From THE IRISH TIMES
The last thing you think about when buying your first family pet is the day it’s going to die. More common are concerns like `Who is going to end up looking after it?’ or in the case of a rodent, `What happens if it escapes from its cage?’
I don’t remember the exact moment I promised my daughter a hamster but I know was feeling sorry for her. She’d been craving a pet for too long and I had refused everything. We didn’t have room for a dog. Cats scratch. You couldn’t hug a goldfish. Rabbits wreck the garden. By the time we got to hamsters, I’d been broken down. Weren’t they those cute things in The Wind in The Willows?
At the pet shop, I realised my mistake. I looked into the cage and, in my mind, saw a mouse. My daughter tells me I screamed. I know I didn’t because I remember how hard it was not to. I will admit to silent hand flapping and walking very quickly to the other end of the shop. From where I’d abandoned her, my daughter looked at me with big eyes. It was her birthday. I’d promised. That she didn’t say these truths made it worse.
Then I did a terrible thing. I suggested she might prefer something from the toyshop next door. She quietly followed me from the pet shop. Which made me feel terrible. If only she’d argue. In the toyshop, she went straight to the soft toy section and picked out the biggest dog she could find. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let her settle for something she couldn’t feed, talk to or love – without pretending.
`Let’s go back,’ I said.
That’s when we found a particularly hairy hamster that did not resemble a mouse. He became Hammy Concannon.
We had almost two `Hammy’-filled years. And though I could never bring myself to hold him, I did stroke him – whenever I felt under pressure to prove that I loved him. I was very fond of Hammy, so long as he was on the other side of the bars. It was not unusual to find me there, chatting to him when my daughter was asleep or away and I thought he looked lonely. We had many adventures – including my personal favourite, Hammymania, which involved SuperHams (contained in a small box) sliding down a diagonally suspended rope, James Bond style.
And then one day, he wasn’t the same. He was weak and wouldn’t eat or drink. When he walked, he wobbled. It was Sunday. I promised the vet first thing next morning. She asked me if he’d die. I said I didn’t know. Because I kind of suspected he might. I think we both did.
In the morning, afraid to disturb him, we brought him to the vet, where we learned that he had curled up and gone to sleep. And he wouldn’t be waking up any time soon.
`He didn’t feel any pain,’ my seven-year-old son told his older sister. She hugged me tight. And cried. I thought about how much she had loved him and how it was her first experience of death. Then, softie that I am, I was crying too, embarrassing given that it was probably a first for the vet – a grown woman, crying over a hamster.
We took him home. I was surprised when my daughter wanted to bury him straight away. But she was right. Action was what we needed. All that digging helped. Hammy was buried with everything he might need in the `afterlife’, including his favourite foods, even one cereal he didn’t like – in case he changed his mind. My daughter chose a smooth charcoal stone instead of a cross.
`I’m not religious,’ she explained. `And neither was Hammy.’
She carved an inscription on the stone: RIP. Hammy Concannon. Loved pet. Then she lit a candle and said good bye. She told him she loved him. She wasn’t crying. But I was a mess. We came inside. I sat her on my lap, held her. The same brother who told her that Hammy hadn’t felt any pain piped up, `Queen ants live ten times longer than hamsters.’ I shook my head to tip him off that maybe that wasn’t the best conversational tack to take. It was their first experience of death. I don’t think they knew what to say.
I was surprised then in the days that followed by my daughter words of wisdom.
`I’d like him to have lived longer but not in pain.’
`I want to forget him but I don’t.’
`I don’t want another hamster. I want Hammy to be the only one. I wouldn’t be able to love another hamster as much. Maybe I’ll get a different pet. But in a few months.’
When, in the middle of something, she’d remember he was gone, her eyes would water. I’d tell her that I’d be her hamster, to squeeze me really tight and see if she could make me burp. A week later, she drew him. We got photos of him developed. Where his cage was, is now covered with cuddly toys. And there is a place on the wall in honour of Hammy where his picture and photos are displayed. And to think that we’d have missed all that if we’d left that toyshop with a soft toy.