Lessons From a Mouse

Tilly sucking kitten formula from a paintbrush my daughter holds.
Tilly sucking kitten formula from a paintbrush my daughter holds.

I was cleaning out a closet in our summer cabin at the end of a dirt road, pulling aside boxes and vacuuming up mouse turds, when I looked at the shelf below and saw a baby mouse clinging to a white plastic bag.

Every year we have put out poison for them when we leave for the winter, regretting their death by dehydration, but finding the alternative infestations of our clothing, mattresses, towels and pantry unsustainable. Last year, on the advice of a friend, we bagged all our cloth items and left bags of mothballs here and there. No poison. This worked better than poison, which may have been luring them in just to kill them. Usually the place was overrun with mouse turds, now there were only few.

I must have shaken this baby out of a cloth, but I couldn’t find the nest or its siblings. It had fur, but its eyes were still sealed shut. My guess is that it was about a week old.

I had a debt to pay for all that poison, so I showed the baby to my 14-year-old daughter, knowing she would melt and want to keep it. Bucky Goldstein’s Deer Mouse Ranch website gave detailed information on how to care for orphaned mice. It’s a dicey proposition at best. And if we succeeded, we’d have two cats, a dog and a deer mouse.

Usually, I leave injured or baby animals where they are, figuring nature’s plan is better than anything I could cook up.

But I rationalized that it would be a good time for a life lesson. My daughter Tess was about to enter high school and was looking forward to meeting boys. Nursing a baby mouse would act as a form of birth control.

The mouse’s head was no bigger than a child’s fingernail. Out in the country after most stores were closed, we had to settle for nursing her with very expensive infant soy formula purchased at the gas station mini-mart. Cows milk can kill them. The website said to feed the baby every two hours with a syringe or a fine-point paintbrush. You have to warm the formula in a bowl of hot water, hold the wiggly baby firmly but not so firmly as to crush it, then introduce the paintbrush into its mouth without getting it up its nose; respiratory infections can be fatal. After you feed it, you have to stroke its belly to stimulate digestion and probe its little anus with an ear swab to stimulate bowel movements. Then you have to keep it in an aquarium at an even 80 degrees. We had one of those back in our city house from our last adventure with gerbils, but for now, she stayed put in a little basket of fluff. We named her Tilly, after Matilda, a voracious mouse orphan on the website videos. Matilda means warrior maiden.

Our Tilly was a much fussier eater than her namesake. She squirmed, clamped her mouth shut, raised her head and refused the baby formula. It was astonishing how difficult it was to hold this baby that was no bigger than a child’s thumb.

By morning, Tilly had shrunk some and her tail looked segmented, a sign of dehydration, according to Bucky’s website. Back in civilization, I rushed out at 6 a.m. to buy Pedialyte, something you give your children when they are dehydrated from diarrhea. Tilly took it! Her little body knew what it needed and overcame the alien lemony taste. She grasped the brush with her tiny hands and sucked the bristles halfway down her throat. As soon as the pet store opened, I rushed out to buy raw goat’s milk and kitten formula, then went home to mix and warm them for the next feeding. She ate the formula, too. Dehydration abated, she began to move around more energetically, no longer staying in the tiny basket I’d placed her in. Her hairless belly skin was almost transparent so you could see her stomach fill with milk, and later you could see the dark waste in her intestines.

She grew stronger for a few days, and began to crawl around the cage every two hours when it was time to eat. My daughter, Tess, doing most of the feedings, was better at it than I was. Tess herself had been a fussy eater in her infanthood. She was a tiny baby and had trouble latching on, and when she finally learned, she developed colic. After much stress, engorged breasts and much handwringing and baby fretting we discovered she couldn’t digest cow’s milk, which goes directly into breast milk.

At six months, Tess was a weepy, wiggly, energetic and easily frustrated child, so I admired how calmly, firmly, yet gently this graceful 14-year-old grasped the mouse and, with a look of concentration, plunked the brush into Tilly’s mouth. If Tilly squirmed too much, Tess would put her down, take a deep breath and pick her back up again with a more confident grasp. I stood at the ready with a chopstick, adding one drop of milk at a time to the brush so that we didn’t have to struggle with getting Tilly to latch again. Tilly sometimes fell asleep nursing, and Tess had to prod her gently to wake her up to eat. Sometimes Tilly would bite down on the brush and hold on with her baby teeth, and Tess would have to stroke her tummy until she let go. Her body knew clearly what it wanted and what it didn’t want as its needs changed, now formula, now Pedialyte, now formula.

When Tilly was done eating, she’d curl in a ball in the palm of our hands, her full belly nearly as big as her head, and sleep, making the tiny clicking sound that Bucky’s website informed us is the equivalent of mouse purring.

