Growing up in the country, there is a realism that comes with the excitement of loving of a pet. Although I don’t remember a singular moment in which we learned the lesson, Ginny and I always knew there was a very real chance we could lose any animal we loved to the highway that runs in front of our house, or to a bobcat or coyote. Out in the middle of nowhere, there most certainly exists an only-the-strong-survive reality.
Throughout our childhood we had cats get in fights with wild cats and go missing, a dog that escaped his pen and got hit by a car, even our parakeet, Lucy, learned how to escape her cage and flew into a nearby tree. Our 6’3” Daddy said he knew he looked ridiculous when he climbed that tree and “rescued” her. When she escaped the second time, he said she’d have to take her chances. We never saw her again. As a result, Ginny instituted an “inside pets only” policy on the Sanders family that lasts to this day.
Jamie and Keisha didn’t have much better luck. One afternoon after Hoss got home from work, he noticed that Jasper, their Irish setter, wasn’t running around in his pen. He investigated and found a very dead looking dog. Full of dread, Hoss went upstairs and broke the news to his completely bereft four-year-old Jamie and two-year-old Keisha. Wailing, heartbroken children rushed outside to Jasper’s pen, only to find him wagging his tail and asking to be let out. Jamie still calls it The Great Jasper Fake-out and ranks it as one of the more traumatic experiences of his early childhood.
Years later Miss Rita, who is no fan of cats in the first place, allowed nine-year-old Keisha to have a big, white Persian with blue eyes. Keisha named the cat Tiffany after the popular 80’s pop singer but called her Tiffy. Miss Rita, who is convinced to this day that cats cannot be trusted, and Tiffy tolerated each other at best.
Never was that mutual dislike made clearer than the day Miss Rita, all dressed for work in Marietta, walked down the basement stairs to load the children in the car for school. Out of nowhere, Tiffy pounced onto Miss Rita’s stockinged leg, sunk her claws deep into Miss Rita’s thigh and scratched her way down to the knee, shredding stockings and making long bloody scratches. Jamie said he’d never heard his Mama make sounds like that before.
When Hoss got home that afternoon, Miss Rita handed him a pillowcase and told him to get rid of the cat. The last Jamie saw of her, his Dad was fighting to hang on to the bunched up top of a yowling, jerking, lurching, jumping pillowcase. (Tiffy went on to happily live out the rest of her days with a friend of the family.)
A few Christmases ago when Ginny asked if she could give Colin a hamster, I agreed without hesitation. Jamie, always the skeptic, said he wasn’t sure it was a good idea to gift Colin something that we knew would likely die within two to three years. I argued that loving and losing a pet was part of growing up. So, he reluctantly agreed with the stipulation that he would not be responsible for the feeding, changing of the cage, or tending to the hamster in any way. With an enormous eye-roll, I accepted the terms, and Bailey the hamster came to our house.
Not too long ago, Bailey escaped the confines of her cage and went out on the lam. It was a solid 48 hours before I coaxed her back into captivity with a pile of hamster food. When I scooped her into my hands, we made eye contact. In that split-second, with her little cheeks full of hamster food, I could tell something had changed. She was in on the secret of what life was like beyond the confines of her hamster cage. Like a woman who had been on a long vacation with good food and good wine and dipped her toes in an exotic sea, she was not going to go quietly back to the humdrum life she’d been living. I knew no amount of colorful tubing or fancy hamster wheels were going to ease that truth.
Colin was just glad to have her back home safe and sound. He didn’t see the mischievous way she held her head cocked to one side, or the pensive way she sat on the lookout platform of her cage, or the longing that resonated in her tiny black eyes.
Jamie said I was being dramatic. But I saw it. I knew it was there, and I had that deep-down feeling that Mama’s get when they know something, is soon to have an unhappy ending.
For the first few days, Bailey seemed like her normal hamster-self. She remade her bedding and ate a lot. She ran on her hamster wheel and rolled around the house in her clear plastic ball. It was on the third day I knew we were headed for trouble.
I was cooking supper and heard a knocking coming from the laundry room. Bailey was pacing in her cage back-and-forth, back-and-forth with the side of the cage hitting the side of the counter. I thought maybe she wanted out, so I put her in her plastic ball. She didn’t move. Just sat inside the ball and looked at me like I were a warden. I think she would’ve crossed her arms if she’d known how.
For the next few days, she seemed out of sorts. She roamed around her cage, didn’t eat a whole lot. At one point I came into the laundry room and saw that she had her tiny little hands wrapped around the cage door and was pulling on it to open. I knew she was miserable, and I hated it.
I tried to make her happy: I let her roam in her plastic ball. I gave her bits of cucumber and peeled a red grape. Colin and I held her as much as was feasible.
