“You already have a pet,” I told eight-year-old Bea. “You have nineteen of them.”
“Fish don’t count, Mom. I need something with fur.”
“Cats and dogs make me wheeze and Daddy itch.”
“How about a rabbit?” asked her brother Eli.
“Too big to flush.”
I knew something of rodents in captivity. My sister’s kids had a hamster named Little May. She’d lived hard and fast, and died young. A life of costume parties, wild shirt-pocket rides, playing the “show and tell” circuit, and a brief-but-thrilling flight career had proved too much for Little May. She died at the tender age of six months. I suspect it was suicide.
“How about a guinea pig?”
“They stink, you have to clean their cages, and for what? Unresponsive vermin.”
“Well…” Investing that degree of commitment into a pet project was something I might consider. “If you can accept that a hamster lifespan is less than that of a guppy’s.”
Thus I found myself ankle deep in the world of hamster husbandry. Why they call it that, I’ll never know; my husband had nothing to do with it. ‘It’ was a black and white Teddy Bear Hamster. The cost of the cage, igloo, water bottle, vitamins, cedar bedding and, yes, the hamster potty, for our six-dollar rodent far exceeded the dollar-a-month investment I anticipated.
We still needed a name, but at least that was free. I voted for Wildfire or Hamlet, but the kids settled on Pandora. Her purple cage became the infamous “Pandora’s Box,” and we opened it again and again. Like that divine creation, our Pandora inspired story, song, poetry, even a new family crest, a black and white hamster sporting a golden crown. Clearly, Pandora was destined to rule.
Rodent Fun Fact #1. Feral gerbils feed on bed sheets and store the leftovers under the refrigerator. This I learned in third grade when Napoleon, the classroom gerbil, stayed at our house for spring break. In sixth grade, Linda Witkowsky put Winky, her hamster, into my hands. It struggled furiously, went winky on my blouse, its eyes bulged, and so did mine. I hadn’t touched a rodent since.
Rodent Fun Fact #2. Hamster is from the German word for “hamper,” as in laundry hamper, container, storage bin. I reckon a hamster can hold about ten times its weight in cheek pouches stretching the length of its body. No wonder they don’t carry purses! This talent was graphically illustrated the first day, when the kids loaded Pandora with peanuts, seeds, carrots, Cheerios, and turned her loose in the bathroom. She left an impressive hoard behind the toilet. We left it there for three days, as a sort of monument.
Pandora was a good-natured little creature, tolerant of handling and mishandling. She gripped a cracker like a kid with a peanut butter sandwich. She used the same technique nibbling buttons off a shirt. She was cute like other peoples’ grandchildren are cute–in a wallet. I was convinced I could ride this out with no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, until the first time the kids changed her cage. Holding out the Beast, Bea cooed, “Go to Grandma.”
I was soon babysitting on a regular basis. Not content to sit in your lap and purr, Pandora was a perpetual motion machine. In her exercise ball she rumbled like thunder as she raced down our long hall. The kids made her Lego mazes and seltzer bottle airplanes She could be a hula girl, Greek Goddess, fairy tale princess, or bikini-clad bathing beauty, depending upon which hole in the Kleenex box she peeked out.
They warn you against looking into a snake’s eyes, but no one ever said a thing about hamsters.
I’d drop laundry in Eli’s room and see Panny staring at me. I knew what she wanted. I half expected her to run a little tin cup along the bars of her cage. The first time I caved, it wasn’t good breeding that brought Panny scurrying to the door to greet me. I didn’t kid myself; mine were often the hands that fed her. Dogs love their humans, but what drives a hamster? Are they too stupid to know fear? Are we too big to be regarded as anything but a landscape? Still, it was oddly moving when she stepped into my hands, and I could feel her tiny heart beating against my palm.
One night the cage wasn’t latched. Pandora climbed from the dresser top to the floor for a walk on the Wild Side. Tears were shed. Then we placed a peanut in each room, shut the door, and blocked the crack with towels. If a peanut went missing, we’d know where to look. In central rooms we placed treats in deep buckets with ramps leading up to them.
“I bet she forgot to pack her cheeks,” I told the kids. “Sooner or later she’ll come out to forage; it’s the Hamster Way.” I didn’t mention Cousin Jean’s gerbil that set out to seek its fortune. Months later she found it trapped in a dresser in the basement, keeping the company of maggots.
While emptying the hall closet, I heard a loud grinding coming from the basement.
