I appreciate that the majority of people I know (and don’t know) will roll their eyes and give this blog a miss. It is, after all, about a hamster.
But Hector Dougan the Wonder Hamster became much more than that to us.
Two years ago, my 16 year old was broken in many ways. She couldn’t cope with school, with peers, with life, with her emotions and we struggled to cope as a family. We were all individually and separately limping along amidst the sadness and disparity that was our family life, all silently un-coping.
And then one day, Hector found us.
It had been a bad day. Arran had, after months of me nagging her, joined my Taekwon Do club. It was transformative – she fitted; she succeeded; she smiled. Then one day, it didn’t work. It should have been a happy day, celebrating medal wins and companionship. But she couldn’t go in; she couldn’t hold it together; she wobbled; she cried; she panicked. She broke.
She wailed like the lone survivor of a freak accident, full of shock and doubling inexplicable pain all the way home, while me and her brothers silently communicated via the rear-view mirror. Transformative was short-lived. I was helpless and hopeless once again.
And then Hector found us.
We stopped at the local pet shop to pick up some straw on the way home – my youngest son (5 at the time) came into the tiny shop while the other two sat right outside the door in the car. We didn’t see him, but he saw us and knew we were his. We were aware of a noise coming from the back corner of the shop and, as I wandered off to investigate, I found him. He was the weirdest looking hamster I had ever seen. He was hanging from the roof of his cage, quacking like a duck and gazing right into my soul. My son joined me at my side and we just stared at this little creature, transfixed and temporarily soothed by his presence.
I walked away. I could not, under any circumstances, take a(nother) pet home on a whim. But I walked back again and repeated the process several times before I heard myself say to my son (who had not moved a muscle since he had laid eyes on this hanging, quacking soul-gazer) “Will we take him home? Go and get your brother and sister out the car.” I knew (when my daughter stood sobbing in the pet shop as we introduced her to our new dysfunctional family member) that this was good decision.
And so, Hector Dougan the Wonder Hamster joined the family (My youngest son insisted ‘Dougan’ be his last name as it made him sound important). And, despite the fact that I was in the hamster-sized dog house for a week (I remember uttering the words to someone “I think my relationship might be over because I bought a hamster”) he really was much more than any of us were expecting.
To put it into context, I am an animal nut. What we really want is a dog but it’s just not possible. I’d fill my house and garden with waifs and strays if I could and the thought of a wee animal being bought in a shop and not given a good home keeps me awake at night. So I take them home to ‘save’ them. But I think now that Hector saved us in a lot of ways.
My other half, having lost his shit at the appearance of a plastic townhouse with tubes and tunnels, midnight mileage on a squeaky wheel and a wooden hamster-sized swing park (yep), very quickly softened. And, before long, he was baby-talking to a black and white ball of fur and regularly using the expression “are you coming to your dad wee man?” when Hector sensed his presence and came out to see him.
My daughter, when at her darkest, would take his house upstairs and he would soothe her sadness and do all manner of cute and adorable dysfunctional hamster stuff that they agreed would be just between them. I would lie in bed and hear her talking to him through strangled tears. And then I’d hear a smile in her voice.
He was especially gentle and careful with the boys as they hand fed him, and allowed them to trust him as he trusted them. They knew he would never bite them and he knew they would never mistreat him. They were responsible, they learned what he liked and didn’t like and, together, they all worked it out.
He filled silences on hard days. When the lines of communication were closed once the children were asleep, that’s when he made the most noise – so much noise – until he was lifted onto my lap and crawled between me and Alan on the couch, bridging the gap that, at times, seemed unreachable for us.
And, as we said goodbye to our beloved little hamster this week, I realised that we have a lot to thank Hector Dougan for. He was not simply a nocturnal little rodent with a short life-expectancy. He was a sentient and astute little member of our family whose presence made a real difference for 2 years in a way that I’m actually not sure a dog could have done. He represented something different for each of us, all remembering the time that he entered our lives and how fragmented our lives were back then.
He unified my 3 children when he came into the family, gave them a common interest, and he unified them again in grief as they supported and cared for each other compassionately when he died.
He convinced my daughter to be gentle, to let go of anger and to love and – most importantly – that love and trust is rewarded.
My partner cried openly at the death of our wee hamster, in front of me in private as we lifted his wee body out of his bed and placed him in a box, and in front of the children as we buried him. Hector allowed my children to see that it is ok for a man to show emotion, it is ok to be sad and it is absolutely ok for big boys to cry (I especially thank Hector for this).
He taught the boys that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.
He gave my eldest son the chance to show me and his dad what a truly wonderful human being he is turning into by giving a heart-felt speech about Hector’s best qualities, as we covered his wee grave with earth and his words comforted us all.
He taught the boys that no living thing is replaceable. Nobody wants a new hamster. It won’t be Hector Dougan the Wonder Hamster. He was a one-off and it is ok to be sad that he is gone.
When he arrived 2 years ago, we had hit rock bottom as a family. When we started to think back, we realised just how much had changed in the 2 years since his arrival.
The Mary Poppins of hamsters. His work here is done.