Tess did the first half of the night feedings, then I gave Tess a six hour spell to sleep while I took over 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. feedings. Tess and I were both exhausted by day three. I remembered sitting up at night nursing Tess, scribbling crookedly in a journal balanced precariously on my knee, delirious with exhaustion, panic, love, and grief over my own lost independence. It’s an obsessive state of mind where you’re acutely aware that a fragile being’s life is depends on you. No matter where you are or how much you need a break, all you can think about is, what time is it? Where’s the baby. Is she okay? How had I kept it up for a year and a half?

Now it was taking the energy of two huge human beings to keep this tiny mouse alive, and all the while, we knew that a mouse mother could do a much better job with much less energy. Was this the lesson we were to learn, that when you go against nature’s order the input and output of energy is completely out of whack?

Somewhere along the five-day journey, Tilly began to weaken and become fussier and more resistant to eating. She began to fall over more when she tried to walk.

The last night, I spent an hour at each feeding trying Pedialyte, and different concentrations of formula and goat’s milk, but I could only get Tilly’s belly about half full. At the 3 a.m. feeding, I went to bed, knowing my daughter would probably sleep through the 5 a.m. alarm. I decided it was okay. I was pretty sure Tilly was dying. At 7 a.m., Tilly barely stirred when I picked her up, but she started clicking as she curled in the palm of my hand.

I woke Tess gently and told her I thought Tilly was dying, but that she was happy right now in my hand, and that I thought we shouldn’t bother her any more. Tess wouldn’t hear of giving up. She sat down and plied the brush, and at first it seemed to be working, but halfway through the feeding, Tilly died.

What was the lesson? Maybe we didn’t keep the cage warm enough (I had a thermometer and a light bulb shining down on it, but the temperature varied between 77 and 83 degrees. Maybe the formula wasn’t quite right. Maybe we let her get too dehydrated and she got organ damage. Maybe the mother had ingested some of the mouse poison we used to put out the year before (I still find caches of it here and there). Or maybe Tilly was just a number in the normal infant mortality rate for mice. Trees put out thousands of seeds to grow a few trees, frogs lay thousands of eggs. It is just nature’s way.

Maybe the lesson was that if I find another orphaned mouse, I’ll leave the room for an hour and wait to see if the mother is in the process of evacuating the litter and is coming back for it. We certainly won’t put poison out in the cabin again.

But what will I do if the house in the city becomes infested with mice, as has happened once before? Would it be less cruel to let my cats take care of the problem? I don’t think so. Perhaps I will put out mousetraps that snap their little necks quickly instead of causing them to die slowly of dehydration from poison. I’ve heard it’s just as cruel to catch them in a “Have a Heart” trap and put them out far enough away that they won’t return, because they usually starve or freeze to death. Whatever I choose, it will be another in a series of contradictory drives we call life.

I don’t know what it all adds up to, all I know is, for a few days, we lived very closely with a tiny beautiful being, saw her organs working under her transparent skin, heard her click-purring in our ears, and felt her tiny feet and hands press against our finger tips.

Tools of the Trade

Writing and the Reverse Gravity of Waterfalls

Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park
Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park. This fall has steps.  Wedding Veil, which I’m talking about below, doesn’t but is a thinner trickle.
My husband, Charley Brown, mugging for the shot.
My husband, Charley Brown, mugging for the shot.


When you get into the crevasse of a mountain’s waterfall, there seems to be some kind of reverse gravity that sucks you up into its breast. I was reminded of this recently as my daughter and I scrambled over boulders up the tiers of the Wedding Veil waterfall in Yosemite National Park, California last month. You have to place your hands and feet carefully on the rocks and leverage your weight as you climb up into one pool, then in the one above. You strategize the best path to take, lest you climb into a spot you can’t get down from, and with each step and hand hold, the view changes and new plans have to be made at a moment’s notice. The activity is mesmerizing, fatigue falls away, and you climb faster than you should, driven to get up to the top by physical magnetism.

It’s a lot like finishing the definitive rewrite of a novel, which I did recently. As you get closer to the end, the drive to finish overtakes you, even as the fear of finishing fights you, and you find yourself spending all day, writing, writing, writing. Of course I’m not finished, finished. Still have to ask my writing group and other friends to read and give feedback, still have to tinker with sentences here and there, and proofread several times for errors. But the big work is done. Feels good and a little scary. Unlike climbing to the base of a waterfall, where you sit and bask in the mist and power of falling water, you get to the end of a novel and feel a little lost, as in, what now?

Find a different waterfall to climb, I guess.