A Death in the Family
We had a death in the family this week. My son’s hamster Nibbles died, a mere nine months after we found him in a local pet shop. Nibbles was a good hamster. He enjoyed doing all the classic hamster things: running on wheels, climbing in plastic tubing, chewing cardboard, and of course, nibbling. One habit he had would have been amusing if it wasn’t so desperate: he used to hang from the top of his glass aquarium by his teeth, clawing and chewing at the plastic which encased the perimeter. It was always unclear whether he just liked chewing that stuff or if, like a Cuban refugee, he was willing to risk life and limb simply to escape.
From the beginning, I was against bringing a hamster into our home. The way I saw it, I had enough lives under my care: I did not need to add another. Plus I suspected it would come to a bad end. Small rodents tend not to live very long. When I was five, I awoke one morning to find my own guinea pig lying on his side at the bottom of his cage, stiff as fiberboard. Bringing a hamster into the home, I tried to argue, was like inviting in the Grim Reaper. We knew he would come for the pet; it was just a question of when.
But my son wanted a hamster, and my wife wanted my son to have a hamster, and my daughter wanted cupcakes, which didn’t really affect the decision one way or the other. So I was out-voted and one morning I took my son to the pet shop to buy a hamster. The selection was somewhat limited: I think they had two. We decided on the one that was slightly more brown than white because he seemed a little spunkier. So we purchased him (we called Nibbles a him because we did not how to determine his gender, and so allowed my son to assign him one, which must have seemed unfair to Nibbles but I wasn’t going to poke around for hamster bits to try to determine the truth) along with an aquarium, a wheel, a little house, some bedding, a water bottle, hamster food and hamster treats, which are like little honey drops. Total outlay for Nibbles and Nibble accoutrement: around a hundred bucks.
I assumed incorrectly that my son would forget about Nibbles as soon as he was safely ensconced in his room. He did not. Although I would be lying if I said the two became fast friends, my son often played with the hamster, spoke to Nibbles, and even gave him an endearing nickname on top of his already too-fucking-cute regular name: Nibs or Nibbies. When Nibbles cage needed to be cleaned, he complained about it less than I did, and to his credit, enjoyed spraying the Windex onto the glass and helping to wipe it off. My son was a much better pet owner than I was at his age, which makes it even sadder now that Nibbles is gone.
Nibbles had been fading for days, so his death was more annoying than unexpected. Can death ever be annoying? In Nibbles’ case, yes. It was annoying because we knew he wasn’t doing well: his eyes were closed, his nocturnal wheel-running had ceased, and he suddenly looked old. Yes, a hamster can look old. They get kind of grey around the muzzle and they start asking you to speak up. We didn’t know what was going on with Nibbles. As is often asked with people, we found ourselves wondering “Is Nibbles old or poisoned?”
We had no way of determining Nibbles’ age. The lady at the pet shop told us that hamsters live anywhere from one to three years. We’d only had Nibbles in our lives for nine months, but it’s possible he was geriatric before we even got him. We did not know his age. We did not know his gender. Nibbles, there was so much about you we did not know.
So it as annoying that he seemed be dying because we did not know what to do. We agreed that we were not going to bring the hamster to the vet, which may seem cruel, but we once spent over five thousand dollars on chemotherapy for our dog and we did not want to start heading down that road with a rodent. So our options were limited. Neither of us knows hamster CPR, and it seemed like we were going to have to rely on traditional medicinal techniques. When I say “traditional,” I mean we were going to do nothing and see what happened. My wife did clean the hamster’s eyes in an effort to get him to open them. When she did, she reported that one eyeball now seemed much larger than the other, giving our hamster the look of Marty Feldman on a bad day.
No, it was obvious to us that Nibbles was on his way out. My son kept saying things like, “I don’t want to think about it,” which I believe is the correct way to approach any problem. Denial. He also retained a certain amount of optimism about the situation. His diagnosis: “Maybe Nibbles is tired.” Indeed. Tired of life, boy. Tired of life.
Because I am an absentee father, I was not home when my wife broke the news. At first, our son said he was okay with it, that he did not miss Nibbles that much, which was more disturbing than if he’d been upset. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross teaches us about the Five Stages of Death: Step One, of course, is denial. The tears came soon after. He started crying, which made my daughter cry. Soon they were both keening over the dead hamster. Mourning in the free way that children mourn; their tears feeding other tears, following by desperate exhortations ot the Gods: “why?” my son asked. “Why?” (Anger) Why, indeed. I spoke to him during the throes of his agony. He was choked up and tearful, which was very sad and very cute. (Depression) Of course I felt terrible for him, but I knew that there wasn’t much I could do, and my Diet Dr. Pepper was getting warm, so I kept the conversation brief. My wife said he was miserable for a good long while, but after she suggested he eat dinner in front of the television, a never-before granted privilege, he cheered up immediately. (Acceptance)
(It should be noted he skipped over the Third Step: Bargaining, in which the bereaved attempt to bargain with God. I guess he didn’t think of it.)
We will bury Nibbles in the backyard, under a flowering bush I planted there a few summers ago. He will be returned to the earth, a boy’s beloved pet and friend. He will view it as a solemn rite of passage; I will view it as another weekend chore. Will we get another hamster to replace Nibbles? In time, perhaps we will find our hearts sufficiently healed to contemplate another pet. (I should note we also have a dog, who is nine and in fine health, which should be enough for any kid, but that argument never held much water pre-Nibbles, so I’m guessing it’s not going to work post-Nibbles, either) My daughter is already speaking of getting a bunny rabbit. Not going to happen. It’s too soon for my son to contemplate another hamster, I suppose, which is fine with me because I hate cleaning the goddamned cage and truth be told, Nibbles smelled like pee.