My six-year-old daughter named the hamster Mouse. I’m not sure if the name is meant to be funny, or if it indicates some confusion on her part. Mouse is dying. He’s on his back and his eyes are closed, so at first I thought he was already dead. Now I see his belly puffing in and out. I jostle his cage a bit, hoping he will flip over and open his eyes. I wish Mouse would be either fully alive or fully dead because I don’t know what to do for this in-between stage. But he just lies there, his pink paws in the air, moving slightly with each breath that he insists on taking.
I call the closest vet clinic and ask if I can bring in a sick hamster. I’m put on hold, and I wonder what I’m going to do if the answer is no. I start to google “sick hamster” when the lady on the phone comes back and tells me they’ll take a look at Mouse. I ask her, “Should I do anything before I leave, like wrap him in something or, uh, try to give him some water?”
“If you want to,” she says after a pause.
I tell my daughter that I’m taking Mouse to the vet. She just says, “OK.” If she’s worried, I can’t tell. A few months ago, she asked me what happens after you die, and I told her I didn’t know. Like most people, she found that answer unsatisfying.
“OK, well, some people think there’s life after death,” I said.
“Like going to heaven?” she asked.
“Yes. Or maybe you come back as a different person.”
“Could you come back as a butterfly?”
“I guess. There’s no way to know. But you can believe whatever you want.”
“That’s what I want to believe,” she said.
Now, my daughter and I are looking at Mouse, who twitches a bit but hasn’t otherwise moved. “You should probably get going,” she tells me.
“Do you understand what’s happening?” I ask her. “He might be dying.”
“I know. Do I have to go with you?”
I let her stay home with her father. I envy her stoicism. I think I could be stoic, too, if someone else were taking care of this.
At the clinic, I put Mouse’s cage on the front desk. “I called about my hamster,” I tell the tech. She nods and picks up the cage. If she’s surprised to have a hamster emergency, she doesn’t show it.
She tells me to sit, to wait, and I do. The people in the waiting area have dogs. One woman holds a cage and I can’t tell what’s in it, but I’m sure it’s not a hamster.
I wonder if these people think I’m odd, if they think a hamster isn’t a real pet the way a dog or a cat is. Hamsters are rodents, and if we find a rodent in the house, we usually call someone to kill it. But we also put them in $40 Habitrails and give them names like Mr. Whiskers or Snowball and take them to the vet because we don’t want them to die but mostly just don’t want them to suffer.
I hadn’t thought too much about Mouse before he started dying. If he has a personality, I haven’t noticed it. Sometimes my daughter holds and pets him, but he seems indifferent to the attention. Usually he just pees in her hand. The rest of the time, he chews toilet paper rolls and runs on his wheel. It’s not like his death would leave a big hole in our lives. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, a hamster isn’t very important. But in the grand scheme of things, neither am I. This is what I think about in the waiting room with the organic pet food display and the lady whose tote bag tells me that she hearts her bullmastiff.
A few minutes later, the girl explains to me that Mouse has a respiratory problem, that these things happen sometimes, that it’s not my fault my hamster is dying.
“We can give him a shot,” she says. “He won’t feel it.”
I say, “OK, let’s do that.”
She gives me a form to fill out, and a box of tissue. When I sit back down, the woman who hearts her bullmastiff tells me, “You could go back there if you want to be with him.” I give her a tight smile and pretend to study the heartworm poster on the wall behind her.
The girl returns to the front desk and motions me over. She says it’s done. I feel sad, but also relieved that Mouse isn’t twitching anymore.
She asks me if I want to take Mouse’s body back home. I don’t. She gives me a brochure titled Losing a Family Friend Is Never Easy. On it is a picture of a child and a dog, silhouetted against an evening sky, under which it says, “Dignified Options for Your Beloved Pet.”
I pay another $6 for what the girl assures me will be a respectful disposal of Mouse’s remains. I’m not sure I believe this. I’m not sure I believe he was put to sleep with a painless shot. I think I am probably paying for someone to hit him with a shoe and put him in the dumpster. But at least he’s not dying anymore.
That night, I ask my daughter if she thinks Mouse will come back as a butterfly. “No way to know,” she tells me. A week later, I get a sympathy card from the vet’s office. I don’t remember telling anyone the hamster’s name, but I must have, because the card says, “We are sorry that Mouse died. He seemed like a nice hamster.” I laugh at that, then I cry a little. Because it’s true. He was a nice hamster.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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