life lessons from a kinder killer

I’m not a pet person. Pets smell, they never grow up and have their own lives, and if you eat them your family gets really upset. Fish meet one of my personal standards for pets: flushability. We also keep an ancient pile of hair and dander, beneath which you’ll find our arthritic cat. She’s grandmothered in, though, part of the family longer than our kids.

But other pets, no. Dog? Too loud and excitable. Potbellied pig? C’mon. A walking sausage. Fatty but definitely edible. Giant Galapagos tortoise? You can’t keep a pet that will outlive your grandchildren: a giant tortoise keeps you. Hamster? Well, a hamster is a reasonable pet for people who don’t really like pets. I mean, they’re cute, and they’re cuddly, and they die at the drop of a hat. Life span somewhere between a fruit fly and a Saturday Night Live sketch.

When Ben was in kindergarten, and the school kept hamsters, I figured the school sent them home with the children on the weekends just to teach the kids early life lessons. Mortality. The ultimate futility of everything. Stuff kids need to know. “Grandpa could go at any time, just like Harry the Hamster.” But, oddly enough, the kindergarten hamster made it through the first few months of the year. We’d even taken it home ourselves, and it was still breathing and quivering fearfully when we gratefully returned it on Monday morning.

One week later was a milestone in little Ben’s life. In kindergarten, Ben would never ride in anyone else’s car. Separation anxiety. Childhood road rage. But Marci, uncomfortable at the tail end of her pregnancy, got Ben to agree to carpool with a kindergarten friend. How had she worked this magic? Harry the Hamster would be there!

Our friends Barbara and Fred had taken home Harry the Hamster the week after us, and it was now Monday morning. Barbara’s car rolled up in front of our house, Marci walked out holding Ben’s nervous little hand, and Barbara opened the rear door. Whereupon Ben’s kindergarten friend Bradley threw open his arms in welcome and screamed out, “The hamster DIED!!!”

True story. Harry the Hamster’s number was up the very next weekend after we’d taken the little fur-ball home. Thank goodness we weren’t the ones who’d drawn the short straw. I’d still be paying for therapy. The kids in the class were devastated. Enough so that the school decided that a hamster lending library was probably not a good idea.

Soon after the Loss Weekend, Geran was born. Suddenly ex-utero, he spent most of the day drinking, pooping and sleeping. As Marci said, “He takes after his father.” Geran missed the demise of Harry the Hamster, and as a consequence is untroubled by the thought of death. Though, oddly enough, he nevertheless fears furry creatures.

A few weeks after Geran’s birth we were visited by Barbara and Fred, who kindly stopped by to bring us dinner. Their daughter Emily was four; her older brother, Bradley, was in kindergarten with Ben. We had a nice visit, talking and laughing in the living room while the three bigger kids played on the floor behind the couch.

All of a sudden, in the middle of a sentence, Barbara sat up straight as a lodgepole pine and looked quickly back and forth, head sweeping the living room, her eyes like spotlights at a prison camp. “Where’s EMILY?”

“Huh? She’s behind the couch with…oh. Dunno. She can’t have gone far.”

“Emily? EMILY?” Barbara jumped up in a panic, and her husband followed her with uncharacteristic grimness. I looked at Marci, who shrugged back at me, and we got off the couch.

“I’m sure there’s no trouble,” Marci called out, as Barbara headed for the back hallway. We followed our guests into Geran’s room. No problem: he was sleeping peacefully in his bassinet, little Emily peering at him over the top.

“Emily! Come away from there right now!” Barbara grabbed her daughter by the arm and pulled her out of the baby’s bedroom. Luckily, the noise didn’t wake Geran, who could cry loudly enough to rupture eardrums and shatter Hummel figurines. (As an aside, I consider the shattering of Hummel figurines to be a worthy skill, and since scarcity brings value, suggest eradicating as many as possible.)

“No harm done,” Marci said. “Geran’s fine, he’s sleeping. Emily was only watching him.”

Barbara, still holding firm to her daughter’s arm, just tilted her head downward and cast a meaningful glance at us over the top of her glasses. In a lowered voice, she asked, “Remember the hamster?” Turns out, Harry had not died of natural causes. Unless having sticks shoved up your nose by a four year old is a natural end for a hamster.

That became our rallying cry for some time afterwards. Remember the Hamster!


Psycho Killer,
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