By Carol Mackenzie Jackson
There was a time when I couldn’t even spell “grief.” In fact the very word cost me a sixth grade spelling bee title. I can still feel the sting of failure in my cheeks. I can still see the forced smiles of my parents seated in the front row. Even now I still have to think…is it “ei” or “ie?”
Little did I imagine then that both of my parents would be gone so amazingly soon.
Adolescents don’t dwell on those things. Home from college for the weekend, Mom’s car keys in hand, I ran upstairs to say see you later. There she was (at age 44) slumped over the bathtub, limp and nearly lifeless thanks to a sudden and massive cerebral hemorrhage. Our hospital goodbye was a formality and the next 30 years a benumbed search for what I was supposed to feel.
Within 10 years I was to stand at my father’s hospital bedside, breathless and unbelieving. Dad’s routine visit (at age 55) to the cardiologist turned into a frantic “code 99” and a solemn visit from the hospital chaplain. A thin piece of intravenous tubing dangled from Dad’s wrist, like the sports whistle he was rarely without. Surely this was some sort of halftime hoax.
Just four years ago my dearest friend (at age 54) met death on the operating table. We had chatted the night before about her aortic repair and the ensuing recovery. What an excuse we would have to watch soap operas! The reality was far more surreal, and I still fully expect to hear her voice on my answering machine.
What is grief? What is it supposed to be? Exactly how much are you supposed to cry – and why don’t I? These questions haunted me…that is, until Timothy.
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea – Timothy was not a beau, a boyfriend or even a basset hound. He was a hamster (yes a hamster), that is to say he was my own rodentesque “little prince” with bulging pouches and silken paws. More than that he was my late night companion, my wordless, whiskered soulmate – all four ounces of him.
Lest I sound like a misanthrope, let me say that people are far more important to me than animals. In fact a career in medicine (spent taking care of people) leaves little time for pets. I’m quite sure I explained all of this to Timothy on the way home from the pet store. Little did I know that he was never meant to be mine – rather that I was meant to be his.
Early on Timothy devined how to command me. Sunk deeply into a medical text or a steamy novel I would become aware of two eyes upon me like cosmic coals. His caged stare spoke volumes -- how dare you ignore me? He soon transformed my old couch into his personal habitat, emerging occasionally with a mouthful of white fiber or claret thread. A midnight snack became part of our ritual, and he would surrender to the cage only with a walnut for each pouch.
It was perfect. Long work days ending with “my” hamster and me on the couch. His ears perked curiously when I read to him and folded helplessly when I stroked his head. Eyes closed, smiling dreamily -- of the fat blueberry he would surely wrangle from me in the morning.
One morning things were different. The smell of perking coffee failed to summon him to the cage door. I reached into his house, scooped him up and felt his heaving sides, his racing heart, his strangely cool body. My own heart began to palpitate and my gut tied itself into a crampy knot. It took a few minutes to identify the wet spots on my shirt…tears? After all these years?
As a matter of fact I cried my way right through our last three weeks together. An anxious trip to the vet yielded few answers. Like the rest of us hamsters are more vulnerable to cancer, infection and heart disease as they get older. There was nothing to do but coax antibiotic drops into him, get him to sip water and surround him with his favorite treats. He remained peaceful and seemed to smile as he slept. At least one of us slept. I awoke 4 AM just to hold him. Again at 6 AM to have an hour before work. Right after lunch the crush of panic would grip my heart and I would race home to hold him again. His coat became dull and coarse, salted as it was with my tears. Wrenched with grief, I gasped uncontrollably as dagger after dagger pierced my heart, evoking a sound like “ghuhhhhhh.”
Was I grieving at last? Was this sobbing, slobbering, soul-in-a-sweatshirt really mine? How perverse it seems that it took a hamster, a tiny Houdini, to penetrate my heart. To literally impale me, allowing years of grief to pour forth like stagnant water from a forgotten pool toy.
Perhaps this was my first real death – by that I mean being there for the whole thing. There was no shocky anesthesia, no missing the moment, no chance for denial. In fact, it hurt more than anything -- from the center of my chest right down to my fingernails.
I can now say with conviction (despite what the experts say) that there are really only three stages of grief – sad, sadder and even more sad.
Could it be that grief creates in each of us a well, and that it takes years of tears to fill it? A dry well is not much more than a hole in the heart. At least my well has its first trickle, and I am not ashamed to have saved my tears for Timothy. Now that the tears flow more freely the next loss may be not only more real but more fully lived. Not that I’m looking forward to it.
In the meantime, my friends are relentless. For God’s sake, find some other pet – one that lives longer. We can’t watch you go through this again. OK I say to them, so bury my heart in cedar chips -- no more hamsters for me.
At least for now.
It was perfect.
Why do you do this to yourself? friends have asked. Hamsters don’t live that long. Or as my brother would say, hamsters are disposable, aren’t they?”