We acquired the small ball of fluff in July 2020, two months after the conclusion of Italy’s first and only (and most difficult) lockdown. The 52 days under house arrest for all the right reasons made our kids bored and anxious. We should have a cat, we murmured. A house rabbit, a hamster, a bird, anything to watch and take care of.
Italy being Italy, and my husband being himself, he knew just what to do: research the Italian Hamster Association to determine how to most efficiently and safely obtain a hamster for our home. After some back and forth with the local hamster experts, and a significant investment in hamster gear, he received the hamster at his office from a young woman with a handsome collection of piercings, ripped fishnets, Doc Maartens, and black eyeliner. He brought her home in a portable birdcage bedded with litter, and we released the mini-mammal into her new cage. She was a Roborovski dwarf hamster, and would easily fit inside the half peel of a clementine. Her eyes were shiny and clever. She was adorable.
A HAMSTER. Her welcome was joyful. The kids named her first Simone, then Brie, than Kayla. (Eleanor watches a lot of American YouTube.) So, you basically moved from a coastal name and progressed to interior territories, our friend Melanie quipped. Eleanor hand-lettered a nametag to go over her enormous cage as though she had the corner office in a Fortune 500 hamster company. And she was treated like a hamster executive. Fine German wood shavings for bedding, clean cotton fluff for her bed, new paper towels carefully pre-shredded for her by tiny loving hands. For her first birthday (Epiphany 2021) we selected a luxury hammock for her to play in. It clipped to the roof of her cage by means of four small carabiners.
But Kayla was wont to reward our kindness. Victor claimed that her temperament changed when the neighbor kids repeatedly came to play with her. They carried her around in a play dog bed as though she were a maharajah. They handled her and pet her head. One day, he confessed, one of the neighbor girls stuffed the hamster into a Barbie dress. Kayla grew resentful, then violent. She bit each one of our loving hands in turn on different days, drawing blood each time. When it was my turn, she ran out of her house like an offensive lineman, her jaws open, and clamped hard on my finger. Out of instinct I shook my hand in the cage with the appended hamster swinging. Her jaws were no joke. She eventually let go. I learned my lesson. My finger throbbed for days.
We tried to repair Kayla’s broken trust, but the damage had been done. No amount of internet research to re-tame a hamster could help. And so Kayla entered a sort of well-admired hermitage, looking very cute, waking up with tissue on her head like a medieval sleeping cap, running on her wheel, climbing the wire bars of her cage, doing wind sprints on her wheel, and shuffling through her food bowl to pick out the fat sunflowers seeds in the mix. She loved sunflower seeds. She would accept them from between the bars of the cage with a loud SQUEAK, hulling them expertly between her teeth. We were glad for the distraction. We felt affectionate toward Kayla, in spite of her biting. We remembered to never put our hand into her cage unless she was asleep and it was to replenish her food and water.
Sometimes last summer, Kayla took ill. We left town for a few weeks, placing her in the care of a capable Italian nonna who was delighted to have a hamster for a while. When we returned home Kayla was missing a lot of fur. Her skin was raw. She scratched a lot. After an awkward week of watching her worsen, we made an appointment for her to be seen by a local veterinarian. He was on the other side of town, so we loaded Kayla up into her tiny birdcage and motored on over to the vet’s office.
This vet seemed to specialize in every possible beast that creeps upon the earth except humans. He was very no-nonsense. Be careful! I said when he put his hand in the cage. He rolled his eyes at me. Kayla did try to bite him but he was faster than she was. This hamster’s an asshole, he said. Jason and I fidgeted. She’s missing a lot of fur. She’s got terrible dermatitis, he said. We know, we shook our heads. He gave us a thimbleful of antibiotic for her and charged us forty euros for both the visit and the prescription. We administered the medicine, which seemed to help a bit.
But Kayla lost more and more fur, and then her motor control. She got strange sores on her head, her hind legs. She teetered around on those pink toothpicks. She went blind. She could barely reached the metal tube of her water bottle. The kids lost interest in her as she looked increasingly ragged. Victor made a sad face every time we mentioned her, but he was willing to assist with her basic care. Pretty soon, though, I became the designated hamster hospice nurse, checking on her and changing her water and food. I idly wondered if hamster euthanasia was a thing. A quick twist of the neck would do it. I felt bad for wondering this. I set aside a little piece of white muslin that once wrapped a bath bomb from LUSH to wrap her in when her inevitable end occurred.
She was still eating well, but last night, when she tried to run on her wheel, she toppled over onto her side and struggled to get up. It was a rough scene, new territory. As I read Eleanor to sleep in her nest of blankets on the sofa, I heard Kayla rummaging through her dish of seeds, looking for sunflower seeds.
This morning when I went to check on the hamster, she was still for the first time in months, lying peacefully on her side. She was not scratching or wiggling around. I bent closer. She was not breathing. Her blind eye was closed.
I went into our bedroom to notify Jason. The hamster died, I said. Are you sure? Yes, I said. She is not breathing anymore. Jason sighed. Let’s just keep an eye on her. Keep an eye on a dead hamster? For what? She will come back to life? Or dry out, like a Peruvian mummy on the Altiplano?
We have not told the kids yet. I don’t think they’ll be surprised. But Eleanor might cry, in spite of having reassured me months that, after Kayla’s demise, she would cross the rainbow bridge where she could “re-be’s alive.” In fact I am sure she will cry. Tempus fugit, kids! Kayla, we barely knew ye. You’ll be missed – and we are so glad for all the lessons you gave us. Your memory will be a blessing.