Essays

A Small Death in the Family

What losing our pet taught me about a much greater, deeper love

Craig Morgan Teicher
Graphic with a hamster atop one house and a gravestone atop another.
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos.

Today, finally, the family hamster died. My daughter, Simone, chose his name, Totoro, on the way home from the pet store. That was only a year and a half ago.

Simone and I were having a snack or finishing lunch—we were having dessert, I think, cookies that Obachan sent—when I noticed Totoro curled up in an unusual place in his cage, in front of his wheel, where I had never seen him sleep before. “Oh,” I said, and got up.

“What’s wrong?” Simone asked, and I mumbled something about how Totoro looked strange.

I walked around the table to Totoro’s cage, which is in a corner of the kitchen—the room furthest from the door to our house—where my wife Brenda exiled him, or so my resentment says. (I’ll probably never forgive her for that, though there was really no better option.) She cleaned the poop behind his cage just once and couldn’t get over her disgust; poop had scattered all over the books on the shelves behind the cage, was all over everything, she said. And she didn’t want people to see our rodent’s cage when they first walked into the house. Then, as the pandemic set in, he reminded her of pestilence, despite his golden fur. Though she loved him, too, in her way, she described his sentience, cleverly I’ll admit, as “somewhere between a fish and a cat.” Our son, Cal, was spinning himself around on the floor in the living room, unaware of any of this. He needed his diaper changed. Then I should probably get him up into his wheelchair, I thought to myself.

Totoro was curled as if he were a little cat sleeping. I’d never seen him asleep because he always slept beneath the overhang in his cage, in a little mound of paper bedding he’d build afresh each time I cleaned his home, scooping the old bedding and hundreds of turds, which looked like brown grains of rice, into a garbage bag. He looked peaceful, as we say of the dead, his tiny eyes shut tight. I noticed his cheeks, puffed out a bit, satisfied. Simone confirmed his death, remarking that his little chest was no longer rising and falling.


“It’s only a hamster,” texted my friend a few hours later.

Yes, but I think I did love him, for a while at least, when his cage was stationed just outside the door to my office and he would keep me company running on his wheel as I worked into the night, the only time he was awake. I was his sole caretaker, cleaning his cage every two weeks—and then every two or three weeks, and then only when the kitchen smelled so strongly of ammonia that I couldn’t ignore the chore any longer—and leaving him fresh food and water every few days. Why would I not fall in love with anything to which I’ve become indispensable?

Of course I killed him. I waited too long to clean his cage this time. He died of his own poisons.

But he lived a year and a half, his lifespan barely shorter than that of the average Syrian hamster. Maybe he died of old age.

These twin temptations: to greedily take blame, to relish it; or to blame no one, to sneak out the back of my own uneasy feeling. If we had chosen a different hospital for Cal’s birth, would he have been safe? We could never have known. What we know is that he was born in the midst of an emergency, that a lack of oxygen to the brain had him in the throes of cerebral palsy. Now, thirteen years later, the eternal wellspring of his life, his childhood, has been nothing like my own, except that it’s been the wellspring of my own life since it began. What is a wellspring, anyway? It’s a fountain of ambivalence, and when we drink from it, we are both strengthened and weakened.

His was a cold body, and I held it, and I had loved it, I think, invested it with some capacity for an exchange with me.

Meanwhile, Simone has been agitating for days to get back to the skateboard park this weekend with the triplets, who are no longer in her school. We’re close with their parents, but less so since this changing of schools, since this distance came between us. Is it true that life is mostly the slow fraying of attachments?

Now, weeks later, the puppy sleeps peacefully on the floor outside my office, by Cal’s wheelchair and the bookshelf that stands where a table with Totoro’s cage on it used to sit. The cage is still in the back corner of the kitchen with a case of printer paper and Simone’s in-progress milk-carton bird feeder atop it.

What compelled me to clean the cage? What compels me now to lift Cal into his chair? To sort the mail every day? What silly questions, all with obvious answers. Because my mother told me to be like this. Because if I don’t do these things, the ceiling will begin to crack and the sky will fall through it. Because I love my family, and so I labor for them. Because I’d feel guilty—I’d be guilty—if I didn’t.

Totoro was also a creature my family promised ourselves to. We brought him home in a little box Simone held nervously in her hands.

And now I’m stoned, and now the puppy is crying and will need me to take her outside. Isn’t Totoro’s small death a rehearsal for so many other losses? His eyes, heavily and finally closed, looked like the puppy’s do when she sleeps. Totoro was cold and stiff, a thing, when I picked him up to place him in the Ziploc bag Simone held open. I need to go walk the dog; she won’t stop whining. Now I’m back. He was already gone when we found him—Totoro had been all inquisitiveness and desperation, never still, either exploring or cowering (and sometimes chattering his teeth to remind us he was terrified)—and so it was only his appearance, in an uncharacteristic pose, that remained. His was a cold body, and I held it, and I had loved it, I think, invested it with some capacity for an exchange with me. I kept a picture of Totoro standing proudly on his tiny jungle gym as my lock-screen photo for months. His body felt heavy in its lightness.



I got up a few minutes
ago to have a late night PB&J and some cookies. Twice in that time, as I stood up, I was gut-struck by Totoro’s absence, the loss of the gravity that used to yearn toward me from his cage. I looked for him, expected him to poke out of his little burrow and nose his way toward me, sniffing for something to eat.

