01/11/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

A Boy and His Hamster

Sam and Stan were good friends, with a relationship dating all the way back to kindergarten. Considering that Sam is now in third grade this might not seem all that long a time to you, but keep in mind that, for an 8 year-old, three years is quite a while. And theirs was quite a friendship.

Stan was a hamster born in Sam's classroom during Sam's first year in school. Sam's mom was initially reluctant to allow a hamster to come into their home, even though it was supposed to be "just for a visit" over one of those three-day weekends. She knew, of course, that Sam had been begging for a pet. (Actually, he'd been begging, whining, pleading, I'll-eat-all-my-vegetables-and-keep-my-room-clean-forever promising.) She also knew the risk was that one fuzzy little toe through the door was likely to lead to more than just a weekend. Added to that, while Sam's mom was not particularly interested in adding any pet to the family, a rodent was just about the least desirable creature she could imagine. That is, until she went to visit Stan in Sam's classroom.

He was a little ping-pong ball of golden fur with big round, black eyes that stared at the world in wonder. A wiggling nose, accented by almost invisible mustache whiskers. And curious little fingers that liked to grab a person's index finger and just hold on.

In reality, of course, Sam's mom had legitimate cause for concern. A kindergartner is too young for the responsibilities of caring for an animal. Plus the choice of animal was not necessarily the wisest: hamsters are fragile and, as a result of inbreeding and poor initial socialization and care, they can also be somewhat unpredictable, even aggressive. Combined with a nocturnal preference, hamsters are not the first choice for little kids.

But after seeing little Stan sleeping all snuggled in little Sam's hand, mom decided that she was more than willing to share the work to make this match permanent. Or as permanent as things get. Hamsters are not long-lived animals and Stan's life has now sadly run its full course.

Sam originally wanted to name his friend Sam, like himself. I suspect that his thinking, conscious or not, spoke of an appreciation of that unparalleled closeness with a loved one, of a relationship defined by inseparability. His mother, however, felt that two distinct names were not too much of a price to ask her son to pay. "Sam 2," therefore, became "Stan," chosen because it was as close a match as Sam could think of. And it never seemed to matter to Sam, or to Stan for that matter, that the hamster was a girl. What's in a name, anyway?

Stan died in her sleep, peacefully, an old hamster of three. Not unusual for hamsters, one day she woke up with a big lump under her skin. A couple of days later she just didn't wake up at all. The fancy cage and all the toys sit empty now in Sam's bedroom, and he has cried and cried.

Mom assures me that Stan broke through the barrier and that another friend will join them, sometime soon, when the time seems right for the family. For now, it's time to miss a good little friend, someone known since way back in kindergarten, and for Sam, with the help of family, to learn something else about the complexities of love, difficult lessons even for us adults, but essential if we are to fully appreciate the richness of caring.