My family is relatively unique by today’s standards in that my parents are not divorced, that we’ve all worked to some capacity in my father’s restaurants, that we all tease my youngest sister about moving to Japan one day to become a sumo wrestler, and that I call my mom at least every other day to shoot the shit like old friends, because we are. We own a pet duck. We’re big on nicknames — Toe (for Antonio) to Mac (Laura) to Dazy (Amanda) to Mels (Gina). But not even the Manzanos, in our relative unconventionality, were exempt from the hamster phase that often consumes families during that experimental stage of adolescence, where everything exists within a trial period — and everything from pets to sports to instruments is fair game.
I am firmly convinced that for the rest of her life, my mother will be taking care of things. She’s spent the last 23 years of her life raising children, and will continue to do so for another five, until Gina, the baby, leaves for college. She and my father have been hosting every major holiday at their house since I was just a concept. When my paternal grandmother was dying of a brain tumor, my mother, and not my father’s three other siblings, was her caretaker. The cats, the dog, the duck, the kids all know she is mom. I have always been sure that once all the creatures and things that currently captivate her attention have moved on, my mom, in her constant need to own something that requires consistent feeding, will find something, somewhere to care for. Her maternal instincts extend beyond the human species.
When the hamsters came into our house (and lives), I was in the 12th grade, and maybe it was just because the kids weren’t enough of a challenge anymore, but those hamsters were for my mom’s entertainment as much as they were for her children’s. Toast, the golden beauty, earned her namesake from a white, perfectly square butter patch on her back. As bold in personality as he was large in comparison to Toast, Remy was gray and white — the cool, solid presence of masculinity to Toast’s warmth and fragility. Those hamsters were loved, and loved each other, and right on (biological) schedule, Toast became pregnant and gave birth to about a dozen babies quick enough for Gina’s eyes to miss the process of their creation.
Oh, the joys of parenthood. Oh, the joys of baby animals. After passing the flesh-jelly-bean stage of development, the ten hamsters that remained (after the weaklings were eaten by their mother for strength [towels shrouded the gore during these dark days]), enjoyed a blissful youth, frolicking in their aquarium, drinking their mother’s milk, and being tossed short distances in the air by their human siblings.
Perhaps it should have been up to one of those older human siblings (like me, I guess) to prevent the sequence of events that followed, but I suppose that death cannot exist without regret. Fueled by the confidence of their youth, my brother and two sisters decided to sit in a circle on the living room floor, legs extended and toes touching to create a ring within which we allowed all ten of the babies to play, and I joined them. At this moment, life’s greater complications and anxieties were suspended in the saccharine air of the children and the hamsters’ interconnected happiness that ebbed and flowed serenely like the steady ocean tide.
All it took was the silence of four cat paws sauntering into the room to send Gina into frenzy. Rising up from the carpet like a velvet curtain exposing the open world to their beady eyes, the baby hamsters took a glimpse of freedom’s tempting view and went for it. Down went the Berlin wall! Down with confinement and down with conformist restraints! The babies went off in their own direction — any and every direction. The cat had spread word, and around the corner came his two friends. Fingers delicately and quickly latticed themselves to scoop up the furry golf balls and toss them back into the cage as they scurried around the living room, taking in the musty leather sofa and the popcorn crumbs. Antonio was cackling hysterically, Amanda was screaming, Gina was distributing unintelligible commands that she couldn’t afford to invest in. After all, she was only nine. As she helped collect the babies while warding off the cats with vicious stares, Gina lost her footing. She kneeled down to the floor, and felt what she’d never want to again.
Squished upon impact: a baby lost in the shuffle, intestines exposed and heart, still beating, to his right. Thump thump. Thump thump.
My mother, in her hawk-like swiftness, shrouded the gore once again with the plastic hamster home, and soon after removed its empty carcass. For the next half hour, the four of us huddled on the couch mourning respectfully, the reality of death sinking into some of our minds for the first time. We said a prayer for the newly christened “Pancake,” and wished him well en route to hamster heaven — where the water is always fresh and the wheels never squeak.