I knew him, reader, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore my son on his back a thousand times...
For his 8th birthday, Mason picked the scraggliest hamster at PetSmart, the one with a nick in his ear as though he'd been in a bar fight. Mario (named after the video game hero) proved a suitably game pet - he endured Rocky (the cat) sneaking around his cage at all hours, once even hooking it with a menacing claw and yanking it off the shelf. Mario loved tooling around Mason's room in the transparent lime-green ball, sometimes getting wedged into a corner but never making a fuss. Occasionally he peeped when the water bottle was low or when he'd picked all the delicious nuggets from his dish, but most of the time he seemed generally pleased to chew on salt licks shaped like ice cream cones and pitch shavings in a 2-foot diameter.
Tonight, Mason risked being late to watch The Simpsons Christmas in order to play with his hamster a bit. When he yelled from the stairs that Mario had bitten him, my heart sank. Mario never, ever bites (except maybe when he was in that ear-nicking bar fight). Even Mason was bewildered, saying over & over he didn't know why Mario would do that - there's plenty of food, Rocky wasn't around, I didn't squeeze him or anything.
I know, buddy; you take good care of him, I know. I helped Mason put Mario back in the cage and we immediately knew; his friend was breathing rapidly, eyes wide open but unseeing. It is a terrifying, helpless thing to watch a creature die; it is a more terrifying and helpless thing to console a child who is watching a creature die.
It is a strange feeling to respect the value of any life, even a rodent's, yet also remind myself it's a $9 hamster; it didn't interact in any significant way. But that's not true - for Mason, anyway. My son woke up with Mario, went to sleep with Mario, probably told Mario all about his mean mom & dad who made him pay a dollar if he missed the bus. Mario was my boy's touchstone when life outside his bedroom was hard, or boring.
He will be missed.