Later on that week after a trip to the grocery store, I pulled in the driveway to Jamie and Colin throwing the football. It was a beautiful spring day with clear, blue skies. The warmth of summer was behind the breeze, but it was still pleasant outside.
I didn’t see Bailey at a quick glance when I walked in the door. Putting up the groceries, I could hear the rise and fall of Jamie and Colin’s voices as they played in the side-yard. “That’s exactly why we bought this house,” I said out loud to no one and let myself feel snuggled in the thought of it. Back into the laundry room, I went to feed Bailey. Instead of running to the cage door as usual, all was still.
She was tucked into a little black-brown ball on the floor of her cage. I touched her gently with my fingertips. She was cool and inflexible. I picked her up and her back slowly rose and fell and rose and fell. She was dying. I held her in the cup of my hands and tried to warm her, but knew it was too late.
I whispered to her, “You are such a good hamster, Bailey. Thank you for letting Colin love you like he did. I’m sorry you couldn’t live in the wall of the laundry room,” a tear rolled down my nose and onto my thumb. She was gone.
I didn’t want to tell Colin. I didn’t want him to hold her and feel her cold little body. So, using a Kleenex like a blanket, I wrapped her up, emptied all the kitchen matches out of the large kitchen matchbox I kept in the drawer by the stove and put her little Kleenex-wrapped body in the bottom of the matchbox. I slid the top over her, so that only her head was exposed. I sat the box by her cage and went outside.
Colin and Jamie were almost done. Colin was sweaty and Jamie winded. One look and Jamie knew something was different, so I whispered the news. His heart sank, too. I saw it. As they began to head back into the house, I put my arm around Colin’s shoulder and said, “Hey buddy, I need to tell you something important before we go back inside.” He looked up at me with intuitive eyes. “When I got home a minute ago I went to check on Bailey. She died.” Slowly, it registered.
“She died?” he asked in a whisper. “Oh, Mama. No! She can’t be dead. I just got her back.” He fell onto his knees, scratching them on the pavement of the driveway. “Colin, stand up babe, or you’re going to hurt your knees,” I pulled him up and squatted down to be close.
He wrapped his arms around my neck and buried his face tight. I recognized those tell-tale signs of a broken heart: choking sobs and gasps, tight grip, sweaty forehead. This was worse than I had imagined. He is only seven, I thought. This isn’t a lesson I was ready for him to learn. I looked at Jamie with my eyes full of tears. He whispered through slanted lids and tight lips, “I told you getting a hamster was a bad idea.”
Jamie walked over to Colin and rubbed his back. “Hey, bud. Listen,” Jamie reasoned with a more upbeat tone than I could muster, “this happens with pets. We get to love them for a little while, but they leave us with such good memories, don’t they?” Colin sniffled but listened.
“Would you like to have a funeral for Bailey?” Jamie asked. Colin said he would and asked if he could see her. We walked into the house. I handed him the matchbox. He rubbed her head with his little finger, “You were a good hamster Bailey. I will never, ever forget you.” He pushed the matchbox closed.
We all walked out to the dogwood tree in the backyard. Jamie started a small hole with a spade Mama and Daddy had given Colin three Christmases ago. I held the box. Colin was full of questions: “What does heaven look like for a hamster? Will I get to see Bailey when I go to heaven? How does Jesus feed all the pets in heaven?” I tried to answer as best I knew how. Satisfied, he asked his Daddy if he could finish digging the grave. “She was mine, so I want to do it,” he said.
I remembered back to Old Yeller and The Yearling. The boys in those books felt the same way about what they had to do, too. Jamie let him dig a while. It’s good for a boy’s soul. There is something old and primal in the salt of it: the sweat and tears that mingle together as you work to bury the thing you love. When all the words had been said and prayers prayed, we put a big piece of wood over her fresh grave.
On our way back to the house, Colin said, “You know, Bailey won a blue ribbon, too.” I’d forgotten that. Mama took Colin and Bailey last fall to Porterfield Methodist Church’s “Blessing of the Animals.” At the ceremony, all the animals received a special blessing and ribbons were awarded for lots of different categories. Colin was proud that Bailey had brought one home for Most Original Pet. He was awarded a St. Francis of Assisi medal that Mama has in safe-keeping for him.
There is no way to know exactly what happened to Bailey. Maybe her heart broke because she knew what was out there in the wide world and couldn’t get back to it? Maybe wanderlust just wouldn’t let her rest? It could just be the less romantic but very real, short life-expectancy. We’ll never know.
What I do know is that every age of growing up is hard. I’m still learning, just like Colin. I also know that I’ve never been more proud of my seven-year-old as I was when he dug a grave for his hamster. It’s a little soul we are nurturing into the man I know he will become – all blue ribbons, sweat, and tears of him.