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We had just returned home late at night from an overnight visit with out-of-town friends when I heard my 12-year-old son, Tanner, yell from upstairs.
"Mom, come quick! There's something wrong with Champion!"
We had acquired Champion, a friendly, teddy bear hamster, three months ago. I've never fully understood the attraction to having a rodent as a pet, but it was the only thing Tanner wanted for his birthday and so we purchased the little brown and white ball of fur, and the "hamster starter kit," and Champion became Tanner's nocturnal roommate.
There was indeed something wrong with Champion. He looked like he'd been into the hamster hooch. His little eyes were rolling back in his little head; he was off balance and bumped into the sides of his cage, then he did a full Looney Tunes spin on the back of one heel, and rolled down his little hamster stairs from his little hamster loft.
His breathing was laboured and, while I'm not entirely sure what the normal heart rate is for a hamster, I thought his seemed rapid. So, after promising to take Champion to the vet if he lasted the night, I sent Tanner off to sleep in my bed and set out to figure out what was wrong with our disoriented patient.
Admittedly, I did not want to take him to the vet in the morning, but, being a mom, I had made the Hippocratic oath to treat my child, and any of his wards, whether living or of the stuffed variety, to the best of my ability. So, I was in for a long night.
With the shivering creature wrapped in a facecloth in one hand, I typed his symptoms into Google with the other. Could be a respiratory illness? Many websites offered naturopathic remedies for that. But what showed up on the next few sites stopped me in my tracks. "NEVER USE CEDAR CHIPS TO LINE THE CAGE," said all of them. Apparently, the toxic oils are absorbed by the rodent, eventually causing organ shutdown. Had I bought cedar chips? Away up the staircase I flew like a flash, tore open the cupboard and brought out the package.
Cedar chips. Ah, yes. They were on sale a few weeks ago. There was a picture of what looked like a hamster on the front so I assumed…
In denial, I went back to the respiratory treatments, and, with Champion still in my palm, I boiled some water to prepare the recommended cardamom tea treatment. At 2 a.m., with a weary head, I used an eyedropper to pry open his mouth and push a few drops of tea in behind his two, long front teeth.
Suddenly, Champion's limp body came alive! His four legs splayed out, as if a puppeteer had let all tension go from the strings at the same time, and his eyes opened wide! He seemed to take a deep breath! I took a deep breath! The tea had revived him! What a wonder drug and hallelujah! Then, just as quickly, he went completely limp. His eyes squeezed shut, and he exhaled – for the last time. A few seconds later, he peed onto my hand and his body went stiff.
Holy Hamster Wheels! What a bizarre turn of events. A few seconds ago, I had a miracle in in my hand. Now I had a dead hamster. I gave him a little poke, just in case, but his body was creepily hard, like he had already been taxidermied and was ready for mounting.
I carefully placed him and his facecloth in a shoebox, and put him in a cupboard, away from the cats. In the morning, I told Tanner the bad news, without divulging the likely cause of death. He took it well but still stayed home from school. We dug a hole in the garden, placed him in, said goodbye and built a rock cairn on top. We spent the morning solemnly tossing a baseball, baking cookies, being quiet.
Tanner was so uncharacteristically quiet that at last I caved and risked offending him by asking if, perhaps, he wanted to go back to the pet store and look at other hamsters. I didn't know what the moratorium was on replacing a fallen hamster, and there was no reference material on the matter, but for us, it seemed to be about five hours.
Before we left, guilt overtook me and I told Tanner about the cedar chips. He was thoughtful for a moment but understood it was an accident and let me off the hook, easier perhaps than I deserved. And so, an hour later, Tanner gazed down into the box on his lap containing a new hamster, as we drove home from the pet store.
"What will you call him?" I asked.
"I don't know yet," he said, sizing up his new friend.
"How about… Runner Up?" I offered, in a lighthearted way, but which came out as an insensitive, cheap humour kind of way.
"That's so mean, Mom."
While the new hamster has been with us for a year, I suppose Champion could never really be replaced. This new, skittish fella, perhaps out of reverence for Champion, or out of defiance of my distasteful joke, is still unnamed by Tanner. Our neighbour's children call him "Cookies." Our youngest son calls him "Kobe," after the basketball player, because he seems to think they have something in common. We generically call him "the Rat," who, by the way, has reclaimed paper fibres lining his cage.
Jane Bedard lives in Fonthill, Ont.