Arif always loved amimals - and many animals that he met loved him in return. We had bird feeders in the back yard, and he made sure they were well stocked. Spiders were escorted outside rather than squished. We even bought a pair of geckos to keep the insect population under control without people harming the six and eight legged critters.
Like most families in a city, if not somewhat suburban, setting, we had a dog, named Raffi, and a black cat, named Shadow. Raffi belonged to Steve, a younger brother, and Shadow was under the care of his sister, Honnah. They both were gentle and patient creatures, as was necessary in a family with several small children.
We contracted for a subscription to a series of cards describing all sorts of animals. Arif watched the mailbox each month for years anticipating their arrival. We still have those cards tucked away in a closet.
When out shopping, it was not unusual to visit a pet store (or two) and ask numerous questions about the care of animals we viewed. The store attendants seemed to love answering his questions, only to be disappointed that we did not purchase anything.
One day - Arif was eight - when visiting a pet store, the hamsters caught Arif’s eye. One particular white Siberian Dwarf hamster, in particular, captured his heart. We heard his pleas for days afterward. Finally, Pop gave in and they returned to the store to acquire said hamster, and the necessary equipment and the healthiest food for the animal’s care.
Arif named the little fellow Snowball.
Upon arrival at home, Arif busied himself, hoping his newfound furry friend would be comfortable in Arif’s room. He set up a cage with water, plenty of cedar chips, and lots of tunnels for Snowball to run through. Each week, as he cleaned the cage, Arif re-arranged the tunnels so Snowball would not get bored. Snowball got treats like fresh greens and sunflower seeds from time to time. Arif was fascinated by the way Snowball stuffed his cheeks with the food before he ate it.
Not long after Snowball moved into Arif’s room, some special friends came to visit. The eldest daughter was Arif’s best friend, in the innocense of eight year olds. However, Arif was not yet dressed when the family arrived, but was so excited that he forgot that detail and ran out to greet his friend all excited to show her his new pet. Unfortunately, his intentions were misunderstood and their friendship was never quite the same after that.
Time passed as Arif and Snowball settled into a routine. Raffi, however, also found a fascination with the tennis ball that moved on its own. Raffi received numerous scoldings for paying a little too much attention to Snowball.
One day, as we returned from an evening church service, Arif found Snowball’s cage on the floor, and no sign of the hamster. We feared the worst. Raffi was found with his nose under the sofa in the front room. Steven was instructed to put Raffi out back. Pop picked up the sofa and Arif retrieved the ball of fur which was huddled underneath.
It was obvious that Raffi had quite a time with his self-propelled tennis ball. Snowball’s fur looked like he had joined a Metal band - matted in some places, spiked in others, and covered with dog slobber, but there was no sign of bleeding - at least on the outside. He was swollen to half again his size, so we realized he must have had many internal injuries. It seemed to us that Raffi had no intent to actually harm his furry playmate, but must have tossed him around a good bit.
Arif was devastated. He burst into tears and begged me to do something to save Snowball. I replied that I did not have what it took to save his buddy, but that we could pray to St. Francis for guidance, if not for a miracle. St. Francis was one of Arif’s heroes and was noted for his care for and rapport with animals.
We both said a quick prayer to ask for St. Francis’ intercession. Arif retired to his room to continue to pray, while I took Snowball into the bathroom to at least get him cleaned up.
As I started running the water and waited for it to warm up, I was struck with an inspiration. A short while earlier, I read a book by a noted herbalist. He spoke very highly of cayenne pepper, especially in tincture form, as a circulatory system tonic. He claimed that cayenne tincture could stop internal bleeding. I recently ordered some cayenne tincture from his store.
It was worth a try, I figured. There was little else I could do. So I sent one of the other children to fetch the bottle from my purse.
I finished cleaning the poor little thing as gently as I could. Then I placed one drop of cayenne tincture in his mouth, hoping for the best and that it would not be a terrible experience for him.
As I gingerly dried Snowball off, I again prayed:
“The rest is up to you, St. Francis. You know how much my son loves his hamster.”
Arif kissed Snowball, and put him carefully back in his cage. I reminded him that the injuries were extensive and that Snowball might not last the night.
Early next morning, I awoke to a shout.
“Mom! Come quick!”
I dashed into Arif’s room, fearing the worst, then realizing that Arif was more excited than upset.
Snowball was alive! He looked like he had no adventures the night before.
Arif and Snowball enjoyed a long (for a hamster) friendship, until one day, as Arif was cleaning the cage, Snowball ran off. We looked everywhere, left out treats in various places, but no sign of Snowball could be found.
When we moved from that house a couple years later, we did find a familiar shaped skeleton behind the washing machine.
Fast forward ten years. Arif miraculously survived a car accident (you can read parts of that story here).
After spending months in hospitals, we finally brought him home - a very different fellow than the one who left that fine April morning. He was wheelchair bound, paralyzed on his left side, and barely able to talk. His attention span and memory were roughly equivalent to that of a goldfish. He often told us he had taken a vow of silence, so it was quite difficult to get any communication from him.
Honnah drove us 45 minutes each way three times a week to take him to physical, occupational, and speech therapy appointments first thing in the morning. He did dress himself, but very slowly and I needed to be present the whole time, or he would forget what he was doing. In order to keep myself calm, I talked with him and prayed with him during the drawn out process. Most of the time, it was a monologue as I got minimal verbal response from him. So, I talked about just about anything that popped into my head.
At one point, I read some accounts of near death experiences, so I became curious. Since Arif was diagnosed as having “no brain activity” for some time, I decided to ask him about the possibility. I really had no expectations of his response.
“Arif, I was wondering if you had some sort of experiences when you were in the hospital - something apart from the hospital events themselves.”
I wanted to leave it as open ended as possible, so he would not be ‘led’ in any particular direction.
To my utter surprise, Arif brightened up and really began chattering:
“Yes! I died and I was judged...” (the rest of that dialog is for another chapter)
This became a topic for discussion on a number of our early morning, sessions. I asked him to describe the events he experienced. The descriptions were fluid and very similar from one telling to the next. With his memory issues, I thought he might forget from one morning to another what he said previously.
After feeling confident that he had really “been there” I began to ask less open ended questions. I asked if he met certain friends and family members who had passed away earlier. His responses made a good bit of sense according to what we knew about those people. Most of those will also be in another chapter.
I also asked about his encounters with various saints. Some of these stories were more vague than those mentioned above.
Until I asked him about his favorite saint - Saint Francis.
Arif started to laugh - a sound we rarely hear, even today.
“Yes ... I did meet with Saint Francis. ... I was so excited. ... And do you know what? ... Saint Francis reached out to me like this (extending both hands, cupped together with a huge grin). ... And do you know what he handed me? ...... A Snowball!”
I chuckled, thinking that was a rather strange item for a saint to deliver.
“Oh well.” I thought “A rather wild story, and one that doesn’t really make sense.”
It was some time later that I remembered a little white hamster.