My younger son C is nothing if not persistent. This trait was apparent very early on, well before words – if he wanted something, he let you know it again and again and again. So, when he started asking for a pet about a year ago, I knew deferral wasn’t going to cut it for long. Still, I used the usual tactics: let’s discuss when you’re a little older, because it’s a lot of responsibility; let’s do some research first about the pros and cons of different pets; let’s talk about it later; hey, how about some Minecraft! We also had to establish some limits. He probably would have been happy most of all to get a cat, but my allergy is severe enough that I didn’t want an indefinite future of allergy shots and side effects. And a dog, even a small, calm one, would have added too much chaos and work to a busy household.
He was undeterred. As the months passed, he started googling “best pets for 7 year-olds” and asking, “can I get a pet?” with increasing frequency. Finally, my husband and I agreed that we would try a low-maintenance pet, that it would, in the end, be a good experience for our boys to learn how to care for and nurture another living thing. My younger one especially loves to cuddle with soft things; maybe this would help cultivate his empathy.
Little did we know how those lessons would play out.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, C and I took a research trip to a local pet shop that had great online reviews. There, Dave the owner kindly brought out several animals we were considering: hamsters, a tortoise, a very pretty leopard gecko, and answered all our questions. By the time we’d gotten home, C had picked out a name for the hamster, and though he was tempted by the reptiles, he soon settled on Wooly as his Christmas present. Two weekends before Christmas, on Dec. 14, we brought Wooly home in her new cage, with bedding, food, and a care sheet. “I love Wooly so much,” our son said.
My husband reported that when he and C read in the care sheet about the 2-3 year lifespan of most hamsters that first night at story time, C expressed some concern and worry. At the end of day 2 of pet ownership, C and I were snuggled in his bed, and he had some more thoughts: We can’t just control it, like a stuffed animal, he said, as he moved one of his stuffed animals with his hand. Yeah, that’s right, I said, it’s another living, breathing thing. Then he said he counts Wooly as a family member: “If someone asked on a paper, I would say five. But if they ask for the number of people [in my family], it would still be four. Unless they ask about how many people were part of the family. Then you’d have to include great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.” He seemed to be riffing, free-associating. Then: “was harabuji alive when I was born?” No, I said, he died several years before you were born. “Oh I thought I was like a month old.” And then he was onto something else. (Wow, I thought, all this from a hamster!)
On the fifth day, in the late afternoon, I noticed that Wooly was sleeping outside of her nest, which seemed unusual. Later, she’d moved to a far corner of her cage, curled in a ball without any bedding around her. That seemed a bad sign. It was hard to hide our adult worry from our children. But we tried to reassure them that Wooly was still alive, but maybe sick. We said we’d call the vet in the morning. Once the kids were in bed, my husband started googling, while I held Wooly in a towel. She was breathing, but not rousable. The most hopeful thing we found was that hamsters were susceptible to sudden hibernation if the temperature got too low, which could be dangerous for domesticated hamsters. Although it hadn’t been that cold, Wooly’s cage was by a drafty window, we reasoned. It was possible. So we brought the cage into our room that night, where the air was warmer, and I left Wooly wrapped in the towel.
When I checked in the morning, Wooly’s body was stiff. C came into our room and I broke the news that Wooly had died in the night. He cried sad, quiet tears. My older son came in and tried to comfort C even as he expressed his own sadness. It had all been so sudden, we were all a bit in shock. On our walk to school, I told C that he could decide whether he shared the news with his teacher and classmates.
While the kids were at school, my husband called the pet store and spoke to the owner. I heard him say, “no, actually, he’s been very gentle with her and we’ve supervised him the whole time.” When he got off the phone, my husband said if it wasn’t some kind of internal injury from rough handling, it may have been a congenital defect, but of course, Dave said, most people don’t do autopsies for hamsters, so it’s hard to say. There was a 15-day guarantee for pet purchases, so we arranged to pick up a replacement. Because the coming weekend (right before Christmas) would be the busiest of the year and they might sell out, I drove to the store that night with Wooly in an empty food container still wrapped in the towel so they could safely dispose of the body and so I could reserve another hamster. C had said he wanted one that looked like Wooly – another golden Syrian hamster – so I picked one out, this time a male. Dave was both sympathetic and apologetic; he said, “be sure to tell C that it was nothing he did. Just tell him it was a heart attack.” That night, my husband and I talked about how emotional the day had been, trying to help our kids manage their feelings, but also, we realized, dealing with our own sense of loss and grief. Wooly had been in our lives less than 5 days, but after the built-up excitement and anticipation, and the joy that comes from fulfilling your child’s long-held wish, the sudden death of this little rodent cut deeper than expected. And maybe, too, it resurfaced the pain of other deaths we’d suffered.
A couple of days later, C and I picked up the new hamster, and he held the taped-up cardboard box on his lap on the ride back. I held my breath until Christmas morning, the five-day mark. Since that time, it’s been fascinating watching C watch this new Wooly (he wanted to keep the name) and work through the death of Wooly 1. He seemed to hang back a little at first, unlike the first time where the bonding seemed immediate and intense. He would say occasionally, “I miss Wooly.” As much as they looked alike, it was clear that Wooly 2 was his own hamster, and maybe C didn’t want to be disloyal to the first Wooly’s memory. It took about two weeks before he said of Wooly 2, “I love Wooly so much.”
It seems one of the ways C has resolved this tension is by using mostly “she” pronouns for the new Wooly, whom we were told was male. I mean, admittedly, none of us can tell male or female when we look underneath, as hamsters are difficult to sex. But C’s fairly consistent use of “she,” even when the rest of us say “he,” makes me think he has simply melded the two Woolys together. In fact, the whole family uses “she” and “he” pronouns interchangeably, and well, that is one way to honor a lost pet.
Despite this roller coaster experience, I’m glad we let C get his pet. He’s a very conscientious pet owner and even enjoys the weekly chore of cleaning the cage. He spent part of a recent Sunday morning researching foods that hamsters can eat, and wrote down a list of his findings so we can refer to it. He asks “do you think Wooly is happy?” and “I wonder what life would be like as a hamster.” Of course, he is still a 7-year-old boy who has many things competing for his attention. But it’s been humbling to watch him nurture another life with such gentleness and care. It’s more than I could have expected when we agreed to a hamster, and for that we have both Woolys to thank.