ferret is like having a kitten—a back-arched, sideways-hopping, ridiculously-long, kitten. My daughter wanted an actual kitten, but a quick google search informed me a cat is a 12-16-year commitment and a box-store ferret, if I’m lucky, is as little as four.
In Stanley’s defense, she’s not the only pet-anchor in my house. There’s the family dog, Alvin, a small poodle mix. He’s 11 and I figure he has a couple years left, too. And then there’s my feather-baby, Wendy, an African Gray parrot. She’s 29 years old and likely has another 30 years to go. But she’s mine and she’s easy to tend and easy to board.
It’s Stanley that gets my goat. And so I keep broaching the subject of re-homing Stanley with my daughter, who is having none of it. She loves Stanley, she texts me from college as she rushes off to a party in a neighboring dorm, leaving me holding the pooper scooper. Is it love? Is it really that deep puppy love one has for, say, a puppy?
I love Stanley like I love a hamster or a goldfish, which is to say, not very much. It’s the flush-it-and-buy-another kind of pet love. But for Courtney, who has always been able to emotionally attach to a patio gecko or frog briefly living under the doormat (I’m still sorry about that), getting rid of Stanley is out of the question. I have suggested that perhaps Stanley would be happier living with children who play with her several times a day. I have also suggested that perhaps Mom would be happier if Stanley lived with such children. Courtney isn’t biting.
A family friend just went through the same process, re-homing a guinea pig when the daughter moved away to college. There was some pushback and some tears, but ultimately her daughter realized her beloved pet was not her family’s responsibility and acquiesced. Such small animals, unlike a family dog or cat, is often best served by re-homing it to someone who will give it the attention it deserves.
My friends suggest I re-home Stanley and tell my daughter the ferret ran away. Or worse. She’ll get over it, they say. But you see, she’s not anywhere near getting over the loss of her father 18 months ago and adding to her loss, even if it’s just the loss of a small, smelly ferret she rarely sees, is out of the question.
And so, until my daughter gets so involved in college life that her grip on what she left behind loosens, I will keep Stanley. As long as re-homing the ferret means she will feel more loss, I will love it and play with it and feed it and take it to the vet as needed. Stanley is here to stay and I will, albeit reluctantly, love her.
So, when you see that weird middle-aged woman walking a ferret and a poodle on leashes in the park with a parrot on her shoulder, don’t judge. This is what’s left in my nest.
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Kate Robertson lives in Texas and is mom to five mostly grown children. She finds herself caretaker of the empty nest, keeper of the stuff, tender of the poodle, parrot, and ferret, and adviser to the uninterested. A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, she now edits college application essays and you can follow her blog, Alone in the Nest: Life After the Last One Leaves, or find her on Facebook or Twitter