Sparky's Final Lap?
There's a sad story behind the discarded small pet cage you sometimes see on garbage day, one we are in the middle of learning. How many times have you caught sight of the beat-up cage, tossed on its side next to the city-issued garbage can, and thought nothing of it?
Two Christmases ago, the Jawa, who is known for getting unusual ideas lodged in his brain, where they stay, fester and do not move, got his mind wrapped around the idea of getting a hamster. Several trips to the library followed. We had not had good luck with disposable pets (see: fish, gold) but he was undaunted. After dozens of trips to PetCo to "browse," we finally bought a hamster in early December.
We chose the craziest one, a small white female determined to escape from her overcrowded cage. The Jawa named her "Sparky." We took her home, and then proceeded to buy at least $100 worth of cages, treats, toys, etc., for this $9.95 pet.
And then, unlikely as it seems to anyone with a rodent aversion (I'm talking to you, Princess Grace), Sparky ingratiated herself into our family. Even though she sometimes smelled like a sewer rat and required weekly cage cleanings. Sometimes we would say, "Poor Sparky," because the nocturnal creature was seldom given the opportunity for a full day's rest.
At night, Sparky ran on her wheel like today was her last day. She had a small wheel at first. Then, growing too large for it, she began running on top of it, only to occasionally misstep, then tumble off onto the floor of her cage. Into her life came a state-of-the-art wheel, large enough to keep her running for months.
But as the months melted away, so did Sparky's spark. Though she still careened through the house in her plastic ball, and still pursued escape with single-mindedness, we could all tell that, in recent months, Sparky was inching toward the end of the line. The Jawa, a pragmatist like his mother, mused over what pet would follow Sparky. A rabbit? A chinchilla? Occasionally, mother and son would team up to nag me about getting a dog.
In the past few weeks, Sparky has taken a turn toward the worst. A weeklong visit from the cousins -- which equals exceptional Sparky torture -- followed by two weeks on her own, left her dazed, sitting in her little wooden house, barely moving. She hadn't run on her gigantic wheel in months, and now she was no longer running up her tube to her penthouse condo, formerly her favorite place to stash food.
Last night, I wrote a couple of drafts of an article I had due today. When I came upstairs, the Jawa was in his room, crying. "He's worried about Sparky," offered Sandra Bullock. I went in to see him.
"Dad," he sobbed, "Sparky's eye is closed." I looked down. She was squinting, and shuffling along the floor. One side of her body seemed weaker than the other. Can hamsters have strokes?
S. Bullock and I gave it a good try. "She'll be okay," we said. But this morning, when the Jawa called me into his room and said, "Listen," I heard the pathetic sounds of a wheezing hamster. Sparky was nearing the end.
My stated policy for the past 9 years has been to never lie to the Jawa, so after sizing up the situation and talking briefly to Bullock via phone, I sat down in his room and motioned for him to sit on my lap. "You know I don't lie to you," I began, "and this is going to be harsh. I don't think Sparky's going to make it much longer."
We then discussed how great Sparky's life had been, and how much we loved Sparky, and how great it was for her have been loved like that, and how we don't like seeing her in pain. I told the Jawa that when my time came, I hoped he would consider those things instead of being sad.
"Dad, I'm going to melt down when Sparky dies. Is that going to be okay?" he asked.
"Of course. There is no inappropriate response when someone dies."
"What if you blow up the world in response?"
"Okay, I take it back. There are inappropriate responses."
I told him that, since he would be going to Sonoma for the weekend, he might want to say good-bye to Sparky now, just in case. He gave her a somber wave, then slowly walked over to her cage. He reached behind it and took out all of the food, treats and toys we'd stored back there, placing them in front of the cage. Then he placed his book "The Care and Feeding of Hamsters," on top and put her big plastic ball alongside. "This is the Sparky memorial," he said. We were late for camp, but I let him stand there for awhile, until he was ready to go.
On the way to camp, we talked about how things, even people, die, and how it can happen suddenly or it can take a long time. He was quiet mostly, though he did suggest that when my parents get older, they should live at the JCC, because "they can take care of anything there."
I dropped him at camp and said goodbye for the weekend. Who knows if Sparky will survive until Sunday. Maybe the sight of all that food sitting just outside her cage doors will spur her into some kind of recovery. Maybe the complex Lego structure nearby, which the Jawa named "The Sparky Memorial Raceway," will inspire her. I don't know.
What comes next? The Jawa is talking about another hamster, named, naturally, Sparky, Jr., but S. Bullock seems to have other ideas. She has sent me several emails today; nothing in the subject line, no message, just links to photos of puppies.
So next time you see a small pet cage sitting on its side in the trash, try to remember that there might be a heartbroken Jawa somewhere who put it there, finding out for the first time that everything that lives eventually dies.