My 7-year-old daughter, Sofia, accepted the empty cage from the vet tech with welling eyes that soon spilled over into silent streaming tears. Tearing up herself, the tech then presented Sofia with a little paw print casting and a box that held the remains of her beloved Peachy.
Peachy-the-hamster came to us just 4 short months before. I made the first-time mom mistake of agreeing to gerbils for my oldest, not thinking about all of the other rodents that would have to follow when subsequent children reached the same age. Sofia counted the days until she could pick out a hamster, starting 9 months before the actual purchase would occur. She asked for hamster supplies for Christmas and her birthday, and collected her stash in a special spot in her room. She dreamed up names and checked out hamster book after hamster book from her school library, spouting hamster and care facts at me whenever I was willing to listen.
Unexpectedly for me, she found the sweetest hamster that ever existed.
I think this thing was part saint, part dog and only a little bit actual hamster. Despite my predictions, I also fell in love with Peachy – the boy hamster. My husband and I would be settled in to binge watch Sopranos (yes, I realize that everyone else did that years ago) and we’d hear banging behind us. There was Peachy, standing on his little house and peering out at us as if begging us to come pet him or give him treats. He was the least active hamster ever, which meant that he never tried to run away when he was cuddled. Which he was. For hours and hours. He would take treats from my daughter, stuffing his cheeks and would snuggle into her hand, seemingly in thanks. He wormed his way into all of our hearts, and Sofia’s devotion to him grew with each passing day.
One day, when we woke up, we all realized instantly that something was wrong with Peachy.
His body went from furry rodent shaped to something-is-wrong eggplant shaped. Already a chill hamster, Peachy hardly moved around his cage. He kept his little eyes squinted and gave the first bite he had ever doled out. He was not himself.
My little girl worried over him while we Googled and tried different things to turn around whatever was happening with Peachy. When five days went by and Peachy seemed to be getting worse, not better, and a little girl was on worry overdrive for her sweet Peach, my husband took Peachy to the vet.
When he called me to tell me that they’d given Peachy an ultrasound, which was inconclusive and that he’d authorized a radiogram, I couldn’t believe my ears. All this for a $15 hamster?!? I called the vet myself to cancel the expensive radiogram, only to learn that it had already been done. Hearing the doctor talk about Peachy with such concern and care and staring into Sofia’s eyes as she listened to the one-sided conversation, I found myself saying – yes, please try the antibiotics and hydration. For all of my bluster, I was no better at saying no. We all loved this little guy and it was hard to see Sofia in pain.
Ten minutes later we got another call from Dr. Doll. When she went to administer the medicine to Peach, it was clear that he was in pain and wouldn’t make it. She asked our permission to help Peachy die. I gave it to her.
Today has been a mess. Sofia has cried; her twin brother has cried; I have cried. But it has also been so good. My son said, “Can we watch TV because we’re so sad? So we don’t have to think about it?”
We were able to talk about how it’s important to feel our feelings and not just turn them off with TV. Feeling heartbroken about Peachy was the other side of loving something. That we felt so sad showed that we loved Peachy well; and, as painful as that was, it meant the love that we felt had been a great gift.
Sofia said, “I feel like I can’t stop crying! I don’t want to think about it! I’m crying too much!” So, we talked about how grief feels like a big wave. It can feel scary when we’re at the top of the wave, so high up, like we’ll crash too hard or we’ll never come down. Our instinct can be to hide from it, but if we think about it like a wave, and we ride the feeling, eventually we come down the other side of the wave to the shore. And that’s how it’s been for her today. When she was handed the cage and we went home, she started to cry again. Big, heaving cries. But she wasn’t afraid this time. She said, “Mom, I’m feeling the wave again. I’m on the high part and I’m waiting for the down part.” And it did come.
This pain has been a gift for my children. It’s helped them learn how to feel deep and scary feelings and to know that they will come through them.
That it is better not to avoid them, or to stuff them down, but to ride them like waves. And, like waves, the feelings will come again, but now they know that if they hang in for the ride, eventually the waves will recede and they will find themselves on firm ground once more.
And, they hear me tell them all the time how deeply, as their mother, that I love them. Peachy was “just” a hamster, but Sofia loved him with the fierceness of a Mama. “Mom, now I know what you mean when I tell you I love you more and you say ‘not possible.’ I loved Peachy more.”
Peachy was only 4-inches long. He was made of not much more than fluff, and he had an annoying habit of squeaking his wheel right during the good parts of shows. Cleaning his cage was not my favorite chore. But, Man, that little guy had some type of magic – to have made such a spot in my heart, as well as my children’s. To have given my daughter her first real heartbreak, so she could practice how to feel the pain and remember the joy.
I begrudgingly got this hamster, but I will now say to anyone that having a small pet like this can teach our children big important lessons about life, love and loss.
Thank you, Sweet Peach, for the little paw prints you left on our hearts. You won’t soon be forgotten.