One Christmas, when our little Bright Eyes was six, one of her presents was a piece of paper. On it, Ryan had drawn a clock and …. well, he said it was a hamster. In my opinion, it looked more like a jackalope, but I digress. The caption read “It’s hamster time!”. It was basically a homemade coupon for a shopping trip to the small animals section of a pet store. She had had several sad and traumatizing experiences with fish, but – eternal optimist that she is – she was excited to leap headlong into hamster ownership. On a freezing night just a couple of weeks later, we went to PetSmart. Each girl chose a hamster from a litter of nearly-grown furballs. Fiona chose an orange and white long-hair, and named him Fifi. Yes, Fifi, for a boy hamster. Hey, gender-bending is trendy now, right? Fiona was ahead of the curve …. Hamsty, Bridget’s choice, met a sad (and nasty) end. He’s been replaced by Fuzzy “Luke” Pom-Pom. Yes, that is his name. He’s a lovely little grey critter, with a face more like a mouse than a hamster. Fifi is with us still. And thank Heaven for that, as Fiona utterly adores him.
Every day that she can, she sets aside time for Fifi – building him tunnels from empty paper towel rolls or mazes from blocks, or just letting him sit on her lap and nibble a treat. She checks his eyes and claws and tail to make sure he’s healthy. At some point during her time with him, each person in the house will be presented with Fifi, and hear her singing his praises. He’s so cute and so sweet and so gentle and so smart and …. If she’s too busy for time with Fifi, she feels guilty, and she’ll slip him an extra cashew or blackberry. All guests must be introduced to Fifi at some point during their stay. When she’s looking forward to a playdate, she’ll always mention that she’s excited to show Fifi off to whichever friend is coming over. If his dish is only half full, she rushes to top it up, discarding the pellets and grass seeds, at which he turns up his wiggly little nose, to make room for his favourites (sunflower seeds, which she picks, one at a time, out of the hamster food bag by hand). If there’s a bare spot on the floor of his cage, she carefully sweeps the shavings over it so his little paws won’t get cold. Never in the history of humans and animals bonding has a rodent been so loved.
But Fifi’s old. He was almost an adult hamster when Fiona chose him as her pet. That was more than two years ago now. We have the rodent equivalent of an eighty-year-old man on our hands. My mother has suggested that he’s living on love. He’s as deliciously soft as ever, but the orange patches of fur are fading. He sleeps alot of the time, and he moves slowly when he is awake. He still runs on his wheel, but not as fast or as long as he once did. His eyes are a little cloudy, and I’m pretty sure his hearing is not as sharp as it ought to be. He sleeps through top volume dance parties. Fiona understands how old he is – at least, I hope she does. I’ve explained to her that the life expectancy of hamsters is not much more than what Fifi’s had – that he will be lucky to make it to three years. She is so gentle when she handles him, and even lowers her voice when he’s in her hands – this from the loudest, most rambunctious little girl I know. She’s protective of him, and watches him like a mama bear watching her cub when he’s in someone else’s hands. If he makes a funny noise, she presses her face to his cage, anxiously checking to see that he’s ok. Oh, my heart ….
She’s fully convinced that Fifi is the best pet in the world. When some of her friends talk about their new bunny or kitten or puppy, she doesn’t register the slightest flicker of desire. She doesn’t want a brand-new, bright-eyed fluffy ball of novelty. She’s got her Fifi, old and slow and wearing out, and he’s enough.
Most of the time, our children learn from us. Sometimes, though, we learn from them.