Six months before our move from New Jersey to Seattle, I bribed my children to ease what I worried would be a difficult transition. We were escaping my husband Arron’s ghost, the home we lived in together, the town that embraced us in grief. The house contained too many reminders of his handiwork: the window-seat he built too high, the kitchen faucet that turned the wrong way, the dry-fit rock wall in the garden. I counted on Seattle to provide us with our fresh start, a haven from our world of grief. My children and I did not necessarily see eye-to-eye on this matter. Carter, at five, was challenging my decision.
“What about Sam?” he asked in the car one day. Sam was his best friend.
“You will make new friends,” I said, looking at him in the rearview mirror, where I saw his face begin to crumple. Suddenly Olivia, my nine-year old, always the master of perfect timing said, “Mama, when we move to Seattle, can we get hamsters?”
“Uh, well, I guess I don’t see why not…” I was a willing participant of this manipulation. I saw Carter look at Olivia, almost disbelieving.
“I’m going to name mine ‘Bob,’” Olivia said.
“I’m gonna name mine Alexander!” Carter mimicked, Sam quickly forgotten. “Or maybe Fred.” Any fears about the move had suddenly vanished and the next six months were dominated with hamster name conversations.
We had only been in Seattle a week when the begging began.
“When’re we gonna get our hamsters?” Olivia demanded one morning. Most of the boxes had been unpacked and cleared away. I had no more excuses.
“Maybe next week?” I suggested feebly.
“You promised!” Now Carter was in on the act.
That afternoon I found myself standing in Petco, staring into the glass aquariums as a series of fluffy fur-balls in either grey/white or rust/white combos were passed from me to my kids. The selection was astonishingly quick, full of “this one! I love this one!” The check-out was not: Two hamsters, two cages, two water bottles, a 50 lb bag of bedding, a 20lb bag of pellets, two salt licks and $250 later, we were shuffling back to the car with dire warnings about not taking the hamsters out of their cages too quickly for fear of distressing them, a leading cause of hamster diarrhea. Hamsters got diarrhea? Really?
A week later, “Oreo,” the black and white combo that Carter had chosen and “Cheerio,” Oreo’s rust and white twin that Olivia had selected were happily ensconced in their respective bedrooms and I marveled at their ability to be passed among tiny hands. Days ago, I had given up the demand to “wash your hands!” every time a hamster was handled.
That night, a Friday, Olivia asked if she could take Cheerio outside to feed on some grass and get some fresh air, something the hamster book recommended. The evening was sunny and warm. “Sure,” I said, feeling pleased that these tiny animals were engrossing my kids so much that they were happy to spend an hour outside on little hamster excursions.
Bedtime that night had Oreo and Cheerio on the bed with us, where I worked to keep them apart, having recently discovered a tell-tale lump between Oreo’s legs that did not seem to exist on Cheerio. “They told us they were both girls!” I had yelled as I came in one day to discover the two hamsters on top of one another.
“Look Mommy, aren’t they cute? They’re playing!” Olivia said.
“You are never to leave the hamsters alone together, do you understand?”
“OK Mama, but why?”
“Just because, it’s my rule!”
Olivia was in her room one night with Cheerio while I read Carter a story. Suddenly she yelled ,“Mama! Something is wrong with Cheerio! Come quick.” The tone of her voice had me leaping from Carter’s bed. She handed me Cheerio who was completely limp and breathing very quickly.
“What’s wrong with her?” Olivia burst into tears. I sat with her tiny fluffy body cupped in my hand, her head flopped back revealing her surprisingly large front teeth.
“Oh god,” I said as I leaned down and blew lightly into her partially open mouth. I rubbed her chest with my index finger where I imagined her heart to be.
“Come on Cheerio, stay with us! Olivia, get the phone book, quick!” Olivia dashed downstairs.
“Flip it open to ‘V’!” I commanded when she came back, still blowing and rubbing, trying to mimic the actions of doctors I had seen on TV. I now had a paper towel on the bed and Cheerio was laying prone on it, breathing erratically. I was propped over her on my hands and knees, leaning down to breathe into her mouth. I was in full ER mode. I was temped to yell “Clear!” As I finger-massaged, I dialed the number in the book for Emergency Vets. It was 9:30pm on a Friday night, but the yellow pages ad said “Open 24 hours.”
