It was a surprise to see a Tokyo number, a missed call, appear on my phone. After checking who had called, I knew it couldn’t be good news.
Normally I take a long summer holiday; usually at least five weeks, sometimes as much as seven. This year I kept cutting my planned summer break shorter and shorter. My family had commitments in Europe, but I spent most of the summer alone in Tokyo.
It was all for Echo.
Now, with the icy wind howling outside my holiday home, all I could do, as the cold salty tears gathered on my face, was whisper her name as I spoke on the phone. Oh, Echo.
A few months ago we noticed a lump on Echo’s side. My daughter’s pet dwarf hamster was suddenly ill. A frantic visit to the vet confirmed Echo had a tumour. We agonised over what to do. Surgery seemed like the best option.
For several weeks I’d been trying to build a new custom enclosure for Echo, much bigger than anything we could find in the local pet stores. The project was delayed for several reasons, including my own mistakes and bad planning, which has seemingly slowed everything down since the health issues of last year.
We finally introduced Echo to her new enclosure the night before her operation, and although she wasn’t moving comfortably she seemed to like exploring the extra space.
Her surgery went well and she seemed happy to be in her new home, having quickly mapped out the space.
Next, there was the matter of my daughter’s summer travel schedule. She was due to leave for a long summer school. Then we had family holidays planned in Europe before our annual trip back to Australia.
But now we also had to nurse Echo back to health, a tiny little animal, recovering from an intensive operation.
So, two days after Echo’s operation, I put my daughter on a flight out of Japan, then went home to spend more than a month alone in Tokyo, caring for little Echo every day. Eventually the bandages came off, the stitches came out, and the follow-up tests all seemed encouraging. One day at time, eating, sleeping, burrowing, running, playing, Echo was on the path to recovery.
When we had brought Echo home from the vet, after that initial diagnosis, we were worried. The vet said her condition wasn’t great. But, back in her enclosure, Echo ran on her wheel and burrowed with new-found intensity, almost as if she had resolved to fight, to show us her will to live.
Echo’s illness and recovery happened at a time when I was taking a break from social media. In a way I was glad. This was a very personal story and it felt right to give Echo my undivided attention during the day, then compose daily updates for my daughter, without having to split my attention and wonder how to share this on Twitter or Instagram.
Echo was my daughter’s first pet. For a long time I’d resisted bringing a pet into our home, because we move so often, from country to country. It turned out that Echo brought my daughter and me closer together. We cleaned her enclosure and her various things together. When my daughter was busy with exams, I helped feed Echo, and if she was ever away, I looked after Echo as well.
During late June and through July I was caring for Echo full-time, taking her to and from the vet for checkups, managing the temperature and humidity in the room where she lived, through a treacherously hot and humid summer.
On our last morning together, the day I was due to leave on holidays, everything was clean, packed and ready to take Echo to stay with the vet. I took her out for a final play, but being the morning she was sleepy. She sat on my hand and a I stroked her lightly. Back in her enclosure I fed her some broccoli. This was her favourite food. Once, she tumbled backwards, such was the force with which her little paws pulled a floret from my fingertips. Now she sat, gently holding the broccoli, contently munching away.
I’ve no doubt Echo helped me face my anxiety problems. The small daily rituals encouraged attentiveness and calm. They were little doses of fun and surprise that were far more fulfilling than any weary scroll through social media, looking for affirmation. I couldn’t help but see, in her embrace of life, a faint shadow of my own struggles, the feeling of being small, overwhelmed, and wanting to survive.
A few months after Echo joined us, my daughter came to find me, a worried look on her face. “Echo is gone,” she cried, and I thought she meant her pet had met a premature demise. It turned out my daughter had not closed the cage door properly. Echo had escaped in the night. Thankfully, the room she lived in had its door kept closed.
We went in and started to look. After a few minutes, Echo emerged from a cupboard, door slightly ajar, where she had made a home for herself in the night.
Ever since then we thought of Echo as a little adventurer. Timid and shy, as small creatures are, she always seemed keen to explore her environment, especially when you took her out to play.
When my daughter left on her summer adventure, I was used to feeding Echo, but I wasn’t used to playing with her; that had been my daughter’s thing.
At first Echo still had her stitches in from the operation and was still on medication. I would gingerly pick her up, try to inspect her wound, doing my best to feed her the liquid medicine with a tiny eye dropper dipped in sweet jelly.
After a while it became easier to pick her up and take her to the pen we had made, the “play place” we called it, or to let her run along my legs, the way I had seen her doing so many times with my daughter.
By the last week I spent with Echo, I just had to put my hand flat and palm up in her enclosure and she would walk onto it.
She would do this thing – sitting on the floor, I would put her on the top of my thigh. She would look at me, then run down my leg to where the material ended and bare skin began. Then she would slowly step off and slide down the side of my knee, before her paws found grip some way down my shin. I would put my hands on either side and sometimes she would reach out a paw for support, though most of the time she didn’t. She slid, then stopped, then walked to the end of my foot to survey the room around her. Then Echo would step onto my hand and do it again.
When I think about July in Tokyo, it didn’t feel lonely, because I was always checking on Echo, watching how much she ate and drank, where she slept and for how long, and looking for evidence of her activity, maybe how dirty her wheel was, or how deep the tracks were from one feature in her enclosure to another.
All of this information I documented in the daily emails that I sent to my daughter. From the mundane, like where Echo was waiting for me when I came in to give her breakfast, to the amusing, like the expression on her face, almost of surprise, when she burst out after a vigorous burrowing session to look around for me in the room.
But, it was a lonely time. I was busy with work, photographic and writing projects, together with an endless string of administrative tasks related to building a new website and renewing my visa. I had the usual string of self-improvement appointments, weekly Japanese lessons, pilates sessions, visits to the therapist, and calligraphy classes. I also had a minor injury that saw me getting physiotherapy treatment twice a week for most of the month.
As has usually been the case since I moved to Japan, there was no social life, no coffee with friends, no drinks at the weekend, no chat, small talk, or “How are you going?” My life in Japan is work and family, studio and home.
Cutting my summer holiday short to care for Echo was emblematic of this, something I did willingly, a month I enjoyed thoroughly, because it gave me a chance to focus on things that mattered while also enjoying a delightful little companion. Maybe we need a word for lonely fun?
The vet was sad on the phone. Surprised, too, since Echo had seemed so sprightly, eating well, running and playing; “active”, she said, twice, almost sounding out the word.
She knew how much we cared for Echo and how we had tried to nurse her back to health. When I took her to the vet, they were happy to care for her during our holiday, confident she would be OK. I’d packaged all her food, her daily staples and her favourite treats. The location we put her seemed safe and quiet. I just wished there was some way, beyond words a pet cannot understand, to say “We love you and we are coming back for you.”
It hurts that she is dead, but it hurts more that Echo died, thousands of miles away from us, even if only barely a mile away from where she lived her life, where she knew smiles and love and treats and play.
The vet will keep Echo’s body until we return. The rest of this holiday will feel hollow, knowing that my first task upon returning to Japan will be to collect her tiny body and bring her home to rest in a small corner of our garden.
For a delightful, if too brief a time, Echo was a source of joy in our home. She reminded us that the struggle for life, in equal parts beautiful and tragic, is worth the whole of our attention.
Echo’s short, sweet, wonderful adventure changed us all. Thank you, Echo, thank you.