“Eli,” I hollered down the stairs, “try searching more quietly, so you can hear her.”
“What, Mom?” asked Eli, appearing beside me.
It had to be Panny down there, in the bowels of the basement. We went downstairs and waited, listening. The furnace clicked on, and we jumped. Tick, tick, tick went the clock. Finally we heard that noise again, like a chainsaw, coming from inside the staircase. That could mean only one thing…
Pandora had entered the Black Hole, where no hamster had gone before. Our storage room sucks in all manner of objects and morphs them into high density matter. Not just cardboard boxes and camping equipment. Baby things for my unborn grandchildren, stacks of Rubbermaid containing every object d’art my kids ever made, a slide projector, medieval tankards, sci-fi dinnerware, my dead uncle’s stamp collection, the hardened dregs of house paint to match the color before the last. Blacker than a Black Hole.
We peeled away the layers, from folding chairs that come out for parties to stained glass scraps from a class taken twenty years before. Then I saw her, snug in a nest of sawdust gnawed from the underbelly of the stairs. Just out of reach. If I made a grab, I might scare her deeper into hiding. My heart was pounding as I held out my hand. “Here, Panny…”
Hamsters are loners, pairing up only to mate, and even that isn’t pretty. They are so territorial that the most tender hamster mothers drive away their offspring the instant they mature. What could we offer to match a brand new house in the sub-suburbs? Why should she respond to the whispered promise of a yogurt treat when there was enough macaroni art down there to last a hamster lifetime?
“Come on, Panny. Come to Grandma…”
Panny looked at me with her big brown eyes. And crept out of her nest into my hand.
One evening soon after, Bea demonstrated Panny’s newest trick. “Up, Panny, up!” Pandora climbed the bars to the ceiling of her cage. I beamed at my grandbaby’s cleverness, and ran for the camera. But the next morning she was trembling, listless, and had clearly been sick. I cleaned her while the kids cleaned the cage.
“Maybe she just needs rest,” I said, but to my husband Thom I whispered, “It’s bad.”
Her condition worsened. The next morning, the kids were distressed to see her lying listless. My sometimes-too-practical husband picked up Panny and gently stroked her. She looked so tiny in his big hands. “We have an emotional investment to protect,” he said. “It might be worth a trip to the vet.”
At that moment I knew I would love that man forever. In for a Panny, in for a pound. The vet gave our six dollar hamster a hundred dollars worth of antibiotics.
“Do other people bring in sick hamsters?” I asked, feeling a little foolish.
“Oh, yes,” the vet assured me.
“And do they get better?”
She hesitated. “Sometimes.” Then she shrugged. “Hamsters get infections, just like people, but they’re fragile. In the wild, most get eaten before they get sick. Pandora should be at home, where she’ll be more comfortable, and the children can be involved.” So it had come to hamster hospice.
We gave her a few CCs of water, and tucked her into her nest. The next morning, Eli found Pandora’s lifeless body. There was no comforting Bea. She looked at the rain pouring down outside and sobbed, “Even Mother Nature is crying.”
She was in no condition to go to school. Between bouts of tears Bea stitched a tiny quilt and pillow, fashioned a tiny golden crown, and a little gold coffin adorned with plastic jewels. Bea tucked in Panny with a tuft of nesting material and a peanut. On the inside lid she wrote a lullaby, “So it will be like I’m singing to her forever.”
It was an open casket funeral. Eli constructed a Popsicle stick headstone, and Bea planned the service. I made copies of Bea’s hymn, “Hamsters We Have Heard on High,” so the mourners could join in. Eli played flute and Bea sang, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.”
Bea’s tearful elegy was simple, but eloquent. “Her Grandma said she never knew she could love a rodent, and her Grandpa never said he loved her, but he did. She’s an angel now. A furry little angel.”
I was surprised to see Thom wipe away a tear.
“Does Daddy love her?” Bea had asked, when Panny first fell ill.
“Yes, in his way,” I told her. Did the kids love her? Absolutely. Did Panny love us? I’m sure she did, in her Hamster Way. She taught us much about love, and the sorrow that is the price we gladly pay for it. And even the passing of a hamster is a reminder to appreciate every moment of this precious fleeting gift of life. Bea will tell you Pandora Athena Baltuck Garrard lived a very full life and packed a lot of love into her 18 short months. And I will tell you that my first grandchild will always be the one with fur on her face.
copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck