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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

I'm Thinking About Adopting a Terminally Sick Hamster For My Son

Throughout much of April and May, our backyard was home to a garter snake. My son Uri considered him an outdoor pet. "Let's go see the snake," he'd say, excitedly. Docile the snake slithered among the grass nearly every time we visited the backyard. (The name Docile is earned). Eventually, my son emboldened himself to touch Docile. When our family returned home after an Easter weekend away Uri was eager to greet his friend. Instead, he discovered Docile upside down and ripped in half. "The snake's tail is all broken," he said.

The following is inspired partly by that moment.


Docile

I'm thinking about adopting a terminally sick hamster and giving it to my four-year-old son as a pet. Ideally, he'll will fall in love with the hamster shortly before the damn thing dies. I want this because I love my son.

Stay with me…

Here's what I imagine: I visit a Pet Smart on a sunny low-humidity Sunday afternoon, and stroll by all the dopey "pwease take me home…pweeease" looks on the faces of the puppies and kittens. I stop at the hamster cage and scan the critters for the one most likely to croak within a week or two. "Hey, look at the pathetic balled-up one, half-buried in the cedar bedding—the shaky 'lil bastard with all the shit coming out of his bloodshot eyes. Please plop that one in a box for me, my good man. My son will be so excited."

Surely enough, my son is swamped with glee when he unfolds the take-out box with air holes. I tell my son his new pet's name is Squiggly. Though my son seems bemused by the sludge bubbling out of Squiggly's nostrils, I assure him that his new pet is healthy. At least Squiggly isn't smothered in vomit crust. Hours later, when Squiggly barfs all over his fur, I say "Don't you worry, boy. Squiggly is fine. Hold him. Love him. The muffled banshee squeals are hamster-speak for 'You’re my best friend.' Hear that? Squiggly is telling you he'll be here forever and ever. "

Okay, listen, I know this seems morbid—it is morbid—but hang in there.  My son is endlessly affectionate. The aforementioned stunt, albeit fantasy and confined to a blog post, is cruel. But stay with me, please. I'm not as think as you sick I am, officer.

Anyway, my son falls in love with Squiggly, despite the critter's waning existence as a cuddly petri dish for the Bubonic Plague. My son carries him everywhere in his tiny palm, and pets his new bestie with his tiny inger. Everything Is Awesome (the theme from the Lego Movie, duh) thumps from the stereo while my son claps and skips in hopes of enlivening the wheezing fur ball in the five gallon aquarium. Amid her weekly phone call, Grammie is regaled with tales about how Squiggly crawled along the plastic Duplo train tracks, and collapsed near Thomas the Tank Engine. My son's daycare playmates are tired of hearing the excitable boy yammer on about the toddler love triangle between himself, Squiggly, and their sparkling future as owner and pet. In an infinite universe in which there are an infinite amount of things to fall asleep staring at, Squiggly is who gradually fades from my son's loving gaze in the pale nightlight -- another unwilling surrender in the nightly war to stay awake forever. Goodnight you two buggers. 

My son loves Squiggly.

But Squiggly dies overnight.

“Fix Squiggly,” my son says.

“I can’t,” I reply. “He’s broken, buddy. He’s broken forever.”

“FIX HIM,” he repeats, holding Squiggly against his chest.

“BROKEN FOREVER,” I say. I pry my son’s fingers from stiff chilly Squiggly one-by-one as tears drip onto the corpse that had been a dear companion hours ago. I dig a small hole in the back yard, hold Squiggly out like a dirty sock and drop him by the tail into the hole. I replace the dirt then tamp it down. Snot is smeared about my son's contorted red face.

I'm sorry, kiddo. Truly.

                                                                      ***

I would be right to gift a four-year-old a terminally ill hamster. Sure, the mere thought of my son's reaction to Squiggly's death is heart-wrenching. But it's for the best. Squiggly’s death would constitute a life lesson. Yes, I could try to explain to a four-year-old the concept of loss, but I might as well be having a heart-to-heart with a gardening trowel. Loss, if it is to be understood appropriately, needs context. Only the emotional impact of a palpable loss—Squiggly in this case—would prepare the boy for further adventures in life. Yes, my teaching method is perhaps unsavory, and god knows I'm no child physiologist, or even an experienced parent, but surely the benefits to my son are understood.

I'd say "long-term emotional scarring be damned," but that's the point. A scar is a reminder of pain, but is not painful.

Moreover, Squiggly would spend the last few days of his miserable life in the presence of my son's love. So Squiggly wins too.

