The life and death of Biscuit Argus is one of curiosity, tragedy, and ultimately the perfect capture of my childhood.
It begins with the hamster of my friend Kelly. I just adored her hamster. I’d ride my bike to her house, which in the 1980s basically meant that she lived within state lines. We’d study the dances in the videos on MTV, have tea parties at the bottom of her above ground pool, and play with her hamster. I was smitten and just had to get one of my own.
The story goes that I named mine Biscuit because that was the name of the maltipoo I met during our notorious road trip to California, the vacation when Pop pulled up to the Beverly Hills mansion of his college friend in our rented, banged up RV, knocking down his friend’s fancy mailbox in the process. I just loved that maltipoo and figured if I couldn’t get a maltipoo of my own, I could at least save its name for a rainy day—for the name of a dog in a short story or for a hamster, which I did.
Biscuit was a pretty good roommate as far as hamsters go. His bed (or pile of mulched cedar) was in an old terrarium across my room on my desk where he mostly kept to himself. Pop built a screen that latched onto the rim of his glass home, which was a good thing because Biscuit was surprisingly agile for something so small and stubby. I don’t know how that adorable rodent did it, but he ignored his exercise wheel entirely, opting to climb up the outside of the wheel and suspend himself upside down from the screen instead. I figured he was one of the brilliant hamsters; he knew that wheel would never get him anywhere if he used it traditionally, so he’d get to his spot on the screen and crawl across the top of the cage, upside down, eventually turning back to the wheel and back down to the cedar. Unless he fell first, which sometimes happened. Hamsters don’t turn around while plummeting like cats do. They just plop, but he’d always scramble back onto his feet and reward his acrobatics with a cedar nap in the corner.
His trapeze act was a bit unnerving. Screens scratch and creak when a hamster uses them as monkey bars. It sounded similar to what I was sure the monster in my closet would sound like if ever got around to really messing with me. But one thing quieted my strange pet and made him, quite remarkably, fixate on me: the soundtrack to “Anything Goes.” To be specific, the revival starring Patti LuPone. To be even more specific, that fuzzy, domesticated circus rat had a favorite song: “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
At eleven, I already had an eclectic music collection. As the caboose of five, I had an impressive memory of all Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Duran Duran, and even some Rush lyrics. Being the daughter of an opera lover (Pop), I not only knew what “The Magic Flute” was, I could sing “The Queen of the Night” – albeit sharply. Finally, being Mom’s baby after nine years of praying for “just one more,” I was the recipient of everything she never got to do with the first five, which mostly amounted to watching every MGM musical Louis B. Mayer produced. Somehow this led to a love of Cole Porter and “Anything Goes.” It was a madcap house of dancing and singing and recreating the World’s Fair with Fisher Price toys across the foyer and spilling into the living room. It was never quiet and rarely without drama, so of course it would also be the home of a hamster with a preference for a song about a bunch of sinners on a cruise ship begging for a revival.
But one day, Biscuit got what was coming to him.
I came home from school to see him dragging his stubby little legs across the cedar. Mom had him at the vet within thirty minutes. His diagnosis: a broken back. We would have had to put him down right then and there if Doctor Gibbs hadn’t knelt down at eye level to me and asked, “Do you think you can do something very grown-up?”
“Mhmm,” I blubbered. “Anything.”
“You’re going to have to help Biscuit pee several times a day,” he said soberly.
I’m gonna what???
I honestly thought I had done a lot of interesting things by the time I was eleven. I dove off the high dive at the YMCA and didn’t die trying. I taught myself how to ride a ten-speed. I said goodbye to each one of my siblings as they left for college and raised Mom and Pop on my own, but never did I think I’d learn how to gently massage the belly of a hamster until a bright, yellow droplet of pee popped out of its teeny-tiny urethra. However, not only did I do it, I was Biscuit’s personal catheter for a good few weeks – straight into summer and our annual vacation at Prien Lake in July. Between setting out crab lines and diving to the bottom of the lake for shells and rocks, I’d run up to the old lake house, give Biscuit a good squirt, and run back down the wharf.
It was on that vacation that Biscuit died, though. Mom found him in the cedar very still; she knew. I wasn’t surprised, but it still hurt all the same. Biscuit was buried in the shade of a big Magnolia at the base of the bluff overlooking the lake. Pop dug a hole. Mom said a prayer, and my sisters stood in attendance, dutifully, in spite of the fading peak sunlight. Just before “Amen,” I cried out, “Wait!” I ran back up to the house, tears flying from my cheeks. I grabbed my boom box and a recording of “Anything Goes,” the revival starring Patti LuPone.
Biscuit was ushered into Heaven to the sounds of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” right there on the bluff where West Louisiana sees God’s most magnificent sunsets. As Patti’s vibrato shook, we all bowed our heads. I didn’t think this at the time, but I don’t know how my sisters, Mom, or Pop held it together. How did they not split into hysterical laughter? Not even a chuckle. Not even a raised eyebrow. But that was just the way of things in our madcap glorious chaos. Something was always happening for better or worse, but it was never dull and thrived on creativity, love, and a whole lot of faith.
The importance of that one year when I was the owner of a stunt hamster goes beyond learning that I can do hard things (like squeeze the pee out something) and has more to do with just how good I had it. I didn’t grow up with much money, but I lived large. My parents shared their interests with me and fed mine with everything they had, even if it was just their time. My siblings too. We knew there was treasure there within our four walls of suburbia and put our whole hearts into its safe keeping. (Matthew 6:21) We played together, dreamed together, prayed together, and made a production out of everything, including the burial of a hamster— especially one with a soft spot for Cole Porter.