Vicky and I sucked the salt off our Shamrock Margaritas, a St. Patty’s special somehow still around in early April. We weren’t feeling very lucky: Boba, our African pygmy hedgehog, had died just two hours earlier.
Our first instinct, of course, was to hit Chevys and shove Tex-Mex down our choked-up throats. Not just any Chevys, but the Chevys in Colma, California, a cemetery town harboring Joe DiMaggio and Wyatt Earp’s remains, where the dead outnumber the living 100 to 1, where sullen hedgehog owners come to drown their sorrows in triple sec and crispy chicken flautas.
Vicky and I had cried enough tears to make a small island out of Northern California’s favorite whitewashed Mexican food chain. We’d only been married a few months, so this was our tragedy honeymoon, our first time facing loss head-on as a team.
“Do you think she’s in heaven? Or hedgie heaven?” I tried to eke a smile out of Vicky’s puffed-up face, though I was legitimately curious.
“I hope so,” Vicky said somberly, through a mouthful of tortilla chip shards.
She thumbed through classic Boba pictures and videos on her phone: Boba wearing a red-and-white-striped Christmas beanie; Boba sitting in a miniature lawn chair with a beer mug emoji over her paw; Boba in a pumpkin; Boba in a coffee cup; Boba posing with BB-8 for her “May the Fourth Be with You” photo shoot. All of these can be found on Boba’s official Instagram page. Her followers include other hedgehogs like Hugo the Hedgie, Harley Hiccup and Quill Latifah.
We didn’t expect Boba’s last photo shoot to be the day before: a series of X-rays at the Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital. Vicky and I sat in a waiting room full of disconsolate pet owners, waiting to speak with Dr. Sipperstein, one of the few exotic pet veterinarians in the Bay Area.
I was frantically click-clacking my laptop keys, emailing my co-workers about my emergency vet trip. (Hedgehog illnesses aren’t as “sexy” as dog or cat ailments, so more string-pulling is required.) Vicky was seated next to me, striking up a conversation with a man whose dog had suffered a hit-and-run. Good thing Boba isn’t in that kind of shape, I thought. This will be a quick oil change, nothing more —
Dr. Sipperstein summoned us into her quarters. “You can call me Dr. Sipp, like a drink,” she said with a smile. We smiled back, thinking there was nothing to worry about, because there wasn’t. It was nothing serious, probably just a minor infection or digestive issue. The blood? Eh, maybe she was passing a kidney stone. She’d be all right.
But when Dr. Sipp showed us the X-ray results, there was no kidney stone. And since there was no urine in her blood, and hedgehogs don’t menstruate, uterine cancer or a tumor was the likely culprit. Thus, the only way to save the life of Boba the hedgie — and put her Instagram followers at ease — was a no-guarantees exploratory surgery for a quill-raising $1,200.
We couldn’t afford it, and the extent of Boba’s condition didn’t allow us the time for a GoFundMe page. So we left Dr. Sipp with bloody hedgehog and bloody wallet — the X-rays alone were $300 — and bloated eye bag reservoirs and strawberry banana-flavored hedgehog meds. On the .001% chance that Boba was suffering from a curable infection, 20 cc’s of Sipp’s potion would get Boba up and at ’em. But with each dose came another zero after the decimal.
“Maybe we should have put her down at Dr. Sipp’s. She told us the meds likely weren’t going to work.” Vicky was struck with a case of the What Ifs; I felt equally hypothetical.
“We had to try. What if it all works out somehow?”
“Well, it’s not looking that way. I don’t want to watch her die.”
But that’s exactly what we did. We watched Boba wobble a few steps and plop, wobble a few steps and plop, leaving thick globs of blood in her wake. We sat nose-to-nose with her, stroking her spiky little head and exhausting every line of the baby talk handbook.
When Boba’s passing was nigh, I cupped her in my hands and rubbed her tummy with my thumbs, staring into her glassy eyes, my boogery tears dampening her downy underbelly. “It’s OK, baby girl, it’s OK. It’ll be all right.”
I carefully placed Boba back into her Sterilite box. A few minutes later I saw her last huff, the final bubbly gurgle. Boba’s quills shot up, initiating her prickly ascension to the Hedgie Heaven that I was 99.9% sure didn’t exist.
