Tiny Messengers

As a kid, there was nothing I wanted more than a dog, but our apartment complex didn’t allow them. I temporarily satisfied my dog craving with friends’ canines and promised myself that someday, I’d have my own. What I was able to have in the apartment, though, were small rodents in cages. Mom couldn’t tolerate the ones with long tails, so mice and rats were out. I liked the look of hamsters more than gerbils, and thus, my hamster-ownership-childhood began.

Hinky Jo was my OG. He lived to see his first birthday, and I made him a birthday cake in my Easy Bake Oven. I fashioned him a little paper birthday hat, and we had a tiny hamster birthday, complete with a birthday candle. Later, when he was dying a very natural hamster death, Mom and I thought he’d broken his hip. While I was at school, she rushed him to the vet who put an oxygen mask over his tiny body and tried her best to save him. Mom jokes now that he was the most expensive hamster anyone’s ever owned. But I loved Hinky Jo, and Mom loved me.

There were many others that followed… Tiffany Sue, Mork and Mindy (and the seven babies Mindy eventually ate), and all those who came after. My kids had rodents, too. There haven’t been many years of my life that didn’t include hamsters.

I’d been feeling the itch lately… the compulsion to get another hamster.

At age 50.

I talked myself out of it for weeks. I mean, what 50-year-old gets a hamster? And I’d given away all the cages and water bottles and wheels. I would need to start from scratch. There was nothing logical or age-appropriate about my weird hamster desire.

But we’re in the middle of a pandemic. And I’ve been so incredibly sad lately, that I’ve vowed to do things that make me happy. Things that bring a bit of joy back into my life. Things that offer promise and peace, and a little bit of tiny, unexpected love.

There were no hamster adoptees available in my local area, so I did the thing I swore I’d never do and went to a pet store. There, the young small animal manager told me that the two golden Syrian hamsters they had were calm and sweet and bonded brothers. He suggested I get them both. Of course, I wanted to do what was best for the hamsters and the small animal manager, so I got them both. He pointed out a cage that would be big enough for the two of them. I thought the wires looked too far apart for them to stay contained, but he convinced me it was the perfect size. I wanted to do everything the right way, so I ignored my gut, got both hamsters, the big wire cage, an enormous water bottle, and all the other necessary hamster accoutrements.

In two little separate boxes, I took those tiny creatures home and set up shop. I named them Oscar (Wilde) and Orwell (George). (My 50-year-old brain had completely forgotten that Mary Claire once had a hamster named Orwell until the boys reminded me. So, more accurately, this was Orwell II.) The dogs were fascinated, obsessed, panty, and anxious. I held each hamster in my hands and let them smell. They sniffed and panted and ultimately licked. I thought that was enough excitement for one night. So, into their cage they went, and I promptly watched Orwell squeeze himself through the wires to stand on the top of the cage… his summit.

Of course, it was long past closing time for the pet store on a Sunday night. I had to figure out a Plan B until I could get a more appropriate home. I reasoned Ruby’s always enjoyed the bathtub, so that was a safe enough space for a hamster overnight. I snapped a cute picture of the two of them in the tub and posted it online. The next day, I exchanged the escapee cage and got an aquarium instead.

Later that night, a friend who rescues exotic animals posted on my timeline. “Uh oh,” she said. “Those look like Syrian hamsters. Syrians can’t live together after they mature. They’re incredibly territorial and will fight each other to the death.” I texted her immediately, then we talked on the phone. I looked for some evidence online to convince me that it wasn’t always true… that there were some happy endings. But she was right. It was tragedy after tragedy. Often, the words “blood bath” were used to describe the inevitable.

I was devastated. Once a thing has a name, there is an attachment to it. At least for me. I hadn’t planned on two hamsters, but I’d brought two home. I invested in a cage big enough to hold them both. They were a duo. But I live in a tiny space and buying an additional cage with all the necessary items and finding a safe place to keep it from the dogs seemed both expensive and impractical.

The next morning, I boxed Orwell up and drove back to the pet store. While we were driving, I assured him he was a good hamster and that he’d find the perfect home. I told him I wanted to keep him safe and that this was the best way. When I walked in with the box, the sweet boy who’d helped me the previous day simply said, “Oh, no.”

I burst into tears. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “My very experienced hamster rescuing friend told me that Syrians can’t live together after they mature because they’ll fight to the death. I don’t want either of them to die.”

“Are you bringing them both back?” he asked.

“No, just one,” I cried. “He’s a good hamster,” I said. “He’s sweet and soft, and I know someone will love him. Will you find someone perfect to take him home? A child with gentle hands and patience?”

“Of course I will,” the boy said.

“He won’t be euthanized, will he?” I asked. “Because of Covid? Because he was in my home? He’s safe here, right?”

“Oh, of course!” the boy assured me. “We’ll keep him in medical isolation for a couple of days, and then we’ll find the perfect owner for him.”

“I want you to take him home,” I sniffled. “He’s so sweet and so are you.”

The boy laughed. “I would if I could, but my cats might not be the best welcoming committee.”

The refund of money felt dirty and wrong, and I walked out of the store without the box and without Orwell.

I cried all the way home.

Sometimes doing the right thing is also doing the hardest thing. Those two tiny ones taught me a great deal in the couple of days I had them together.

First, I never should have bought two hamsters. It wasn’t my original plan, and I know how easily I can be talked into something. At 50, you would think I’d be able to set some better boundaries, but I fail again and again. I should have trusted my gut on the second hamster and the wire cage, but I was too busy trying to make everyone at the pet store happy and keep the rodent siblings together. I am often willing to sacrifice my own best interests to keep others happy. It’s never a viable solution.

The cage fiasco reminded me that what looks like the perfect home to some will never be perfect if you don’t feel it yourself. You can build a beautiful nest full of carrots and chewy sticks and all the things you love most, but soon enough, there you’ll be, standing on the top of your house and wondering where to go next.

Taking Orwell back to the store was heart-wrenching and hard, and it reminded me that it’s important to let go of things not meant for us… even when it hurts.

Oscar is happy and carefree in his small, cozy aquarium, and I love that I have a hamster at age 50. The feel of his soft body in my hands is a familiar comfort, a precious memory brought back to life. It is the remembrance of a mother’s love and her willingness to do whatever it took to make me feel happy and safe and complete. I know that Oscar won’t live for long. I understand as an adult much better than as a child what a life cycle means, and his is short. But it will be sweet, and it will be full. The dogs will sit beneath his cage, panting anxiously, and they will lick his tiny face when I hold him in my hands. I will clean his cage and make sure he is fed and watered and comfortable.

My childhood memories made real again will keep me warm during these trying times. The unconditional love of a mother and sister, a safe place to land after a long day of playing Spud and basketball in the communal back yard, the beat of a tiny heart in my hands reminding me that I am alive, my kids are safe and loved, and this earth, no matter how scary and cold and lonely and cruel it often seems, will continue to spin. There is much that is out of my control, but I can control this: Taking good care of a short, tiny life; loving as hard as possible even in the face of inevitable loss; and waking up every morning that I am granted to bring something bright and worthy and positive to another heart in need.

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