My first experience with death was also one of my earliest memories.
I was no more than three or four years old when my older brother by two years guided me, secretly, to the bedroom shared by our two older sisters who were away with mom on a weekend trip somewhere in Toronto.
Prior to them leaving we were both told, more than once when something’s forbidden, that under no circumstances were we allowed to enter their room inside which lived two little hamsters. They knew how much we loved playing with them; their fluffy fur, their anxious, twitching noses, and the way their butts waddled back and forth at lightning speed when they darted across the room.
We were doomed from the beginning, especially my brother, who was raised alongside 3 sisters and who found such opportunities electrifying. For him, I image in was similar to being forced to wait for a freshly baked birthday cake to cool before applying the frosting. The instant we were told ‘no’, it became painfully irresistible.
The door to their bedroom was closed, naturally, and the long carpeted hallway leading up to it was darkened so that even in the daylight we could sneak along the shadows undetected. Our father was lying down on his bed reading, and it was easy to get by unnoticed because he always held his book unreasonably close to his face with his impossibly thick glasses perched on his forehead, so that the entire room, doorway included, was completely sheltered from his line of vision. The shaggy cream carpet helped cushion our creeping footsteps.
I remember my brother stopping just before opening the door to signal his finger to his lips. The intensity of his gaze was both menacing and enticing. With incredible ninja-like stealth and care, he ever so slowly turned the handle with both hands, our breath suspended, ears tweaked like satellite dishes in the direction of our father’s bedroom.
I remember how swiftly we slipped inside as the light from within our sisters’ bedroom burst through, screaming into the blackened hallway, threatening to give us away. Safe inside but still in a hushed tone, my brother turned to me told me to stop. In the same breath he explained in impressionable, firm words that silence was of paramount importance. I was absolutely exhilarated by the excitement and at the same time reassured by his confident rebellion the way younger siblings are.
We approached the cage with care, gently poking the warm, sleeping balls of fur and giggling at their alarm. My brother opened the cage door and gently handed me one of them. I held it softly, aware of its warmth and lethargy, still drugged from a heavy afternoon nap. By contrast, its pink nose and whiskers were twitching frantically as though it could sense the impending danger.
I tensed, as I do even now, when I find something adorably cute. Clutching it in both hands, my natural reaction was to hold it close, to squeeze it, hard, as I clenched my jaw.
My senses, untrained, weren’t sharp enough to register the pain signaled by a widening mouth and protruding tongue. I was somewhat perturbed when two strange streaks of scarlet came crying out from behind its bulging, shiny black eyes. Panic and confusion insidiously seeped inside my skin as it does with young children when they slowly become aware that something is wrong.
Horror paled my brothers face as I turned to him still clutching the helpless creature in my fists. He fumbled his hamster to safety and tore the bloodied, compressed corps from out of my trembling hands.
I can’t remember if I cried when my brother placed the dead hamster back inside the cage and covered it with shavings to conceal as best he could the bloodied atrocity.
I don’t remember much else; a flash of red running water in a white sink, hissing whispers from an even whiter-faced brother.
A chilling awareness no doubt felt by him, too, of my strength and power and cruelty that lay at my will and in my fingertips.
For the first time in my life, I felt the heavy-handed blow of Death’s salutation.
The rest is eclipsed from my memory.