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Mary Kiely's Parent to Parent: Lessons on love and loss

One fall morning four years ago, I was dropping the youngest of our three children, then-8-year-old Michael, off at his Sunday school class.

“Oh look,” he commented, pointing to a sign on a table in the church hallway: “Student resurrections.”

“Actually I think that says ‘registrations’,” I whispered to him, and we both laughed.

Would that resurrections could be so easily arranged.

Over the past few weeks Michael and I have been talking a lot about death, and what survives death. Partly it’s because of the Easter season. But even more it’s because of the recent decline and death of Michael’s first and much-loved pet, Pepper the Russian dwarf hamster.

I first wrote about Pepper in this space three months ago. The hamster originally belonged to the university suitemates of Bridget, our 20-year-old college junior. Bridget’s roomies are international students, so when the winter semester break rolled around, the girls were in need of temporary custodial care for their pet. Our family agreed to take the animal in.

Long story short, we all (but especially Michael) fell in love with Pepper, who was only the size of a baby chipmunk but whose lively personality couldn’t fail to charm. We asked Bridget’s suitemates if we could keep Pepper and buy them another dwarf hamster. After some months the girls agreed to sell Pepper, whom they had bought for $14.95, for the neat sum of $100.

The deal included a cage with a broken latch, a clear plastic floor ball for the hamster to roll around in, and some bedding material.

I’m sure one of those girls has a bright future in investment banking or in arms negotiations.

In any case, it wasn’t long after we paid up on Pepper that she began to seem sick, declining food and not wanting to run on her wheel. Don’t even think about taking that $15 hamster to a $150 vet, my husband cautioned me.

You can see how the national debt got started.

But I digress. During Pepper’s illness (or perhaps it was old age, as dwarf hamsters don’t live very long) she became even more attached to Michael than she had been already. Rather than simply coming to the edge of her cage when he called her, she began climbing up the bars of her cage whenever she saw or heard him, and would wait for him to take her out and hold her.

And hold her he did, tenderly and devotedly, by the hour. I would come across Michael dozing on the couch with the tired hamster snuggled into the crook of his neck; Michael reading with a small furry head poking out of the sleeve of his fleece bathrobe; Michael and Pepper going eye-to-eye, one species reaching across a great divide to another.

As parents we often look back on moments with our kids but sometimes something telescopes us ahead. We catch a glimpse of who our children will be, when finally they stop running up our grocery bills. Michael, I realize in one such flash, is going to make a truly awesome dad.

“What will I do when Pepper dies?” Michael asks me tearfully one day, and I think to myself: No one tells you about these conversations at your baby shower.

We look ahead to the joys of raising children, the triumphs small and large. And yet this is part of the job as well, perhaps one of the most important parts, this business of standing with our kids as they experience pains we cannot fix.

Michael asks me about the deaths of my own childhood pets. I tell him about the beagle who got run over, the German shepherd who had to be put down, the parakeet who was mortally injured by my father when he was still drinking.

I silently reflect, and not for the first time, how the people and creatures we have loved and lost are connected like a string of worry beads in our human hearts. You tug on the memory of one death, and other hurts come spilling out, long after you think they surely have been put to rest.

Death is a formidable opponent indeed.

When Pepper is found lifeless in her cage one morning, Michael slips her into a smelly sock, one of her favorite things, and puts her in a glass jar to protect her from marauding predators. We dig a hole on the top of a windswept rise at the edge of our woods, near where the sunflowers bloom and not far from where the cardinals nest. Pepper would like to be near seeds and other seed lovers, Michael tells me.

As I put the shovel back in the garage, I reflect that the first death of a creature you have cherished is a crossing over, an initiation. There’s no going back.

But it is also true that against the flood of death stands the singularity of love, and the miracle of relationship. No one loves in general. It is the specificity of our attachments that makes death so awful and yet also, paradoxically, limits its reach.

In our yard the daffodils bloom and spread. Michael cuts one and puts it on Pepper’s spot. In some mysterious way the depth and particularity of one love makes possible the opening of our hearts to other ones.

These are the resurrections that we live with every day. The story of a boy and a rodent is the story of us all.

Mary Cleary Kiely’s column appears on the first Tuesday of the month. She may be reached at marykiely@msn.com.

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