One sunny morning when I was eight or nine, my sister Ellen found a hamster in a cellar window well off the back steps of our house. We never knew how he got there (in hindsight, he had probably escaped from a neighbor), but his miraculous heaven-sent entrance into our life was eclipsed only by the fact that my mother agreed to let us keep him. He was white with a tan hourglass-shaped patch on his back that wrapped around to his pink velveteen forepaws. We named him Muffin. His house was an old fish tank furnished with an exercise wheel and cedar shavings for nesting, where he kept my younger siblings and me spellbound for hours. We wrapped him in fabric scraps from my mother’s ragbag and lulled him to sleep in our cupped hands. We fed him whole peanuts in the shell and watched in fascination as he gripped each one and deftly maneuvered his sharp incisors to reveal the nutmeats hidden within, not to be eaten but instead hoarded within expanding cheeks.
Muffin the hamster was unusually tame, but he sometimes succumbed to baser instincts. On one such occasion my family was finishing our weekly Sunday brunch in the kitchen. Impatient as always to play with Muffin, I ate quickly, asked to be excused from the table, and then headed to the adjacent family room, where I reached down into Muffin’s cage to fetch him out. Muffin took one whiff of my unwashed, bacon-stained fingers and went hard for the nearest one — my thumb — with his two sets of double incisors. He clamped down so quickly and so deeply that when I jerked back my hand in painful surprise Muffin came, too, dangling by his teeth.
I shrieked and froze in place, eyes fixed upon my outstretched hand. For a few seconds Muffin swayed precariously over his cage, attached to my thumb like an iron-jaw circus performer. Family members rushed over just as Muffin got tired, or gravity won out, or the taste of my thumb lost its savor. In the next moment he fell back into cedar chip–lined safety, a little skittish but unhurt. My own eyes widened at the sight of the blood that now began to pour from the punctures in my thumb. I didn’t faint, however: The pain was too sharp. Amidst all the commotion my mother hurried me out of the family room and guided my thumb under a steady stream of the coldest water she could draw from the kitchen faucet. She opened the makeshift medical supply cabinet to the right of the sink and began pushing aside items at a brisk pace.
The rate of searching slowed and then stopped. We were out of bandages again. My mother calmly shifted to Plan B, the nurse’s home remedy. I kept my thumb under the faucet as the stream of cold water simultaneously cleaned the wound and stopped the bleeding. Never mind that the procedure took a full twenty minutes. Although my finger was numbed to stone by that time, the wound would heal beautifully without disinfectant, stitches, or bandages. The hairline crescent-shaped scar that remained is still visible today.
The fact that our house sometimes lacked medical supplies was an ironic reality of life in the home of a nursing professional. Was it disorganization that led my mother to under-stocked bandages in a household of five children? Was she too busy to restock the cabinet, resulting in us being a modern version of the “cobbler’s children”? Or was it something more: overconfidence in her nursing skills? Her medical hack for stopping the bleeding and preventing infection had worked, but it surely had carried greater risk than conventional practices.
As for Muffin the hamster, what the heavens may give, the heavens may take away. He would meet his demise a year or so later after developing a fatal case of rectal prolapse. The lurid sight of his colon hanging out of his bottom was a shock. I remember wondering how God could orchestrate such a cruel ending to such a sweet little creature. It was my first exposure to the Unseen Hand of grave illness, and I cried as much over Muffin’s unnecessary suffering as his eventual death. The day after, my mother called our elementary school to inform the staff that her children might be upset in class because a family pet had died. The phone call, which we children learned about only later, was one of those spontaneous gestures parents make to buffer their children during unpleasant times. My siblings and I could never imagine that our next encounter with the Unseen Hand would involve our mother’s own suffering and death several years later. For that there would be no buffer.
Graduation from Holy Name School of Nursing, circa 1947.
Note: This blog was updated to reflect the fact that, according to my sister, it was she and not my mother who first found Muffin the hamster. I have also changed my probable age based on my sister’s recollection.