"I hope he likes us. Do you think he's sick? I don't think he's eating his food. I hope he's happy..."
I've said a combination of those four sentences for three weeks now, but I'm still not sure he likes us or his food. And as I peer into his tiny black eyes, I can discern no traces of contentment but no definite signs of illness either.
"He's a hamster," my Man says. I still don't know what he means by that. Can't hamsters feel peckish, have preferences for people of different strokes, go on a hunger strike? Can't they be happy?
Okay, sure, when I first met the little guy I saw more rodent than pet in him. It was kind of hard to catch a glimpse of him, too, because all these second graders were passing him around like a pack of bubble gum at Mother's Day Tea. My little second grader was enamored of him, the classroom pet, and had been for several weeks. She had handled him during every break, rushing through her work for a chance to drag his fluffy body from his cage into her waiting palm.
That adoration is how he came to be a member of this family. Well, that, and the fact that my little girl has such a sweet, near-saintly nature that teachers and fellow parents feel she deserves all her heart's desires as a reward for what is essentially a biological luck of the draw. (I try my best to follow her around, hoping the accolades will fall partially on me, the parent, but people tend to sense it's mostly not my doing). Her teacher wanted her reward for a year of excellent classroom behavior to be the classroom hamster, because that is what Miss Bee wanted with all her full, sensitive heart. I was open to the idea. Pets are good things for kids, teaching responsibility, compassion, and, eventually, how to cope with the loss of a beloved friend.
But to be fair: it's been four score and seven years since I had a pet....oh, okay - maybe not quite that long, but we haven't had one non-human creature in this house since the day my husband and I got married. Maybe this is because my husband is not a profound animal lover. The only pet he and his brothers really had was a monitor lizard, and those things will eat you alive while you take a nap. If you're not careful.
We looked our little girl in the eye and told her flat out that she could go horseback riding for her birthday or she could bring home this hamster named Nike.
"Nike," she said.
So began the negotiations and the research. Ah, the research! We had to make sure hamsters were okay to be around our two-year-old (not really but we're vigilant), that its diet did not need to include nuts (no, but you have to get creative with protein sources), what to give it for its teeth, how often it needed fresh food, fresh bedding, fresh water.....and so on and so forth. We wiffled and we waffled, and we just didn't know what to do. Then my husband's co-worker told him to just go for it.
"It'll be good for them," she said, meaning the children.
So here we are with a non-human in our home who runs on his wheel noisily in the wee hours of the morning. Nike's parents, and the parents of the little boy who had become bored with him, told us that if things didn't work out, Nike always had a home with them. Good people. The mother, a very kind woman who helped us with our research, also told me that our daughter was one of the sweetest, kindest girls she had known and reminded her of herself as a little girl. Funny that no one says my daughter reminds them of me.
When we brought Nike home, my anxiety over his comfort and well-being exploded. When after some post-adoption research, I found out I had not been changing his food often enough, my guilt was akin to mama's guilt. When my four-year-old rolled him in his exercise ball along an old, bumpy slide resting on the ground, I was horror-stricken and examined him for the smallest sign of permanent injury. Mysterious seeds and kernels often appeared in his ball, too, and for a few days we were baffled until I realized the little guy was spitting out his stores from his cheek pouch when he ran. And there was the time we thought he was bleeding a little under his little chin until we realized that his fur was just matted and his pink skin was showing through.
The more I held him with my daughter (the little rodents are so restless, it's best to have a few pairs of hands ready to catch them as they scuttle), the more I bonded. I developed a habit of sticking my face right against his cage and making kissy noises whenever I happened to pass. My eldest son hated that and begged me to cease and desist such annoying salutations. What worried my husband, though, was the fact that I began calling the hamster by our two-year-old son's name. Did it mean I felt Nike was like a mischievous, rambunctious toddler - a fifth child? Or that I felt my toddler looked somewhat and behaved alot like an energetic rodent? I just don't know. What I know is that the diminutive creature is so damn cute he deserves to be happy and know he's loved even if he doesn't quite feel the same about me (the hamster, I mean).
I worry about him like a mother. He looks old, and I know he must be, because he's lived with two families before ours. Yesterday I had another scare when we came home, and I found his chin resting against his cage by his water spout, his body at an awkward, fallen-old-man angle. We got him to shift and open his eyes and eat a piece of carrot, but I began speculating on whether he was sick, whether his coat was as glossy as it should be, and what we still might need to get him from the pet store for his health.
"You may not have long with Nike," I told my daughter while ruminating. "Be prepared."
"What do we do when he dies?" she asked matter-of-factly. "Feed him to a bird?"
Evidence, my friends, that no matter how sweet the nature, the macabre will eventually surface.
"No!" I exclaimed, taken aback. "We'll bury him decently. Maybe in a flower pot."
Later that evening at dinner, Miss Bee asked, "I wonder why they named him Nike?"
"Yes, " said her papa. "Why not Puma, Adidas or Reebok?"
Berto and I laughed heartily.
"Berto, did you really get Papa's joke?" I asked.
"No," he replied, grinning.
I explained that Nike was a brand of athletic gear mostly made famous by basketball players, and that Adidas, Puma and Reebok were also popular athletic brands made famous by other sports.
"I wonder what we would call him?" pondered Miss Bee.
"He'll finish out his days as Nike," said her papa, and I nodded agreement. One should not change a pet's name, if you ask me. It's bad form, mojo, karma or something.
"When Nike dies," my Man continued, "we'll bury him under a little headstone that says, 'Here Lies Nike', and then we'll put an Adidas symbol on it."
I almost choked on my bad, processed-food lasagna. I knew it was wrong, and I really hoped we had a good while with Nike, but I laughed it up as my satirical Man gazed back across the table at me, eyes sparkling.
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