I have to prepare my son for a future of life on Earth…THIS BEAUTIFUL, INSANE, TOO OFTEN GROTESQUE EARTH. I don't consider myself a tough love parent. I'm not going to tell my son to touch the stovetop burner so he learns it's hot. I'll just tell him it's hot. Besides, physical pain is easily forgotten. Wait until he's a teenager at a river lot party and he drops his cigarette too close to the fire pit. Wait until he does it again the next weekend. He can blame drunken instinct and a momentary lack of self-awareness when he curses the blisters on his fingers.

Specifically, I want him to learn, before puberty, that shit is fucked up. Real shit, I mean. Not stovetops and camp fires—they always have been, are, and always will be, HOT. Don't touch them, idiot. I'm talkin' real shit, like neurotoxins in the drinking water, or North Korea aiming a long-range nuclear missile at Sunshine Garden Daycare. I'm talkin' real shit, like a loved one getting splayed about Route 22 after being t-boned by a half-asleep overworked Big Ron's Transport driver, or mankind's murder-suicide of Earth; it's easier to ignore Bill Nye than do the one simple thing he suggests will save the planet from becoming a dystopian greenhouse—"everything, all at once."

You know what I mean. You read the news. Not to suggest that "things are worse nowadays" as the cliché goes. Hostility has actually decreased since the advent of the printing press, or thereabouts. (Thanks Steven Pinker) "Nowadays" worldwide coverage is 24/7, be it CNN or social media, and the rockets and bombs are deadlier. People, on the other hand, like stovetop burners and campfires, have always been, are, and will always be, HOT.

As a father, I sometimes feel like a con man. Part of my paternal assignment is to shield my son from shit reality, or, at least, distract him from it. (What?! Some jackass martyr rammed a dump truck into the maypole festival! Look kiddo…a butterfly!) 

I morph into the blanket monster and tickle him into oblivion. I sacrifice my back to give him laundry hamper roller coaster rides. I read him Frog and Toad Are Friends at bedtime; those two amphibious amigos continually find themselves in a heap of trivial burden but always wind up cozy and carefree, and together. Although I never tell my son that everything will always be fun, or be cheery like the ending of a Frog and Toad adventure, I certainly give him that impression.

Believe me, I want his life to be endless tickle traps and breakneck hamper rides. But I'm selling him snake oil, in a way. I turn out the bedroom light and rub his head while he drifts to sleep, and I tell him I'll see him in the morning when the whoopee and hoopla will begin anew. Literally two minutes later I'm watching babies choke from the effects of sarin gas, or Kim Jong-Un leak pre-cum at the notion of an intercontinental ballistic missile lambasting Seattle. Or Donald Fucking Trump. So when I whisper bedtime pleasantries into my son's ear, I kinda' feel like a goddamn fraud. I do. 

But not the night Squiggly dies.

"Sorry about Squiggly, son. He was a good friend; you loved him and he loved you. But he's broken forever. Sometimes good things just go away. Poof. And sometimes bad things take their place. For now, rejoice. The water isn't poisoned, your daycare isn't leveled, Dad's guts aren't strewn about the interstate, and global warming hasn't yet…well, forget that one. Well, don't forget it-forget it. Take heed of it. Lots of heed. But don't worry about those other things. They don't affect you, yet. Hopefully never will. Probably never will, actually. But maybe. Regardless, all I can promise is that the blanket monster will tickle you and you'll swirl though the air in a laundry hamper as long as Dad has his faculties. But Dad's faculties are tenuous. Someday he may not be strong enough to lift you, and his brain might go wonky and he won't recognize your face. Who knows? Hopefully you will have grown too big to fit in the hamper by time Dad is diagnosed...if he ever is, but he probably won't be. Listen, I'm not trying to scare you. But everything you have in life...everything is like Squiggly. Squiggly, be he a dead hamster, is also a metaphor. It's really just a matter of time before...poof. But some "Squigglys" last a long, long time. Sometimes you vamoose first. Oh Jesus, let's not go there. I'm not trying to spook you into not falling in love with something, or someone. 

Love stuff, boy. Love stuff fucking hard. Love stuff the way Dad loves you, if you feel so compelled. You're like my Squiggly, less the hemorrhaging. 

Bottom line here -- just don't forget how much you loved Squiggly, and planned on growing old together. And don't forget that, now, he smells as putrid as a...well...what I mean to say is that...ah...maggots are feasting on his...ah...he's rejoining the circle of life. Anyway...TICKLE TRAP!"

                                                           ***

Besides kiddo, Squiggly's death rattle and pus trails should've been red flags concerning your impractical reptilian brain commitment to inevitable disappointment and ruin. Where's your critical thinking skills, boy? You don't want to be one of them*, do you? Ah, but that's a lesson/blog post for another day.



Squiggly

*Trump voters/GOP Congresspeople/concussed second graders

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