After shoveling the last of the refried beans and sweet corn tomalito into our mouths, we left the sombrero’d artifice of Chevys and returned home to our Boba-less abode. Our tiny one-bedroom apartment felt twice as big and twice as small. I laid my head on Vicky’s lap to form one large coping mechanism on the couch; we needed to feel larger in this newfound void.
“She lived a happy life,” I said, peering up at Vicky. “Three years was longer than she would have managed in the wild.”
“You remember what Dr. Sipp said?” she recalled. “That Boba probably lived with the disease for months and was hiding it from us? It’s a survival mechanism that protects them from predators.”
“Yeah. Or maybe Boba kept it on the low because she didn’t want us to worry.”
Where did that come from? Here I was, harking back to Santa-Claus-down-the-chimney naiveté, humanizing my hedgehog a la Sonic, trying to Sega Genesis my way through the grieving process.
Wasn’t it absurd to mourn like this? What were the limits of hedgehog bereavement, the expected timeline of spiny-mammal grieving? Would people roll their eyes if Vicky and I were a mess days, weeks, months later?
I didn’t have much time to think about it: A few days after Boba’s death, my grandma died. A few days after that, my dad underwent an unexpected, emergency brain surgery.
A mortal trifecta of Boba, Grandma and Dad in the same week would have killed me, but fortunately Dad’s surgery went without a hitch. I took care of Dad for a month following his hospital stay, applying my hedgehog caretaking experience where necessary (read: force-feeding him his meds).
When Dad made a full recovery, it gave me a chance to tune in to my previously scheduled mourning programming: Boba; Grandma; my and Vicky’s lost months of newlywed lovemaking. Boba chomped the biggest bite out of my melancholy sandwich. Outsiders initially thought it was cute, likening my sorrow to a kindergartner lamenting a squashed ladybug, and then playfully grief-shaming me when they realized my hedgehog tears weren’t crocodile tears.
After all, Boba never tackled me and slathered my face with saliva. She didn’t roll over or play dead. She couldn’t meow, or purr, or meow-sing the Meow Mix jingle. I couldn’t ride her or walk her. And she didn’t take me on Toys R Us shopping sprees like Grandma.
Boba slept all day and ran on her wheel all night. She chewed on my hair. She pooped and peed often and effortlessly. She could hardly see, and recognized people only by smell, puffing and spiking up like a blowfish when she sensed an unfamiliar presence.
No, she wasn’t the overly affectionate, extroverted pet that cuddled and clamored for attention and wore a heart-shaped collar. But her name was Boba, and she was my baby girl.
A year and a half later, Vicky and I miss Boba like –ississippi, but a little less now that she’s returned. Sort of. Instead of burying Boba in the Pet Sematary, we went the taxidermy route. A family friend froze her, thawed her, removed her internals, cleaned her, stuffed her, shaped her and delivered her to us on National Pet Day.
Recently, another small critter entered our lives: “Cheeks,” a short-haired Syrian hamster. We’re enjoying what little time we have with Cheeks — and stuffing her mouth with plenty of peanut butter puffs — but I wonder if this is Boba and Grandma all over again. I have one grandmother left, and if she dies the same week as Cheeks I might lose it.
I’m not sure how a dead hedgehog, or a dead hamster, can out-sad a sweet, dead old lady; what variables boost the sorrow factor; why the bereaving Hungry Hungry Hippos balls bounce the way they do. But I know catharsis isn’t proportional to the size and intelligence of a person or animal — or thing.
My older brother once handcuffed Wilber, my teenage sister’s stuffed duck, to her bedpost. She blubbered. A few years back, a 20-something I hardly knew was shot dead in his driveway, victim of a random gang killing. Hit me like a roundhouse kick.
I doubt Cheeks’ death will require a funeral procession and motorcade. But she and Boba are just as deserving as their barking, meowing, galloping, bipedal counterparts. Warm-blooded, cold-blooded, fluff-filled — all can ride the melancholy-go-round, and all can mourn their kinfolk, pets and complete strangers however they please.
Gark Mavigan is a “prose-fessional,” hip-hop artist and poet based in San Francisco. He has performed at venues like the White House and the National Poetry Slam, sharing stages with the likes of Common, D.M.C. (of Run-D.M.C.) and MC Jin. He is a member of the California Writers Club, and his work has appeared in Earmilk, sPARKLE & bLINK, HotNewHipHop, Respect magazine and Elevator magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @GarkMavigan.