Houston, We Have A Problem

Houston, the school’s pet hamster, came to stay with us over the holiday break. My youngest son worked hard to earn enough money to pay to have this adorably furry friend vacation at our house. Both boys were elated at the thought of having Houston as part of our family for more than two whole weeks.

Unfortunately, one week into Houston’s vacation, we were surprised to find that he had died overnight. Before heading to bed, my husband and I noticed that he seemed lethargic. When my husband checked the next morning, he found him lying in the spot where he had previously placed him, and Houston had stopped breathing. Tears welled up in my eyes as Darin told me.

Not only had the school hamster died while in our care, but how in the world would the boys respond to this devastating news? We wrote an email to the teacher while we waited for the first child to awake. Soon, the door opened across the hallway, and I knew that Sawyer would be jumping up between us within seconds. As we shared with him the heartbreaking news, I began to cry, and he wondered if I was joking. After assuring him that I was not, he sat quietly, soaking in the details.

It wasn’t until he saw Houston for himself that his quiet sobs began to surface. He attempted to hold him once more, only to find that his body was stiff and unfamiliar, so he decided to leave him in his cage. He sat in silence, looking at Houston, before he looked up and declared, “I guess when we bought him at school, he must have been close to two or three already since that’s how long hamsters live.” After a brief conversation, he excused himself to take a shower. I wasn’t sure if he wanted to be alone with his emotions or to wash has body after touching the hamster, but he knew exactly what he needed.

Moments later, Wyatt awoke, and after sharing the news with him, he too asked to hold him. Reaching for Houston’s body, he stopped briefly, noticing the difference, but then continued to hold him, looking him over carefully and gently. He stood quietly for a while before asking to investigate his cage to see if there were any clues as to what may have happened. Before setting him down, he asked for a soft place to lay him, and then he began his analysis. Looking up, he declared, “It must have been his time; after all, they only live for a few years.”

Later that day when I arrived home from work, the boys searched for the perfect box, and we began the process of preparing a place to bury Houston. As Wyatt filled the box with bedding, Sawyer taped a picture of our family inside. Each boy placed a rock with a cross and signed their names to the box. Wyatt gently transferred the hamster onto the bedding and placed a paper towel blanket to cover him. Taking their time, they said goodbye and closed the box. Then they began digging a hole to bury him.

As they dug, I sat beside them, reflecting on the beauty of how they handled their grief that day. Acknowledgement and question. Acceptance and curiosity. Reflection and memory. Laughter and tears. Each response purposeful in laying the hamster to rest.

What does it mean to lay something to rest?

Watching my boys lower the box into the ground, I found myself pondering how it would feel to lay this past year to rest. This year has simply been too much. My heart and body carry the gravity of this year, and I cannot bear it anymore. I long to lay it down.

Before I lay it down, I will hold it up with my weary hands and gently notice all that has assaulted me. I will name what has happened. I will remember. I will laugh and cry and laugh because I’m crying. I am thankful. I am sad. I am not without hope.

Thank you Wyatt, Sawyer, and Houston for showing me what it looks like to lay something to rest.

Bethany Cabell, a lover of simplicity, is often inspired to write by the relationships she holds as a wife, mom, and a physical therapist. Bethany, her husband and their boys returned to life in Texas after wandering off to the Midwest for a season. What she once pictured her life to look like has forever been changed by her two sons. Navigating this messy and beautiful path of parenting two children each with their own unique challenges, she finds grace and beauty in the gift of each moment.