A Head Start to Heaven

There are a few things you need to know before we start: (1) it was winter, (2) I was worried about the smell, and (3) I am 99% sure that he was already dead. However, before you start throwing out accusations of murder, let me try to explain.

The average American household has 2-3 pets: those typically being a dog, a couple of cats, and maybe some fish. It varies. My home, however, typically has 4-5 pets… at one time. We tend to fly through animals faster than a slaughterhouse flies through beef, pardon the morbid expression. My mother would argue that the plethora of animals is due to four pleading children (five, if you count my father) with puppy dog eyes and coordinated repetitions of “Oh mommy, please!” However, I know that the true fault rests on my mother alone and her lack of a backbone. You could have said no, mom. You could have said no.

Throughout the greater part of our childhood, my siblings and I have had three core animals. Jasmine and Mocha make up the first two out of that three. They were a couple of primadonna, shorthaired Chihuahuas that belonged to my older brother. Like any typical masculine preteen, my brother asked for a rough and tough pup to take with him on boyish adventures and to teach how to fetch and draw the attention of pretty girls. Instead, as fate would have it, he ended up with two pocket-sized pooches who shivered constantly, peed on visiting company, and learned only one command throughout their 12 and 13-year life spans. This unimpressive trick was a stern “a su cama,” Spanish for “to their bed,” followed by obedient puppies scurrying into their kennel. Despite their incompetence, however, my brother loved those prissy dogs unconditionally and unashamedly.

Then there was Tiger. She was a mangy tabby cat that my dad picked up at a garage sale and then gave to me a few days before my ninth birthday. I originally named her Tiger for her gray-striped fur and my lack of creativity, but as she aged she took on this name with pride and built her entire reputation around it. She became infamous in my neighborhood for murdering and displaying defenseless woodland animals in our front yard and chasing away dogs, big and small, that ventured too close to her territory. Even now, towards the upper end of her nine lives, she continues to prowl the streets with a chunk of flesh missing from her left ear as if to say, “You should have seen the other guy.”

Apart from these three, we have also housed countless other animals throughout the years; some we adopted, some we fostered, and some we are not entirely sure where they came from, they just sort of appeared. There was Purty Bird, a cockatiel that enjoyed biting fingers that lingered too close to the cage and whistling along to the Andy Griffith Show theme song; and there was also Baby Bird the blue jay, that was nearly Tiger’s lunch, but instead luckily became a fond family member of ours for two weeks until we released him back into the wild (our backyard). We also had a nameless rabbit that stayed with us only long enough to traumatize my younger sister and leave a lasting barnyard feces smell in her room. To this day, I am still convinced that the rabbit was of the same lineage as the white rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but I have yet to prove it. For a while we had a 55 gallon, freshwater fish tank in our basement full of guppies, goldfish, shrimp, and lake turtles until we ended up with an oscar fish, named Oscar (rightfully so), who ate all our fish food and all our fish.  Evolution was on the side of the turtles, however, who survived due to their shell alone and not for lack of trying on Oscar’s part. Aside from these spotlight few, though, we have also housed four stray dogs, six nearly-roadkill box turtles, one friendly tarantula, a handful of snakes (quite literally), and countless cats and kittens.

This story begins, however, in the late fall of 2011 —also known as “The Year of the Hamster” to my family— when my pushover of a mother agreed to let my sister care for the school’s dwarf hamster. While I was having an uneventful sophomore year of high school, my little sister was going through a much more significant phase of her life that involved career choices and class pets. This, of course, was the fourth grade.

One temperate Thursday afternoon, my sister burst through our front door and announced to her startled audience, “I’m gonna be a vet!”

My father, remote in hand but lounge chair now swiveled in the direction of his youngest, was the first to speak. “Funny,” he said, “I never took you to be a military man.”

She did not hear him, or perhaps she did not get the joke, and simply continued with her well-rehearsed speech. “Mrs. Brooklyn brought in a hamster today, and we named him ‘Mr. Hamster’—that was my idea— and we got to learn all about taking care of him and feeding him and washing him and then at the end of the day,” she paused here to take a deep breath, “Mrs. Brooklyn asked me if I wanted to be the class veterinarian! That means I get to be the number one person responsible for Mr. Hamster! Isn’t that awesome?”

“That’s fantastic, sweetie,” my mother said before my father could offer another snide remark. She gave my sister an encouraging smile as her hands busied themselves with the task of sorting through the pile of mail that lay upon the dining room table.

“I know, right? And because I’m the veterinarian, that means that I get to take Mr. Hamster home every weekend, since, you know, there isn’t any school on the weekends. That’s okay, right?”

At the sound of this, my father arched an eyebrow. Meanwhile, my mother let out a big sigh that translated to, we really don’t need another mouth to feed, but her voice spoke differently. “Of course, honey. We can set up a table by the window and place the cage up there, how’s that sound?”

“That’s perfect! Thanks, mom!”

And so began a month-long period in which every Friday afternoon my sister would step off her mustard limousine toting a lunchbox-sized, aluminum cage and a slender duffle bag with MR. HAMSTER sharpied across the front. Each morning she would dutifully clean out the cage while the hamster rolled about in his little, teal mobile home, and each night we would be lulled to sleep by the sound of that nocturnal beastie upping his mileage on the squeaky hamster wheel.