I can’t stop thinking about him. He wasn’t a hamster at all, or at least that was not the truth of him I was interested in. He was a small receptor for wayward love, a soul that summoned tenderness from me. He was a burden, and I bore him, and by the end I didn’t have time or room—for him and all the others to whom I owe my care, who are sealed with me in this house by a pandemic. He looked like a living Twinkie. I hated cleaning his cage, scooping and scooping the bedding. But I felt proud to have done it. We never ran out of bedding because I never forgot to order more.

First there had been Pirate, the neglected parakeet kept under wraps in a far corner of the Back Room, which is what we called the rearmost room in my childhood home, the room where the TV waited. His screeching plagued my afternoon cartoons. After the first weeks or months, he was no longer fun, he was too nippy, I got nervous about letting him perch on my finger, and so my dad stopped helping me take him out, and Pirate grew fearful, bitter, aggressive. We never cooed at his cage, beautiful blue budgerigar footing left and right and chirping. Eventually he went to the vet and never came home.

I had ruined his short life, caged him, forgot to enjoy him, and that is what he died of.

We barely noticed Totoro once he moved to the back; then, when the puppy came, all of the love I’d reserved for the hamster was transferred to a much more rewarding object. Totoro had become like a friend whose posts went by on-line but to whom I no longer spoke, a soul calling weakly from a lost corner of the room.

Totoro’s funeral was held in our backyard, in the corner where two fences meet. The preparations were arduous. First Cal’s diaper had to be changed, and his pants.

Cal is still recovering from a recent, not-quite-minor infection. He is so big, only a few inches shorter than me now. Changing him asks of me almost more than I’m able or willing to give. Then he must be gotten into his chair, stiffening as I struggle to lift him, kicking as I strain to fold him into the seat.

I wonder, as ever, what he understands. Today’s solemn ceremony, this threadbare net Simone and I have been weaving to cradle our grief—what can it mean to him? Cal never saw Totoro once the cage was moved to the kitchen. During lockdown, Cal spent his life on the living room floor or in his chair. It’s hard to get him into the kitchen—two puppy gates must be removed, which means someone must hold the puppy so she doesn’t escape, which means at least two people are needed. This is one of our family’s many ridiculous engineering problems, our order-of-operations puzzles. Do I feel sorry for myself, for us? Of course. I wish with all my quiet, interior might that Cal will find a friend in the puppy, that they will find ways to connect, to interface, that Cal’s hand reaching for her back or her tail won’t be too slow in responding to his brain’s command, that the puppy will not have moved away by the time he would have reached her. I wish, secretly, fruitlessly, that she will be able to understand him in some way that I cannot.

I shoved everything to do with Totoro into several trash bags. I don’t want to think of him, a regret, a mistake, a failure.

The puppy is in her crate now; the gates have been removed. I am wheeling Cal through the narrow kitchen, out the back door. Simone holds it open then rushes to open the gate to the wheelchair lift. I push Cal in. Down we go: to the site of the funeral.

I find the old owners’ big shovel and a gardening trowel at the edge of the garage. It is a hoarder’s den, filled with our recycling and junk. I will use the big shovel. Simone will use the trowel. Totoro’s body waits in the garage, in the Ziploc bag inside the Amazon box where I had hurriedly put him.

This morning, I dismantled his cage. Simone had asked me to keep it one more night. I shoved everything to do with Totoro into several trash bags. I don’t want to think of him, a regret, a mistake, a failure, Pirate reincarnated to die again at my hands.

I wheel Cal over the grass to the corner where we will bury Totoro, behind the swing Brenda bought to make our home-confinement more exciting—a round platform swing that Cal can sprawl on, with its own awning to protect him from the sun, its ropes hardening in the winter weather. I bring Totoro’s box. Simone has composed a lovely, regret-filled poem so full of misgiving I could have written it.

I begin digging. It requires me to put my weight on the back of the shovel and push into the ground. Digging, which I rarely do, always seems a fool’s errand when I start, like the dirt will never yield. But then it begins to give, the shovel reaches deeper, cuts through roots, and soon I am standing over a hole about nine inches deep.

I open the box and here is Totoro, his fur still golden in that way that seemed too golden to quite believe. His face—eyes still shut—looks sadder, sunken, tired, and resigned. I press a bit with my hand as I lift him out of the box, still in his Ziploc, to make sure he remains dead.

I had thought I would take him out of the bag and place him in the little grave, but when the moment comes, I can’t. I want neither to touch his body nor to dump him out of the bag like trash. I push the whole bag in. It falls below the web of roots. Then Simone begins troweling the dirt back in. But she gives up quickly and says I should do it.

Simone wants to make a gravestone, but we don’t have anything. Then I think of the pile of bricks on the side of the house, abandoned supplies for some project the old owners had planned. I pick one up. “Can I carry the brick?” says Simone. I give her the brick. Simone places it over the hole. His grave doesn’t look like anything, just a brick dropped in the corner of the yard. I bring the tools back to the garage and come back for Cal. I wheel him into the van, and we go to the park so Simone can practice skateboarding with the triplets.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, most recently the poetry collection Welcome to Sonnetville and the essay collection We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress.
Originally published:
October 12, 2021

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