“Hello?” I tried to sound calm. “Yes?” The receptionist responded.
“I have a young hamster, perhaps a month or two old who is having difficulty breathing. Do you take hamsters?”
“Yes, we do. Are you nearby?”
“Um, I’m not sure. I’m new to Seattle.”
“Did something happen to the hamster? Did it fall?”
“I don’t think so…Olivia, did the hamster fall?” I asked her as I held the phone between my ear and shoulder, still rubbing Cheerio’s chest. Olivia shook her head.
“No, I don’t think it was a fall.”
“We are on Stone Way. You can come now and we can take a look… if you think you can make it.” Her tone was foreboding.
“OK. We’ll come right now!” I hung up the phone and gathered Cheerio into the paper towel. “We have to go now!” The kids ran to the car and were buckled in by the time I took my seat, gingerly, giving a few breaths into Cheerio’s mouth before I nestled her between my legs and set off, rubbing her chest with one finger while I steered with the other hand. Her breathing had changed and was now more shallow. Her small body seemed stiff.
“Oh, God, I hope we make it.” The kids were both still wailing in the back seat.
“Hurry!” Olivia yelled.
Before I had even gotten a block away from the house, Cheerio let out a great shudder and then was completely still.
“Oh no.” I couldn’t suppress my moan. I pulled the car over and turned around in my seat.
“What?” Olivia yelled. “Why are we pulling over?”
“I’m so sorry honey. Cheerio didn’t make it.”
Tears were streaming down all of our faces as I turned the car around and slowly made our way back to the house. Olivia put Cheerio into the box she had arrived in from the pet store and I went to the garage to find the shovel. In the dark, under the Camilla tree, I dug a hole, cursing myself for agreeing to such a stupid bribe. Olivia, still weeping, placed the box in the hole. “Do you want to say something about Cheerio?” Olivia shook her head. “OK. I will then. Well, uh, Cheerio, you were a good hamster for the short time we knew you. We really loved you a lot and we are sorry you are gone. We will miss you.”
I put the kids to bed, all of us crying. Somehow this new loss was affecting us deeply. Although four years had gone by since Arron’s death, small things could still set us back. Like the death of a hamster. I lay in bed that night still crying hours later, my scar of grief re-opened by the death of this tiny animal. I feared how this new loss might affect the kids, frightened that the joy of our new home would be lost in more grief. Our fresh start was marred.
The next day, I tried to get to the bottom of Cheerio’s mysterious demise. I shed my scrubs and became a detective.
“Olivia, what did Cheerio eat yesterday when you were outside? Did you give her anything weird?”
“No, Mama. Just grass and stuff. Oh, and some berries.”
“Berries?” I tried not to sound alarmed. “What kind of berries?”
“Well, there were the black ones, the ones on the steps…”
“Can you show me?” Olivia led me to our kitchen path where the Mountain Laurel was just about to shed its annual deluge of black fruit. As far as I knew they weren’t poisonous. “OK. Anything else?”
“Yes. She ate the red berries too.”
“What red berries?” This time Olivia led me to a tall hedge near the house, where sticking out of the shrubbery were a group of succulent tiny red berries, looking gloriously delicious, I imagined, to a 10 year old.
“Oh, sweetie. Did Cheerio eat some of these?”
“Yes, I thought she would like them!”
“Mousie, these are Deadly Nightshade berries. These are what killed Cheerio. Please know that you must never ever eat these berries or let any animal eat them either. The good news is that it wasn’t you who ate them. They could have made you extremely sick.” Olivia was crying now.
“Oh Mommy. I didn’t know! I thought Cheerio would like them!” I bent down to hug her.
“I know sweetie. I am so sorry you had to learn this lesson the hard way. But it’s a lesson you will never forget!”
We hugged for a while and then she went off to play in her room. An hour later she came and cuddled on my lap as I unpacked a box of books.
“Mommy?” Olivia said carefully.
“Yes, sweetie?” I was expecting some more sad thoughts about Cheerio.
“Can we go and get another hamster today?”