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Entries in Pets (1)

Monday
Jan162012

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