Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yesterday morning, when the kids left for camp, I headed out into the garden with the shovel to dig a little hole to bury the hamster. My husband had kindly wrapped her in paper towel and placed her in the animal cracker box that would be her coffin. I was grateful not to have to feel her fur, so soft over such a stiff and awkward form.

I dug the hole, placed the box at the bottom and scraped the dirt back on top. All the while, I was acutely aware that I was being watched. Next door, a gardener was standing on a folding chair clipping the hedge atop the fence that separates our yard from our neighbor's. He was wearing a safari hat and a jacket with many pockets. He observed me quietly and without judgment the way a birdwatcher might watch a bird. I felt like I should say something. I should say something to him or to the earth or to the spirit of the hamster. I said, "you were a good hamster. Thanks for being here..." I realized that it's hard being an adult at a hamster funeral. I can't blame my daughter for wanting to run away from this event, for wanting everything to be put away when she returned from camp.

Recently, I returned to my childhood home to find the closet in my old room entirely empty. It was the first time in my life that I'd ever seen all the walls and the floor at the same time. It's an extremely large closet, like a room, but I don't think it ever seemed large. I'd been putting things in it for over forty years and then, suddenly, everything was gone. There are not words large enough to explain my relief. My stepmother assured me that my wedding dress and a couple of boxes labeled "do not throw away" were in another closet, but I didn't even check. I didn't ask about the other stuff, the stuff that wasn't labeled. The vision of those walls, that floor return to me from time to time like a breath of air. Even the hollow sound of emptiness is a peaceful one.

Yesterday, after the burial, I took the aquarium outside and dumped the paper bedding into the trash. I tossed the little cake house that had been pretty seriously chewed and the paper towel tube that Flowersheartsandstars had used for a hiding spot. I washed the glass walls of the aquarium and the ceramic food dish and the water bottle. In addition to these very useful every day items pertaining to food and shelter, the estate of Flowersheartsandstars contained only one plastic hamster ball and a fancy, blue sparkly Cinderella carriage that rolled when she ran inside. She left an almost full bag of bedding, some timothy grass and a box of hamster pellets.

In the last two years of my grandmother's life, I moved her three times. Each time, I edited her possessions, divesting her of unnecessary items. Extra cutting boards, sets of china, the bedroom set, nearly twenty pairs of scissors in different sizes. I sorted through her clothes and her books and cleaned the food from her cupboards. There were bags of prunes and bags of candied orange slices and boxes of oatmeal. She saved plastic bags and glass jars and shoe boxes. She saved tiny bars of soap and had a dozen nail clippers. I tried to be tender as I sorted through her things, tried to be gentle. I tried to watch with the kind of interested distance of the birdwatcher or the gardener. But I thought about my own drawers, my own cabinets, the little hoarding tendencies inherent in my own life.

Disposing of the hamster's estate took about fifteen minutes. It was a sad business. Somewhere, some time, I will do this for other people and somewhere, sometime, someone will do it for me. It is part of the ritual of death and loss, I think, this careful going through of things. I think that somehow, touching all the things that belonged to my Grandmother made her eventual death a little easier. I felt as though I had known her better, known all the little ticks and oddities she wouldn't have ordinarily shared. I don't know much about the hamster except that she had a little stash of food hidden in the corner of her cage, but I do know that the act of putting her things away and setting our house into a new kind of order brought a soothing movement to my sadness.


Elizabeth said...

How do you do this? Weave an exquisite essay around the most mundane of actions, burying a pet hamster?

Ex-in-the-City said...

Sigh. Good-bye, hamster.