A hamster’s eating habits are as such: hamster food, water, and the occasional inch of apple slice for dessert. But what happens when their diet is changed, or when someone gives them too much of something? Things like this are often found out by accident. I found that my mother had experienced this sort of mistake and it’s consequences first hand at a young age.
Born to a pair of Serbian immigrants, she found it hard to fit in. The hairy gene that resided in their motherland had followed her parents here, and was successfully passed down to their daughters, the youngest most of all. Being a girl with exceptional body hair was not a desirable feature to most people. Her peer’s relentless harassment was proof enough. A fuzzy upper lip and connecting eyebrows earned her the name Brezhnev, after the current president of the Soviet Union.
Her school life did not tarry from her neighborhood life, as the residents were just as relentless. Her neighborhood wasn’t considered the best in Racine, as groups of unpleasant children and teenagers lived there. Stories of bikes being stolen and thrown off of cliffs spread like wildfire, and was not uncommon among her neighbors. Children could be found walking in the middle of the street, only drifting to the grassy yards to stare down passing cars. In short, the streets of Crestview weren’t ideal.
Instead, her sanctuary was found in her own home. In her house, she didn’t have to deal with the everyday struggles of mean children and self consciousness. She relished in the company of her older sisters and parents, and the safe haven that they created. Her home life was comfortable. Stable. Steady.
Being the youngest had its perks: Expectations weren’t high, it was easy to get out of trouble, and attention was plentiful. However, being the youngest also had its own consequences: She was easily ignored by her two older sisters, and her unintimidating stature wasn’t beneficial in the rough neighborhood in which they lived.
Life went on. Bullies didn’t change, and neither did her neighborhood. The cats they had cared for in past years had faded away, leaving only memories of dead mice and loose hair.
Eventually, she came across something that would change her nine-year old life forever.
The store was always there, just around the corner, stocked with everything the average american family might need. The vast shelves never held Dina’s interest. What she really came for was in the back. Along the back of the store, fish tanks and other pet supplies lined the walls. The fish seemed to give off an iridescent glow as she and her sisters approached the tanks.
Something was different now. The tanks were still the same, the goldfish next to the betas next to the guppies, with walls of dog food and kitty litter on either side. But, on the other side of the kitty litter, there was another collection of tanks.
As they made their way toward the tanks, wonderment filled their young minds. Small balls of fur scurried around teensy plastic play things. Petite faces and hands poked out of thick and thin coats.
She vowed, then and there, that she would have one of those magnificent creatures in her possession, even if it was the last thing she did.
Months of begging and pleading brought her what she longed for. Finally, Dina had a hamster, dubbed Andy Gibb after the famous heartthrob of her time. She loved him with all her heart, and so did the rest of her family. Enough to give him half of an apple everyday.
Many days were filled with happiness and fun. The family played with Andy often, using his plastic ball to let him roam around the house. He was her prized possession, and she cared more about this small piece of brown fluff than a lot of things- school, homework, pea soup, and The Brady Bunch are just a few examples. He became part of the family, and was accepted and loved by all residents of her house.
One day, she woke up to an average morning. But she soon found that the day would be anything but.
The air was different today; cold, suffocating, almost too much. The early sunlight did nothing to warm the room, and she found herself shivering. The room was quiet, free of Andy’s constant chatter. She slid off her bed, stepping lightly toward the cage as to not wake the sleeping creature. The floor turned cold under her bare feet, travelling up her legs and taking up residence in her heart. The smell of new and used bedding grew stale in the air. Her footsteps started to fall harder as she neared the cold metal cage.
He lay there, still, unmoving, and she didn’t need to take a closer look to make her final conclusion.
He was dead.
The grieving wasn’t immediate. It was worse than that. Her arms and legs went numb as she stumbled back toward her bed. As much as she tried, taking her eyes off the small enclosure proved harder than she thought. Shock grabbed at her stomach and mind, dulling the sound and feeling of the rest of the world. None of it seemed real. It seemed like a bad dream. A dream that wouldn’t end.
Time passed before her mother finally walked in. “Good morning, sunshine-” Her eyes traveled to Andy’s cage. Taking a few steps closer, her body stiffened with sudden realization.
Dina didn’t realize that she was crying until her mother walked over to wipe the rolling tears away.
“He’s in a better place now,” she said.
The grieving started right there, wrapped in the protective arms of a loving parent. The atmosphere of the house grew collectively darker once everyone else learned of Andy’s death. The family was quiet, seemingly walking on eggshells as they buried their beloved pet in the backyard.
After the makeshift funeral, Dina retreated to her room. Although Andy was gone, his cage still remained on the table by her window. The continuous existence of Andy’s home unsettled her deeply, and she found herself thinking back to days spent playing with him, watching him, admiring him.
The phone’s sudden blaring ring echoed throughout the house, shocking Dina out of her grief filled daze. The receding light through her window told her that time had passed. She stepped out of her room, peering around the corner as the ringing stopped. She listened as her mother’s one sided conversation flooded with worry, and she anxiously began to shift from foot to foot.
Suddenly, she heard her mother hang up, followed by hurried footsteps to the door. “Girls! Get your shoes and coats!” Her thick accent seemed to bounce off the walls as her three daughters hurried without question to gather their things.
Her mother told them part of the conversation in their hurry, the real reason they were driving to their destination. “Your husband is here. We can’t tell you his condition over the phone,” a lady said. “You just have to come here and see.”
Soon, the car was filled with warm bodies and careful silence. This silence followed them out of the car and into a white hospital waiting room. The large room smelled strongly of disinfectant and sickness, overpowering her mother’s perfume greatly. The smell clung to the cheap, worn chairs, and the soft sounds of phones ringing and footsteps echoed in her head. This place made her uneasy. She’d heard stories from various children about grandparents dying and aunts getting unsuccessful plastic surgeries and brothers getting bones reset on the floor in front of them. The stories clouded her mind, and soon she was practically bouncing with anxiety.
“Liljana?” A nurse in white stood by the double doors. Her mother stood to greet the woman. “Your husband is out of surgery. You can come see him, if you want.”
Dina and her sisters rose to their feet, but stopped cold when the woman raised her hand. “He can only have one visitor right now.” Her mother turned and told them to sit and wait for her before following the nurse through the swinging double doors.
It was later revealed to them that he broke his collarbone in a bad car accident after he went through a stop sign and entered an intersection. The collision, apparently, was caused by none other than Andy Gibb the Hamster, or rather, the thought of him. Her father was devastated by Andy’s sudden death, and the thought of the small creature consumed his mind when he should have been focused on the road. He blamed himself for poisoning Andy with too many apples, and the blame sent him flying in front of another car.
Seeing him in that hospital bed scared her. Parents are invincible to children. Parents are these unbreakable, immortal beings that can’t be touched by tragedy or death. So, seeing her father lying helpless and broken in a foreign place shifted something inside her. She was more concerned than ever about the people she loved, especially after the death of her beloved hamster and the dangerous accident of her father.
She became more careful as well. The effects of Andy’s untimely demise followed her into her adult life, and affected how she lived. She always says to my siblings and I “take things in moderation.” In other words, don’t do too much of one thing. Too much of one thing isn’t good, and can have serious consequences. Andy Gibb, both the hamster and the person, are perfectly good examples.
Andy helped my mom to grow and to learn when enough is enough. He helped her become more careful and more caring, which ended up helping her later in her life.