Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dealing With Death

A few weeks ago for my son's birthday, my wife and I deliberated on the right gift. Our son Daniel's first choice was an electric scooter, but the thought of him being goaded into stupid risks by neighborhood chums was frightening enough for us to veto that. As a second choice, he asked us if we would consider buying him a pet, specifically a more "cuddly" and interactive one after short stints with a fiddler crab and a minnow. I didn't receive the suggestion with much enthusiasm. My daughters and I deal with varying degrees of allergies to pet dander, but after some cajoling, our family made its way to the local PetSmart to consider our options.

At the store, Daniel asked about a parakeet, but the store employee warned us that birds typically were a bad choice for allergy sufferers, as the molting of the feathers created a great deal of dander. We then asked Daniel to consider a reptile in consideration for our allergies. We found out that the turtles were massive (apparently the small red slider turtles I had once procured from Chinatown many years ago were illegal) and required weekly full aquarium cleanings (scratch turtle of the list). The tortoise was priced at $90 (nope, not going to do that).

So despite my concerns about allergies, we eventually converged on the choice to buy a hamster, specifically a Chinese dwarf hamster. I reasoned that I could mitigate the allergy problems with a HEPA filter and frankly, I had owned a hamster as a child and managed through it okay.

So our son excitedly got his hamster and thoroughly enjoyed his pet, affectionately named "Winnie". Daniel and his sisters would have their eyes glued to every movement of the creature, tracking it as it scurried around its cage, drank from its water bottle and ran in its wheel. But only ten days later, things came to a tragic end.

I was at work when I got a text from my wife.

"Sad news," it read. I stopped typing on my laptop at work, picked my iPhone and waited with bated breath.

"Winnie passed away. Daniel is inconsolable."

I picked up my office phone and called home, first to talk to my wife and then to Daniel. I had only a few minutes to share my sympathies with my son before having to run to a meeting.

Later that evening, my son was still saddened by his loss, but I wouldn't categorize him as devastated or despondent. They managed to wait for me to, uh, perform funeral duties Winnie, so I figured it would be helpful for Daniel to join me. Together, we put Winnie's body into a paper towel and created a makeshift shroud, secured by masking tape. We trudged out to our backyard into the rain with a shovel and together dug a small hole at the base of a tree. Daniel placed Winnie into the hole and we filled it back up.

I looked at my son. "Daniel, do you want to say a few words? Maybe a little prayer? Maybe you can thank God for the brief time you had together."

Daniel paused and folded his hands and prayed pretty much verbatim what I had suggested, and we walked back in the house.

That evening, we talked briefly about death, and while I didn't want to force the conversation, I did want to take this opportunity to understand some of his thoughts. I think he was still very much processing losing his pet, and for better or for worse, the brevity of time he had with Winnie might have taken some of the sting away. I did remind him that death was something which we're always going to experience around us, and ultimately to us. I also told him that death is a hard reminder to be grateful not just for the time we have with friends and family (in particular, our grandparents and older relatives), but for each day that we ourselves get to experience life.

I was probably preaching that to myself, as well.

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