My inspiration: old hamsters and lame goldfish.

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Whenever we go to a pet store, we look at all the critters. Because we have owned various hamsters over the years, we spend a little extra time looking at them. Most of them are just weeks old, adorable little fur pom-poms either snoozing in their nest or tumbling about. However, there is always at least one adult hamster who is housed alone (because hamsters become increasingly territorial as they grow). This one, we know, will not be chosen by anyone. Hamsters have such short lives that no one wants to take one on if it’s not a baby. Prospective pet owners know an adult hamster is a big-eyed fluffy heartache-in-waiting. At this point in our pet store perambulation, it is inevitable that one or the other of my daughters will say “I wish we could take that one home – nobody else will, so he’s going to die here without anyone to love him”. This has always tugged at my heart strings, but I move us all along quickly rather than go any further down that path. Who wants another pet funeral?

Every year, Lent receives heavy consideration from Fiona and Bridget. They follow the common tradition of giving up something they love – candy or chocolate, usually, although one year it was watching “Spongebob Squarepants”. The purpose of going without something you want throughout Lent is to lessen the power of what tempts you – to examine its impact on your life, to learn how to deny yourself frivolous pleasures in order to focus on worthier pursuits. To that end, I try to encourage them to add things as well as giving up things – to consider what they can give to or do for others. This year, Bridget said wistfully “I wish we could adopt an old hamster – to give him a home, and treats, and love”. My first instinct was to say no again. To point out that there are so many much bigger, more important problems in the world. To ask what difference it would make. But I didn’t. Because I’m trying to be more open, to see the world through unjaded eyes. Because I have started to believe that we are all called in different directions by compassion, by love. And that if we all followed our callings, however small, the world would start to look different. Softer. Kinder. More beautiful.

Derek of San Antonio, Texas, is a believer, too. When faced with a disabled fish (the fish has a bladder disorder that keeps it from holding itself upright, meaning it was stuck at the bottom of the tank all the time), he did not shrug and say “this is stupid – it’s just a fish”. He did not say “flush it” (which, I must admit, is probably what I would have said). No, he came up with a system of airline tubing and styrofoam to help the fish swim – a sort of wheelchair for the fish. Now the fish swims all over the tank, like it was meant to do.

And now Gerry the hamster (Gerry is short for “geriatric”) has a forever home – however short forever may turn out to be for a hamster of indeterminate age. Gerry’s a lovely little thing, with a gentle disposition and an insatiable appetite for pistachios, and I’m glad we took a chance on him.

Many times over the past few years, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the tide of deep sadness and desperate need relentlessly rolling in. Wave after wave of hopeless cases and terrible stories. What can we do? Communities that have been destroyed by a natural disaster or a terrorist attack need roads cleared and hospitals rebuilt and people saved and patched up and fed and sheltered – but we can only buy gas for one rescue vehicle or provide a week’s worth of meals for one family. Thousands are dying of preventable diseases, but we can only pay for treatment for a handful of patients. The earth is poisoned, scorched and overheating, but we can only turn off the lights and taps in our own home and reduce our trash by a bag every two weeks. People in our own neighbourhood don’t have enough to eat, but all we can do is toss a few cans in the bin on our way out of the grocery store. Sometimes it feels like our contribution is so small that it’s hardly worth giving, and we start to lose faith in it. Sometimes it feels like there is so much need that the little things – like elderly hamsters and wobbly goldfish – don’t even get a second look.

This may seem like a tall order, but I want to rid myself of that soul-crushing apathy, and I want everyone else to do that, too. Years ago, in Sunday School, we used to sing a little song called “Jesus Bids Us Shine”. I remember, in particular, the lines “in this world of darkness / we must shine / you in your small corner / and I in mine”. The song isn’t about banishing the darkness or saving the world. It is about giving what little we can, when we can, to improve our own little piece of the cosmic puzzle. And, whatever your position on Jesus and Sunday School, you can’t argue against that. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something – and if it alleviates the suffering of any creature, big or small, human or animal, it’s worth it. Let’s not become overwhelmed by our own smallness. Let’s push back against despair, and watch how drops of water become an ocean.

A girl and her hamster ….

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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.