We'd spent three hours and an unmentionable amount of money. Finally, the receptionist at the University of Pennsylvania's vet clinic handed my partner an envelope.
"Here's some information on pet laws," she said.
Pet laws? Did the city have regulations about burying small animals on private property? Were we in some kind of trouble?
Elissa opened the packet. "Ohhh, not pet 'laws.' Pet 'loss.'" And the two of us imploded in laughter for the third time that afternoon. Our 9-year-old daughter looked at us as if we were deranged.
You already know how this story ends. Alexander Hamster Hochman died. This is inevitable, of course, if you are foolhardy enough to buy a pet for your child—unless your pet is a giant Galapagos tortoise, which can live for more than 100 years. But with anything else—cat, gecko, angel fish—you're going to end up, sooner or later, with a packet on pet loss in your hands.
I hadn't really wanted a hamster. My life already felt taut with responsibilities—our daughter Sasha, our two cats, my parents and our friends, those e-mail requests to bring dinner to a congregant with a broken foot or to gather household supplies for new immigrants. But Sasha had begged: "Please, Ama, a guinea pig? Some chickens for the back yard? An eyelash viper?" Compared to a venomous arboreal snake, a hamster seemed benign.
After a $96 trip to Petco, Alex and his heavily accessorized condo took up residence on Sasha's dresser. Nights, he lived in my office, because his midnight training sessions on the squeaky wheel kept Sasha awake. He showed off when I greeted him each morning: Betcha didn't know I could hang from the cage by my toenails! Then he'd nuzzle my palm. In three months, in spite of myself, this apricot-colored rodent nosed his way into the throng of my beloveds.
One December afternoon, Sasha appeared in the kitchen, hamster cradled to her chest. "Alex got hurt. He was in his exercise ball next to the sink, and I had to pee, and when I was pulling up my pants he fell off." She put Alex down; he crept across the kitchen counter, dragging his sack-of-marbles butt behind him.
All the way to Penn's vet clinic, Sasha alternated between wailing—"How many more blocks? How MANY?"—and chanting—"I want Alex to be all right." I knew that twist of panic and prayer, the same one that pretzeled through my own head the night I drove a screaming 8-month-old Sasha to Children's Hospital, right after the pediatrician said, "You know, they taught us in med school that if it even crosses your mind that a child might have meningitis, you should check for meningitis."
Finally we turned onto Spruce Street: a building with benefactors' names half-lit in the darkening afternoon. "The Vernon and … Smarley Hill Pavilion?" Elissa read, giggling. Vernon and Smarley? "President Gutmann, I'd like you to meet Vernon and Smarley, who gave us a gazillion dollars to build the new vet center." I laughed so hard I started to wheeze.
"I can't believe you two are laughing when Alex is hurt," Sasha scolded. That sobered us right up. Inside, a triage tech palpated Alex's droopy rear legs. She watched him do his pathetic commando-creep on the scuffed linoleum. She scribbled something on a clipboard. I imagined the word was "goner."
Meantime, a woman brought an ailing guinea pig in a paisley carrier; another had a German shepherd who couldn't walk. Then a couple emerged from Exam Room No. 3. They staggered across the waiting room and were nearly to the door before she leaned into her sweetheart's thick chest and began to sob. Shortly after, a young man rushed in with a Golden retriever who'd eaten rat poison.
Finally it was our turn. In Exam Room No. 3, a vet named Dr. Basil picked up Alex by the scruff of the neck. "I'm concerned that he may have a spinal cord injury. Do you know what the spinal cord is?" Sasha nodded. "If he can't feel his rear paws, then he might bite himself. And he won't be able to urinate or defecate—um, poop."
"Is he going to die?" Sasha asked. Yes, Alex was going to die—right here, in the emergency vet office near the Vernon and Smarley Hill Pavilion, because we were going to give Dr. Basil the OK to euthanize him.
But not yet. First, Elissa had to put more money in the parking meter. She returned flushed, her eyes streaming: "Did you (hiccup) see the flyer (hic, gasp) for the support group (pause to wipe tears) for … pets with cancer?" I envisioned bald poodles in a church basement, chatting about fur loss and anti-nausea dog biscuits. "Can't you see them, in little turbans with cutouts for their ears?" And we were off the rails again, hooting and crying at the same time.
"There are tissues up there," Sasha said grimly, in the tone of a middle-school teacher whose students have gotten a giggle-fit during a lesson on the Holocaust.
But Dr. Basil was back, with a syringe. "I'll give him a few minutes to get sleepy, and then you can hold him while he goes to heaven." That seemed the wrong time to mention that we don't actually believe in heaven. I pictured our hamster sprouting wings and floating upward until he hit the exam room's fluorescent lights.
Alex's own plan seemed to involve more of a descent to Middle Earth; he was burrowing sluggishly into the corner of his carrier. Sasha petted his head, stroked his poor broken spine. "It's going to be easy for you," she murmured. "You won't feel any pain."
Dr. Basil uncapped a two-inch needle and pressed the plunger. She placed Alex gently in Sasha's cupped hands. His heart slowed—300 beats a minute, then 150. Twenty-five. Three. And then he was gone—to heaven, to Middle Earth, to whatever you happen to believe in.
The next day, we would bury Alex in the side yard. We would talk about our plucky little rodent—his prowess on the hamster wheel; the adorable way he crammed sunflower seeds into both cheeks. Sasha would mark the spot with a coronet of painted rocks.
And I would recall one crushing moment in that waiting room. "Why do we do this, again?" I'd whispered to Elissa. She creased her brows: Do what? I meant: Why do we let ourselves love creatures who might eat poison or injure their spinal cords, beings who are completely dependent and unbearably mortal?
Elissa gave me a look that arrowed straight to our honey-haired daughter, bent over Alex's cage, singing softly to her paraplegic hamster: "This little light of mine … I'm gonna let it shine …"
What we misheard about the envelope was actually a brutal truth: Life's law is loss. You will say goodbye to the ones you love, and sooner than you wish. In the swirl of grief, some crazy image will snag a synapse, and you'll laugh until the laughter unspools into tears. And then, in time, sure as death and inexplicable as life, your heart will unhinge once more as you fold a living, breathing someone—hamster or human, lover or daughter—into your arms.