A Death in the Family

When I was a kid, I used to let my pet hamster Ginger have free but monitored run of the living room. One night, I wasn’t watching closely, and a slamming screen door on the back porch cut short Ginger’s little gemlike existence. I was responsible for the death of something I cherished; I was crushed.

A passage I recently encountered in the novel Couples by John Updike, describes with sensuous detail, empathy and humor the final night in the life of a family pet.

The adventure was easy to imagine. Ruth, feeling that her pet needed more room for running, suspecting cruelty in the endless strenuousness of the wheel, not believing with her growing mind that any creature might have wits too dim to resent such captivity, had improvised around his tiny cage a larger cage of window screens she had found stacked in the attic waiting for summer. She had tied the frames together with string and Piet had never kept his promise to make a stronger cage. Several times the hamster had nosed his way out and gone exploring in her room. Last night he had made it downstairs, discovering in the moon-soaked darkness undreamed-of continents, forests of furniture legs, vast rugs heaving with oceanic odors; toward morning an innocent giant in a nightgown had admitted a lion with a mildewed eye. The hamster had never been given cause for fear and must have felt none until claws sprang from a sudden heaven fragrant with the just-discovered odors of cat and cow and dew.

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