Last year for Christmas, Mr.A and I surprised Miss J with a pet of her very own. During the weeks before Christmas I had purchased the necessary items to house and feed this little creature. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I picked up the small, buff colored teddy bear hamster I had put on hold the week before.
We have a family dinner at our house on Christmas Eve and we traditionally let the kids open a gift or two after dessert. Miss J entered the living room and was greeted by a large, plastic tote. I motioned to it and invited her to open her gift. I could see she was confused and had no idea what might be inside the large, unwrapped box. She lifted the lid and her gaze was met by two black eyes and a sweet fluffy face peering back at her. She squealed with delight and scooped up the small ball.
He was named Chester. Most mornings and every night before bed, Miss J would hand Chester to me so that I may say hello or good night to him. Chester enjoyed the many treats Miss J would give him, especially walnuts and apricots. (For which I would frequently scold Miss J and tell her to stop feeding Chester the ingredients to my morning oatmeal.) She'd bring him outdoors in the summer sun and created obstacle courses from cardboard boxes for him to navigate. Somehow, Miss J even convinced her teacher to allow her to bring Chester to the school to meet the class. It was amazing how happy a furry little rodent made Miss J.
And then, it happened.
I had sent Miss J to clean her room and reminded her to also clean Chester's cage. She screamed.
She flew into the living room where I was folding laundry. Her voice, filled with anguish. "He's dead! Chester is dead, mom!"
She fell into my lap and curled herself into a ball and sobbed. Her hair stuck to her wet cheeks, her face red, her small back heaving with each sob.
"Why mom? Why did Chester die?"
I had no answer for her.
She left the room to be alone. I found her by the cage, gently stroking the fur of her dead friend. Big tears spilled over her eyes and dripped off her chin and cheeks, wetting Chester's fur.
After she'd had some time with him, we had to decide what we would do with the body. Miss J insisted on a proper burial, but this is January in the midwest and the ground is frozen solid. (Not to mention the ice-storm that was taking place during this time of mourning.)
Ever so carefully, Chester was wrapped in Bounty paper towels and sealed him in a plastic bag. Miss J took the body outside and we walked to behind the shed at the edge of our yard. Miss J, fearing that Chester's remains would be eaten by animals, hung the bag in a tree. (My neighbors can clearly see this bag from their house and I do wander what they must be thinking.)
I stood in the freezing rain with my daughter, holding a makeshift funeral as she grieved the loss of her beloved pet. I had done the same myself at her age. I was about Miss J's age when my first hamster, Japser, went to the big wheel in the sky. I remember feeling he needed a special send-off so I laid him in a blue jewelry box I had just received that Christmas as a gift from my aunt. It had a crank in the back the you could wind up and a tiny ballerina would twirl around when you opened the lid. It played the music from The Nutcracker. I laid my hamster in the pale blue satin lining and covered him with squares of toilet paper and stored him in the chicken coop (it was winter) until the spring. My dear friend J officiated.
Other deceased pets were laid to rest in Tupperware, stolen from my mother's cupboard and lined with cotton balls and buried in shallow graves.
I feel for my girl and I ache to see her hurting. I watched her gaze at the tree branch from which Chester hung and I imagined Miss J in the future, a mother herself, doing the same with her own child. I imagine her offering comfort to her own child saying, "You know, your grammy used to bury her pets in Tupperware and I tied mine to tree branches."
We spoke a few words about Chester and shared some memories and together we headed back into the hourse.