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Setting Sail

When I was eight I had two pet hamsters, Mike and Tina, named after the most popular and beautiful second graders I knew at the time. The hamsters seemed happy with their view of my small bedroom on 20 Woodcrest Avenue in Winchester, Indiana. But they didn't live long.

One 1970-something spring afternoon, I decided to decorate Mike and Tina's house with flowers. I chose tiny Lily-of-the-Valley from my mother's garden, propping up a few of the delicate stems in the corner of their cage.

The next morning the hamsters appeared to be sleeping in. I opened the cage door and gently poked Mike, then Tina. They didn't wake-up and they felt stiff.

My mom arrived on the scene seconds after I called for her. She confirmed my fear—Mike and Tina were dead. Before she left to find a small box I could use to bury them in, she noticed the flowerless stems on the cage floor.

"Chrisy, what are these?" she asked as she picked up the stems.

I told her about the pretty white flowers, and how they were just the right size to decorate a hamster cage. I told her that Mike and Tina loved the flowers, actually nibbled on the blossoms, so I had picked more from the garden for them before bedtime.

"Were they Lily-of-the-Valley?" Mom asked.

"I don't know."

We walked to the backyard and I showed her the flowers. That day I learned that Lily-of-the-Valley, while delicate, fragrant, beautiful and the perfect size for a hamster's cage, is also poisonous. I had accidentally killed Mike and Tina.


One evening in early December 2011, my son, Parke (14), held his pet parakeet in the palm of his hand until the sick bird died. Parke was in no way responsible for Wren's death, but I could tell he felt like there was something he could have done...should have done. Parke was an exemplary bird parent. He spent time with Wren daily for almost four years, teaching the little bird to trust him, whistle tunes, and say a few words.

In hindsight, there were signs Wren wasn't feeling well leading up to his death, but Chris and I were traveling, life was busy and the signs went unnoticed. I'm the one home during the day while the boys are at school. I now recall hearing less mid-morning chirping as I put laundry away in the boys' rooms.

Parke's sadness over losing Wren was radically deeper than what I felt when my hamsters died. I had only owned my pets a few short months and they'd seemed slightly afraid of me—the experience was troublesome, but abstract. Wren's death—the dying—was heavy and real for Parke. It was painful to watch him feel. (I have his permission to share.)

Parke and I talked about grief, death, healing, heartache, religion, and belief systems—all topics we'd discussed prior.


A month earlier I had purchased a sympathy card for a friend who'd lost her mother unexpectedly. I made note of the beautiful Henry Van Dyke quote on the front of the card before mailing it. My intention is not to compare the loss of a person with the loss of a pet. But as I think of the people I've loved and lost, and as Parke thinks of Wren, we both find a measure of comfort in this...

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, 'There, she’s gone.'

Gone where? Gone from my sight...that is all. She is as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her: and just at the moment when someone at my side says, 'There, she’s gone,' there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, 'Here she comes!'

And this is dying.
--Henry Van Dyke

Reader Comments (15)

Like everyone, I have had my losses. For years I held an image of missing family members being in a kitchen, preparing a meal, setting the table, chatting and laughing and expecting me to show up any minute.

Somewhere along the way, that vision lost its grip on me. When my parents died ten years after my sister, I just felt alone, felt the tremendous loss of it, and no longer had any confidence I would ever see or experience them again in any shape or form.

Today, I live with uncertainty about the nature of life, being, the soul. I have had one supernatural experience and known people that I respect who confess they have had them too. What do they mean? What's the nature of existence and time as we know it? I'm interested in those topics as science, not just as philosophy or theology.

For now, loss is loss, pain is pain, and nothing I can conjure alleviates that. I live like there are no second chances, and secretly hope I'll be surprised in the end to find there are.

Beautiful, thought-provoking post Chrisy.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterV-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

I love this Chris.... as always. I hope there were glad eyes welcoming Dad... I miss him every day. xoxoxo

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam

This moved me to tears. What a quote. I love it.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterschmutzie

that was lovely!

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranna see

Oh Chrisy. This is so beautiful! So incredibly moving! xo

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

Losing a loved pet is its own experience. The bond might be different from one you would share with a person, but it can run just as deep. I'll be thinking of Parke as he mourns his little Wren.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertinsenpup

A gorgeous quote that resonates (I think) with any faith. Or at least it does for me and I flounder a bit when it comes to belief and death and afterlife. Thank you. And tell Parke I'm really sorry.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranymommy

I think I'll save this one. It's sure to come in handy. You don't mind if I borrow your good parenting do you?

January 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael.Offworld

It's always sad to lose a beloved pet... That Dyke excerpt is beautiful.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLady Fi

Such a beautiful perspective. Thank you for sharing that. While it may not make here seem less for the loss...it's comforting to imagine the more of a distant elsewhere. Particularly since it is part of our own future and eventual new beginning.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate Coveny Hood

Beautiful quote, and after my father's death, I did imagine my grandparents and aunts calling to him, "Welcome, welcome!"

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

Beautiful quote, and after my father's death, I did imagine my grandparents and aunts calling to him, "Welcome, welcome!"

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

Beautiful quote, and after my father's death, I did imagine my grandparents and aunts calling to him, "Welcome, welcome!"

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

Sorry for three of the same posts! Argh! computers!

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

Beautiful words and sentiments, Chrisy.

{He's so very lucky to have you.}

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGalit Breen

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