Written after my daughter’s hamster died. I have the bad habit of forming attachments to cute and furry creatures that are about to die.
My daughter’s teddy-bear hamster died the other day. Surprisingly, it was a milestone for both of us.
Pete possessed as much charm as a fat and lazy rodent that does nothing but eat, sleep and poop right next to his food dish, can possibly muster. He was the only one of his species I have ever known that absolutely would not run on his little wheel. He seemed to regard it as a symbol of exercise in general, and with mild disgust. I considered this a sign of intelligence.
He showed other signs of intelligence, too. For instance, after we moved into our new house last year, Pete escaped from an upstairs bedroom into the basement, which was still stacked with half-empty moving boxes. He accomplished this by standing on the water bottle and hefting the lid over his head in an extraordinary feat of strength.
Then he rappelled from the bookshelf by way of a telephone cord, lumbered down the steps to the living room, chewed a whole through the new carpet, and dropped through the basement ceil- ing onto a piece of sheet-rock leaning against the wall. I’m not making this up. I know the exact route he took because he left a little trail of clues, like black grains of rice, everywhere he went.
My daughter was understandably distraught when this happened.
But one evening about three days later – and I know this sounds more than a little kooky – something told me that if I went downstairs I would find Pete waiting for me. Call it a voice, a premonition, whatever. I think it’s as weird as you do. But sure enough, there he was, whiskers twitching, as though to say, Where the heck have YOU been?
And then a few days ago, as I said before, Pete got sick. He looked miserable, but since he wasn’t very old, I figured he’d pull out of it. Even if he didn’t, he was just a hamster, right? It might be an opportunity for my daughter to learn something about reality.
Then the weird Twilight Zone thing happened again. And this really sounds nuts, but it’s true: I was walking into church on Sunday evening, thinking of everything in the world except hamsters, when suddenly I knew that Pete had died.
It was like the sky opened up and this big invisible hand dropped the most obvious and important revelation in the world straight into my mind. Forget about Newton’s apple, Mount Sinai, or Paul’s Damascus road conversion. Consistent with my life thus far, my moment of certainty concerned a point of trivia: the world was short one hamster.
The rational part of my mind argues that this whole episode is just a coincidence. You mean to tell me, I ask myself belligerently, that you believe God Almighty told you your hamster died?
The other part of my brain answers that God sees the sparrows fall, so why not the hamsters? Is there some reason He shouldn’t have told me?
I don’t know which answer is right. But all this inner quarreling did teach me that, although I deny humanism philosophically, I continue to think according to its doctrines. As though the brain were the final arbiter of truth. As though we humans, through mere Reason, are capable of unearthing any and every mystery in the universe from the soil of Natural Causes.
Anyway, we buried Pete in the dark. I put his furry little body in an empty check box, surrounded it with aspen chips, and held my daughter’s hand.
“Want to see Pete one last time?”
“Okay,” she said.
I pulled off the lid, and she stared at the mo- tionless little body for a long time. I was glad that his eyes were closed.
“Want to say something?” I asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. You could say, ‘Goodbye.’”
“Goodbye,” she said.
“You could say, ‘See you in heaven, Pete.’” She shook her head. “No. Just Goodbye.”
I realized, in a flash of wonder and pride, what had just happened. I had offered her the easy thing, the pat thing, the trite thing, and she had refused it. No easy answers right now, daddy. Even true ones.
I closed the box, placed it at the bottom of the hole, and covered it with dirt. The night air felt cool. For just a moment I stood there, staring at that empty space where life is lived, that space between the freshly turned earth and the night stars.
So long, Pete.
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