We had the name before we had a pet to give it to. Crabapple. My oldest had deemed it the perfect name for a pet of any kind and so regardless of what ended up inhabiting our home, it would be called Crabapple.
We landed on a hamster—but this was after months, maybe years, of dragging our feet on a pet of any kind. “We aren’t pet people,” we kept telling our kids. But our kids, it turned out, were pet people—or so they believed.
So, despite what felt like our better judgment when our oldest turned 11, we caved. A hamster seemed like the perfect compromise. Plus, the lifespan was only one to two years. If it turned out Asher discovered he was not the pet person he imagined himself to be, we’d only be dealing with regret for two years—tops. My only request was that the hamster be a girl. I needed some estrogen in the house.
And so, in November of 2020, Crabapple became ours. She was feisty. She had sass. And that girl on a hamster wheel was a thing to behold. There were more than a few nights when we would wake up in the morning and see her cage in the middle of the hallway, Asher having moved her out there in the middle of the night because her nighttime escapades were waking him up.
She was ours this past year and a half and we all ended up falling for her a little more than we expected.
But then, last night, after a fancy dinner out celebrating our 10-year-old’s birthday—after good food and a fabulous dessert, funny stories and celebratory toasts—we came home to find Crabapple curled up in a corner of her cage, eyes closed, trembling, shaking, not acting at all like herself. It was obvious Crabby, as we had come to call her, was not okay. We weren’t either. We knew a hamster’s typical life span, and yet this, the shock of a reality we knew to be inevitable, we truly did not see coming.
Yesterday, in addition to being Pace’s birthday, it was also Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the day when we visibly wear the marker of our mortality on our foreheads, or at least in the forefront of our minds. In Georgia, the signs of new life, following the bleakness of a winter season, have already started to appear.
Cherry blossoms have started blooming.
Daffodils have begun opening.
Leaves have commenced budding.
It feels more like Easter season than Lent season. But the church calendar pays no mind to the moderate climate of a southern state. Our premature daffodils don’t allow us to skip ahead of the story. Yes, new life is coming, but first, there is, as there must be, a reminder of death.
And still, as unavoidable as death is, it seems we just can’t resist the temptation to try and avoid it as much as possible anyway. The reality of it. The injustice of it. The mortification of it. It’s the shared destiny of every living thing and yet, it still manages to surprise us. We are indignant and offended that death would humble us in this way—would expose our frailty, would have the gall to keep doing what it has always done as long as life has posed a beginning, never failing to offer just as efficiently, an ending.
Maybe it’s hubris that keeps us from dwelling too much on the unavoidable end that awaits us. Or maybe it’s that if we contemplate too often the inevitable ending of ourselves—but really, of everything—we would never be able to muster the energy to get out of bed. Whatever the reason, Ash Wednesday is a forced confrontation of what exists in front of us all the time, but we have mastered the fine art of denial around.
Ashes to ashes, we are reminded. Dust to dust. This is life. But here, also, is death.
Turns out the questions surrounding death are the same coming from adults and kids; the same regarding people and pets.
“Did she suffer?” they wonder.
“Was there something we could have done?” they fear.
And it turns out you never have the right enough words to answer the questions you don’t fault your tenderhearted kids for asking.
“No, sweet boy. No, I don’t think so.”
A tiny cardboard box the perfect size for a beloved hamster reminds us of what Ash Wednesday circles back to every year, what is inescapable despite our best efforts. Death is real. Full stop. Death is hard. Death is not the way it was meant to be. Death is our future.
But forty days from now, at the first hints of dawn, as the night starts to lift, and light begins to fill in the crevices and corners of the earth—even and especially the crevices and corners of a tomb with a stone no longer covering the entrance—we will be reminded: though death may be real, it is not the realest thing there is.
Ashes to ashes.
Dusts to dust.
Mortal bones, yes.
But coming, an eternal glory.
Until then, in the meantime, we sit in our ashes. We wear them. We name them. We accept them. We understand we can’t escape them. But one day, thanks be to God, we will transcend them.
Human and maybe, just maybe, hamster, alike.