Such was our routine; that is, until the evening of my high school’s winter formal. The theme of the dance was “Snow Ball” which was clever enough, but quickly backfired on the dance committee when most of the posters around the school were changed to “no Balls.” However, despite the committee’s inability to predict the graffiti talent of immature high schoolers, they still received prophetic credit when the morning of the dance the first snowfall of the season dusted the ground. Winter had arrived and we celebrated it with G-rated pop music, non-alcoholic fruit punch, and repetitive three-step dance moves we learned in gym class the week before.

When midnight rolled around, we finally ceased from our fist-pumping mosh pits and save-room- for-Jesus slow dances. My older brother and I retreated to his car and then made the fifteen minute drive back to our house. The biting night air hurried us from the driveway and into our home where we were welcomed by the hush of a sleeping household. My brother removed his shoes, tossed them against the door, and rubbed his eyes as he made his way to the closest bathroom to begin his evening routine. Simultaneously, I made my way to the kitchen, removed a bowl from the cabinet, and absentmindedly fixed myself a late-night bowl of cereal. As my spoon broke the surface of my hybrid concoction of Cheerios and Rice Chex, I became aware of the weight of noiselessness that sat upon our home. It was irregular, it was eerie, and I pondered the strangeness of the silence as my teeth made contact with another absorbent Chex.

“No squeaking!” The epiphany hit me with my fourth spoonful of soggy cereal and I rushed to the side of the cage to confirm my suspicions. Sure enough, the wheel was muted by the lack of stimulation. Without the legs of a hamster, it lay motionless contemplating the purpose of its existence. Curiosity pressed me to investigate further. I gingerly tapped on the rungs of the cage, hoping to incite movement beneath the wood chips, but nothing stirred. I tapped harder this time. Still nothing. Undiscouraged, I opened the cage and reached my hand in to push about the bedding in hopes of waking the dwarf from his deep slumber. The end of my finger eventually encountered the golden ball of fluff that identified as Mr. Hamster, but the tiny thing did not react in any way. I jerked my hand back with a sickening realization.

“Hey, I think the hamster’s dead,” I announced to my brother as he exited the bathroom and reentered the living room.

“Oh yeah?” he asked. He peeked his head into the opening of the cage and shrugged indifferently.

“What do you think should we do?”

“Well, I am going to bed,” he said. “You can do whatever you like.”

“But he’s dead, we have to do something!”

“So bury it.”

“The ground is frozen and it’s almost one in the morning, we can’t bury him.”

“So leave it there for Mom to deal with,” the agitation was becoming apparent in his voice.

“Won’t it smell, though?”

“Listen, I don’t give a damn what you do with the rat! I am going to bed.” And with that being his final word on the subject, he stormed past me and down the stairs to his room.

“Great,” I murmured. The decision of what to do with the body rested on my shoulders. A normal kid would have done as my brother did and simply gone to bed, leaving the problem for the earliest riser. A smart kid might have wrapped the hamster in a box and stuck him in the freezer until arranging a funeral and burial place. I, however, was neither a normal kid nor a smart kid; and therefore, at the time, I saw nothing wrong with the obscure idea that popped into my head in my sleep-deprived state.

With the solemnity of an undertaker, I removed a handful of tissues from the nearest box and proceeded with my plan. I spread two tissues out on the table like a blanket, and used two more to pick up Mr. Hamster from his bedding. Then, with careful precision, I placed the hamster on the tabled tissues and wrapped him up tight so that not a single strand of fur was showing. I lifted the mummified creature off the table, carried him gently to our back door and out onto the balcony, and then paused to allow him the dignity of the moment.

“Well, little guy, I guess this is it,” I said. I paused to compose a heartfelt eulogy for Mr. Hamster, but then chuckled at the absurdity of it all. I finally settled with, “I hope you had a good hamster life and uh, I guess, you’ll be missed by my sister and her class and whatever. Adios.”

And with that, I arched my right arm back and thrust it forward with all my might. The blanketed hamster flew from my hands up into the night sky, and inevitably down into the dead leaves that carpeted the floor of the woods just beyond our back deck. The task was complete. I walked back inside, washed my hands, and retired to my bed all the while praising my clever idea and job well done.

I woke up the next morning with no recollection of the events that transpired the night before and lounged into the kitchen with a clear conscience. That memory repression lasted a blissful five minutes, but disappeared when my sister spoke up from the living room, “Um, guys? I think the hamster is missing.” Everything came flooding back.

“Seriously, guys,” my sister continued, “he’s not in here anywhere? Did he get out or something?”

This sparked my mom’s interest now and she gravitated toward the cage to search for the missing hamster. I, on the other hand, was trying to produce an excuse for what happened, but was only producing sweat at the time.

“Your hamster is dead,” my brother said as he sauntered across the room.

“What?” This question came from my sister and mother simultaneously.

It was my turn to speak up. “Okay, um, don’t get mad. So I came home last night and your hamster was dead and I kind of threw him off the balcony.”

“You did what?” my mother shouted.

“No way, you really threw him off the back porch? That’s awesome.” My brother was laughing now, but my mother and sister could not find any humor in the situation. I felt the need to explain more.

“Listen, I’m sorry. The hamster was dead, it was late at night, the ground was too frozen to bury him, I thought he would get smelly, and I didn’t know what to do so—”

“So you threw him off the balcony?” my sister exploded.

I paused for a minute trying to find the right words to console my sister and keep back the tears that were filling up her eyes.

“I… I was just trying to give him a head start to heaven.”

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