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Friday, April 20, 2012

Poking Life's Zombie Hamsters in the Eye

Hamster Coffin


I had amazing parents. Truly. But any good, self aware parent will tell you there are things they wish they had done differently. The blooper reel, if you will. I know exactly what my dad would list:

1. Forcing me to go to one of my first grade basketball games, even though I said I didn't feel good, then having to clean massive amounts of vomit out of his truck. Although, he will say grudgingly, "You didn't even play." (Football Player Dad. What are you gonna do?)

2. Making me go to Lexington Traditional Magnet School, because my sister went there.

3. Handling the discussion about death.

The latter is probably more connected to the other two than it may at first appear, but we'll get back to that.

My parents first opportunity to help me come to terms with the concept of death was when my beloved Papa Greene died when I was about 7. It's a long story, but it includes tornado sirens, flash flooding, mockery, and the blunt assertion that we may have to find a boat and rescue my grandfather's floating corpse.

It could have gone better.

Their next opportunity came very shortly after in the form of that favorite of disposable childhood pets: a hamster.  Specifically, a hamster named Cupcake.

Cupcake was my first pet that was truly my own.  My sister had HER hamster, and I had MY hamster.  I loved Cupcake, and cared for him like a baby: feeding him, playing with him, even bathing him regularly, which I'm pretty sure is not part of standard rodent care.  My mother hated him, and Dad was probably only vaguely aware that we even owned hamsters.  But what they lacked in affection for Cupcake, I made up for in spades.

Then one day I went to get Cupcake out to play.  He didn't run shrieking from my bony hands, as he normally would.  In fact, he didn't move at all.

"Daddy, something is wrong with Cupcake!"

Dad took one look at the limp ball of fur, and said, "I think it's dead. Go put it back and we'll bury him later."

I spent the rest of the morning hovering outside of my tiny body. What did this mean? Cupcake would just be in the ground, all alone, with no one to love him or snuggle him or play with him ever again?

It was too much to bear.

Then my cousin Justin showed up.

In Justin's defense, the boy now has more degrees than a thermometer, and could construct a multilevel house out of all the books he owns and has read.  He is literally the smartest person I know. On this one occasion, however, he may have whiffed a little.

"Maybe he's just hibernating?  Most rodents go through an extended period of sleep.  I'm sure hamsters are no different," Justin offered.

That settled it.  There was no way I was going to let Cupcake be buried alive.

.......

Three months later, Dad approached me about "the hamster situation".  Only he could tell you what prompted him to bring it up again, but something needed to be done.  I looked dolefully at him.

"But, Daddy, what if he isn't really dead?  What if we bury him and he comes back to life and he's all alone in the cold and the dark?"

This time Dad was prepared with the words of compassion and comfort that every child needs to hear when they are forced to confront the concept of mortality.

"Ann, that thing hasn't moved in 3 months.  It's dead.  Put him in a shoebox.  We're burying him."

Weeping, I lovingly arranged Cupcake on a bed of tissue inside a shoebox.  When I brought him out on our screened-in porch, Dad was ready with the shovel.  Then, something caught my eye inside the box.  At least, I thought something caught my eye.

 "Wait!!!  He moved!!  He's not dead!!  He's not deeeeeeeaaaadddd!!!!!"

.......

Three months later, the shoebox still sat on the back porch.  Again, Dad will have to tell you why that particular day was the day he decided enough was enough.  I'd say my mother probably had something to do with it.

"Ann.  That hamster has been dead for 6 months.  He hasn't moved, eaten, or drank any water.  It's time to get rid of him."

Defiantly, I pointed out what I'm sure many of you are wondering about, "But he doesn't smell dead.  He's just sleeping."

"That's it.  We're calling a professional."

Dad dialed the vet's office.  Standing in our dining room, I watched intently as Dad listened to the voice of reason on the other end of the phone making affirming "mmm hmm" sounds and pursing his lips.  He hung up the phone.

"Go get the hamster.  We have to poke it in the eye."

Evidently, the medical diagnostic test for confirming death in a hamster is by poking it in the eye.  If it flinches, it's alive.  If it doesn't...well, you get the idea.

So there I stood, with a slightly stiff hamster, odd blue ring around it's mouth, and watched as my dad jabbed his index finger straight into his permanently-adhesed-through-death eye.

Cupcake didn't flinch.

To say that in adulthood, I still have trouble letting things go is a gross understatement.  I have an unwavering belief in my ability to fix things and change people, dangerously coupled with a paralyzing fear of failure.

In recent weeks, I have become painfully aware that I am surrounded by dead hamsters.

Good and dead hamsters.

Here's what is so hard about letting things go: the idea of life without something that we once believed so strongly in or that meant so much to us or that gave us such security blinds us to the real worst case scenario.  We think the worst case scenario is that we'll feel lonely, disillusioned, and insecure.  That's not the worst case scenario.

The worst case scenario is waking up and realizing you've been sleeping in the same house as a dead animal for six months.

Whether it's a friendship, a job, a marriage, or a belief system, there comes a day when you just have to poke it in the eye.  If it doesn't flinch, it's time to let it go.  Furthermore, in most cases, do we even really want it to flinch?  I can't think of a single movie where poking something that is 99% probably dead, then having it be categorically NOT dead, worked out for the poker.

I am very much going through my life and poking dead hamsters in the eye, right now.  So far, it's been very depressing, but necessary work.

Do you have any dead hamsters that need poking in the eye?  Have any of them flinched? 

I'd love to know that I'm not alone on this one.

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