When I was in third grade my parents took me to a sketchy, subterranean pet store off the food court in Hillcrest mall with no windows and a single, incongruous neon sign bearing some nondescript name like BJ’s Pet Emporium where I would be allowed to procure my first pet, a hamster.
The only concession was that my hamster would not be allowed to live in one of those highliter purple and orange “habitrails” with plastic Chuck E. Cheese tunnels and a sundeck and a gym and a bar on the veranda that would dispense pellets if I could train my hamster tenant to press a plastic lever. My sister’s friend Kirsten’s hamster Speedy had one of those then ate through it, twice. Speedy cheated death and his reward was living out the rest of his days in a Rubbermaid bin with high smooth walls he couldn’t climb or eat. My parents would take the gamble I could care for another life but they weren’t gambling $40.
I remember peering into a large aquarium, set up on a low table in what might have formerly been a Dollar Tree, trying to determine how to choose a new life companion. How would I know? I don’t remember what any of the other hamster looked like (probably alike) but somehow I knew when I saw a beautiful, fluffy, cream-colored Teddy Bear hamster scampering among the wood chips that she was ‘the one.’
A pet store employee put my new hamster friend in a flat pack cardboard box that was precisely the same size and dimensions as the UNICEF box I would collect change in on Halloween. I remember being distinctly confused by this, that someone could just put a life in a disposable cardboard box. I thought we’d put her in her new non-plastic hamster house and we’d seat belt it in next to me in the backseat of my Dad’s Buick Park Avenue. But no, my hamster went into a UNICEF box which I clutched against my little chest, supporting the bottom, as we walked across the slushy mall parking lot in a grey Canadian winter. I remember feeling her little ball of weight shifting, how precisely I could feel her tiny feet and tiny claws moving from one side of the box to the other, no doubt scared shitless. How she felt warm, radiating a little fluffy ball of hamster heat, despite how small she was.
When we got home, we set up my hamster’s white, metal barred, non-plastic, removable bottom cage in my pink bedroom with the antique teddy bear border and lovingly filled it with the non-cedar woodchips that were supposed to be healthier for hamsters, and white and brown cotton fluff to help her kick start her new hamster nest.
Her plastic water bottle chipped immediately, and my Dad had to hot glue it back together. In an example of me in hindsight recognizing qualities that would plague me as an adult that I showed signs of early on, this devastated me. No matter how many times I was told it was a perfectly functional water bottle and the hamster would not know, I knew my hamster deserved better than a bootleg water bottle hot glue gunned back together. Her perfect homecoming was dashed.
In example two of my early childhood neuroses, the naming of my hamster nearly caused me have a mental breakdown. My hamster needed the perfect name, because my hamster was perfect. But how do you find the perfect name? How do you know? What if you name it, and two days later, you think of a better name? Renaming it was out of the question. A name was bestowed upon the hamster, and so it would be. Thus wasn’t creating a new Super Mario Brothers profile. This was life.
I am deeply grateful that the universe intervened in this scenario, and you did not have to hear about a third grader having a panic attack over the naming of a hamster. I shit you not, if anyone thinks mental illness does not have a biological component my entire childhood serves as a perfect example. I started free associating characteristics that stood out on my hamster, because I was already a nerdy writing kid who only wanted to wear turtlenecks and sweatpants with dinosaurs on them to school, and I wanted a border with not any teddy bears, but antique teddy bears, damnit. While free associating, I was struck by how beautiful my new hamster’s coat was. It was unique. Not glossy, she was a tiny ball of fluff, but shimmery, pinky-beige, pearly. Thus my hamster, I knew in my heart, was Pearl.
I think this is a great name for a hamster, especially hearing the grade A piece of shit names everyone else put forth. Gumby. Mr. Checkers. Oreo. Pearl had some personality, some self-respect. Her nickname was “Pearl Jam” which I think is just about the coolest name you can aim for for a hamster in both 1997 and 2016. At 27, choosing the name Pearl for my third grade hamster is one of the few decisions in my life I stand by completely. It was an anomaly.
I was a shitty pet owner like most children and all of Pearl’s caretaking was done by my parents. Hamsters are pretty terrible pets for kids when you think about it I was also had (and have) too flimsy an emotional constitution for caretaking. I was disturbed weekly when it was time to clean her cage, tearing down the nest she built was just too much for me to handle emotionally, I felt so guilty. That I can’t cope with putting a hamster through temporary emotional distress to deal with one of it’s basic needs is one of the reasons I have a feeling I will make a shitty parent. But Pearl was a great, soft, little furball, I maintain the prettiest of all the hamsters, an A+ towel shredder, a keen escape artist who would swing into the door of her cage until the lock popped open, and a dreamer, who instead of nibbling on a piece of celery would wedge the entire thing into her mouth horizontally until she tipped over, greedily dragging her temporarily stalk-deformed face back to her nest like Quasimodo. She was a bad bitch.
Like everyone, I was nervous about what would happen when Pearl died and whether I could handle the moment. I got up for school one morning and she was outside her nest, shaking. I knew time was up. It was Remembrance Day and I remember thinking about whether she was suffering as I sat on the sneaker-scuffed parquet gym floor reciting In Flander’s Field with other elementary schoolers with construction paper leaves.
When I got home asked my Mom if Pearl died and she said yes. I never had to clean out her cage or move her or anything. I wasn’t particularly sad, just relieved she wasn’t in pain and her future wasn’t in limbo. I remember being so worried to tell my Dad, because he would sit by her cage and talk to her, “Hello Pearl! Hello my buddy!” like would talk to me and my sister. He was obviously fine, which was confusing to me. I remember watching Bill Nye or something in my living room and my Mom’s in the kitchen trying to make my Dad dinner and explain to him “no, she really is okay but concerned you are heartbroken.”
We buried Pearl in a cardboard box in my backyard, near my fish, which was wrapped in Saran Wrap and placed in a quarter machine plastic ball “coffin.” I wanted to let it rest on a bed of miniature marshmallows, but my Mom refused. I still wonder if anyone dug up that ball and out of curiosity opened it to find a dead fish in plastic wrap, or a hamster skeleton. If you live in Richmond Hill, and thought you found a cool vending machine toy someone buried and instead found a fish skeleton next a hamster skeleton you’re welcome. I also think it’s possible my parents might have dug them up and threw either/or out as soon as we went back inside.
18 years later, I was enjoying a lunch with my Dad and my sister around the holidays. I mentioned looking at really amazing Chinese Water Dragons at PetSmart, and we stop by before heading home. I go to the hamster section, for old time’s sake and look at all the little hamsters that are not nearly as cute as mine play in their little plastic hamster tunnels. My Dad comes up beside me and puts his arm around me.
“Hey, remember that hamster you had?”
“It’s a shame what happened to her.”
“Oh yeah, it exploded.”
“What do you mean it exploded?!?!?”
“Something exploded in it’s brain. Blood everywhere. What a shame. Cute little thing.” [walks away]