“Mom, Doris is dead,” Baby Girl called from down the hall. What? It was the early afternoon. I’m sure Doris, a Syrian hamster, was just taking a disco nap. She had probably been doing the Hamster Hustle all night long. She was nocturnal, after all. “No, Mom. I’m sure. I tried to move her and she wouldn’t move. I think she got crushed somehow under her wheel.” Freaking Doris. I had been trying my utmost this year to impart the gravity of the historic events of September 11 to our two kids. I had taken them to Ground Zero on our move from Tennessee to Boston this past summer. I had talked to them at length about how many innocent lives had been lost and how different our world was post-9/11 and how important it was to strive to be peacemakers in it.
Then our fat hamster goes and kicks the bucket on September 11 and ruins everything.
I put my arm around Baby Girl and we sat on my bed. Our voices became hushed and hers got a little quakey and we hugged and hugged and hugged.
I told her how Doris was loved her whole life with us. And that she had been such a fun pet.
“She knew exactly what to do. She just crept into her little burrow where she knew she would be safe and could rest,” Baby Girl consoled herself, tears starting to pool in her eyes, “She was the smartest hamster ever.” Doris had come to us by way of one of my former students just before Christmas. He was preparing for his study abroad semester and knew a hamster was not a welcome companion in his dorm in Italy.
I didn’t tell the kids that a hamster was going to be making us a family of five. I wanted them to be surprised. So I simply told them that on that very night, we were going to have a visitor and her name was Doris and not to freak out so they didn’t scare her.
They waited on our front porch in their pajamas as my student rolled up and pulled out Doris in her cage, with all her hamster accoutrements. Christmas came early, with this creature stirring--not a mouse, but a close cousin.
I didn’t grow up with pets (besides the 5 fish we all named Mr. Belvidere) but I have a heart for certain fluffy animals. Baby Girl, however, is animal-obsessed. Every evening before bed, she visited with Doris and earned the favor of this rodent who was overfed and overstimulated. I had asked her before our move if she would consider rehoming Doris so we didn’t have to transport her over what would be a 3-day voyage. “No, Mom. Not for all the money in the world would I give up Doris.” Doris had made the cross-country journey and had been one of the constants in the kids’ lives during a year of difficult transition. Little Man was fairly unfazed by our move, but Baby Girl was struggling. She missed her school friends in Tennessee. The presence of this little rodent had been a comfort to her and had been something of a conversation piece in meeting new friends. I realized how pets are the social glue for so many people, softening introductions and bridging commonalities among fellow pet lovers.
I also realized that pets can be a vehicle for our feelings. They can shoulder the feelings that are too clumsy or too hefty to explore otherwise. You can cry into their fur and they won’t mind at all.
Baby Girl is a fairly sanguine child and very uncomfortable with crying, even in front of me. She frequently chokes back tears and prefers to retreat to her room to work out emotions in her journal, or, as she reminded me recently, “Everybody knows you just scream into your pillow if you’re angry, Mom.”
The day after Deceased Doris was discovered, we planned to bury her after the kids got home from school. There were some complications, however. Chief among them was that we were renting an apartment in the city and so the burial grounds were not exactly ours. Further, as Baby Girl noted, we weren’t always going to live in this apartment. What if the kids wanted to “visit Doris” in the future? Also, my husband reminded me that we had lived in Tennessee for the last six years wherein it was not necessary to own a shovel. So doing any kind of digging, wherever we chose the burial plot, would require some implements not yet in our possession.
We settled on a flower bed next to our apartment building. We dug with a garden trowel we found in the basement.
The kids both said sweet things to Doris as though she were present for her own Hamster of the Year award ceremony.
Then we all sniffled and cried and we all hugged some more. Kids walking home from school passed by, probably wondering what this family was doing, falling apart in front of a flower bed.
Baby Girl put on some gloves from our first aid kit and laid Doris to rest. Doris was so peaceful looking, her eyes closed, her paws turned in.
We troweled dirt on top of Doris, hoping no neighborhood dogs would sniff out our Pet Cemetery. Then Baby Girl remembered she had wanted to bury a letter she wrote to Doris along with her, so I encouraged her to just dig a hole next to Doris and to bury the letter there.
It was one of the most cathartic, beautiful moments of my life. We buried in the ground that day a beloved pet, but we also buried some of the complicated, thorny feelings we had all experienced over this recent move. Pets let you do that. We hugged it out as we had not yet done in our new home. All because of a four-legged fluffball.
Rest in peace, Doris.