“Death comes for Nagini.” Those were the words Zoe intoned the day after her blueberry dwarf hamster died. Zoe was, in fact, Death — her Halloween costume this year — and she was preparing a burial for Nagini. She had “mummified” the little furry body (in toilet paper) the day before, placed her in a closed box with plenty of fresh bedding, some food, and a small sealed container of water, following the ancient Egyptian practice of sending the dead to the afterlife with all that they would need to live a happy and luxurious life. The burial had been delayed a day because of snow on the morning of Nagini’s death, but by the next day (Sunday), Zoe was ready. All of these preparations were done calmly and peacefully, but the days leading up to the death had been full of intense emotion. Now, almost a week after Nagini initially became sick (or, more accurately, we noticed that she was sick), I’m still trying to understand why the death of this tiny creature was such a traumatic and emotional experience, not just for Zoe, but for me.
This past week has been a doozy — in large part because of the hamster. Zoe got her long-awaited pet on October 12 (my birthday!). We set her up in a spiffy little cage in Zoe’s room, and she was named Nagini, after Voldemort’s snake in Harry Potter (makes perfect sense, right?). Immediately, we were all smitten. Nagini was much more fun and endearing than I had expected her to be. She was lively and bright-eyed, but also surprisingly well-behaved. She didn’t seem to mind being handled, didn’t bite us, didn’t scurry quickly away when placed on the floor, but moved with an adorable waddle, inquisitively exploring her surroundings. The kids set up block mazes for her to play in and carried her around the house. Her fur was incredibly soft. She was about two and a half inches long.
Then last Wednesday night, we realized something was wrong. When Zoe got Nagini out of her cage, her eyes were almost closed and the fur around her face looked oily and matted. I searched for solutions on the internet (focusing on the eye issue) and wiped her eyes with warm water on a soft cloth. This did seem to perk her up a bit. We called the emergency vet, but they did not treat super-small pets and referred me to another vet (which is actually the one we go to for our cats). The next morning, after dropping the kids off at school, I took Nagini to the vet. I brought her in the same little box we had been given to transport her from the pet store (which is also the box she was buried in). We waited a long time, and I took Nagini out to hold her. She looked pitiful, but not so terrible that I thought she couldn’t be helped. However, the vet quickly broke the news to me that Nagini was very weak and dehydrated and that there was a good chance she would not live. She might have some sort of bacterial infection, but it would be hard to treat because antibiotics were tough on hamsters’ systems and, in any case, she probably did not have the strength to rally. Nagini was given an injection of hydration and a solution with an antibiotic in it for her to drink at home. I left with a heavy heart, but still uncertain about the outcome, as there was some ambiguity in the way the situation was described by the vet.
The next two days were very difficult. We watched little Nagini in her cage as she continued to decline. We held her and loved her and tried to give her water with an eye dropper and tempt her with special foods. Each time I gave her water (even though it didn’t seem as though very much of it was actually going into her minute mouth), she would open her eyes and appear just a tiny bit revived. But when I put her back in her cage, she still would not eat or drink.
On Friday night, Zoe and I were both in a terrible funk. I felt sad, anxious, and unsettled. We fought about Zoe not picking up an art project from the living room floor. Then we talked about Nagini and cried. At first Zoe was very despondent and negative, but as we continued to talk, I saw her move to a place that was more contemplative and accepting. She was able to discuss the possibility of getting another hamster at some point in the future, rather than angrily rejecting this idea. She was able to speak fondly of Nagini without despair. She was to accept the comfort I had to give her and let go of the conflict and strife between us. The next morning, Zoe was standing at my bedside with Nagini. She had been alive when Zoe woke up, and she had taken her out of the cage and held her for a few minutes. Then Nagini curled up in the palm of Zoe’s hand and died.
During the days when the saga was unfolding, I posted about it several times on Facebook. I was blown away by the incredible outpouring of care and comfort from my friends and acquaintances. Yet I felt almost guilty, as though I was making too big a deal out of it, as if I was milking a well of compassion that I should save for something more serious — for a real tragedy. Crazy, right? — to think of compassion as a limited commodity? Where did I ever learn that?!
I’m still not sure why this experience was so painful and intense. But I’m appreciative of the learning that took place and the communication that occurred between me and Zoe. Not sure yet if we will get another hamster. Once again, we are back to being three cats and a bunny. And some fish.