By all accounts, today has been unusual. It’s also been a bit hard on the heart, too. This morning, the boys and I were surprised to find Woodstock, our six-year-old guinea pig, dead. Now, six years is a respectable lifetime for a guinea pig, who have a life expectancy of six to eight years, but his death was a bit of a shock. Somehow, I assumed Alfie, his older cagemate, who is about seven-and-a-half, would go before Woodstock. And, given the slow demise of a gerbil a few years back, requiring a trip to the vet for euthanasia when his suffering became obvious, I guess I expected death after at least a brief illness. Coming to the cage and finding him dead never crossed my mind.
Woodstock was my first furry pet. As a kid, I’d had two goldfish, each named Goldie, and a cricket, named Arthur. I can’t recall my reaction to the death of each Goldie, but I do know I wept bitterly at the loss of Arthur, which occurred three weeks after his capture from the wild and imprisonment in my room. Allergies (mine and my dad’s) and an aversion to pets to care for (mom’s) made all non-aquatic or insect pets out of the question. So aside from the occasional weekend caring for a class gerbil or hamster, furry pets (or any pet interested in a relationship with humans) was out of the question. The first mammals in my care were my children. When I’d kept them alive until the sturdy ages of seven and three, they hit me up for a pet.
“How about a fish?” I countered.
My older firmly informed me that fish were not real pets. You couldn’t hold them, at least not more than once. No, he asserted, he wanted a pet with fur. A real pet.
So we reviewed our options. Dogs and cats were out. I was allergic to both, and that was far more care and committment than I was up for. Rabbits? Allergic to them as well. Dreadfully. Mice? Too micey. Gerbils? Too much like mice. And don’t they bite? Hamsters? Stinky. My younger discarded howler monkeys on his own — way too loud and howly. Guinea pigs? Hmmm. I was stumped on that one, not having been around one since elementary school classrooms. Research was needed.
So we delved into guinea pig books and websites. From our reading, they seemed fairly sturdy (good when you have an inquisitive 3-year-old around), generally unlikely to bite, and generally unlikely to escape. Off to the pet store we went, where we found Woodstock, an eight-week old American Smooth, brown and black, bouncy guinea pig. We were smitten, and we set on making his life as good as possible, with the best food and hay, a large cage we made from Coroplast and squares of metal shelving, and comfy fleece bedding.
But soon, our reading led us to belive Woodstock was lonely. Guinea pigs need a buddy, it seemed, and while ours seemed content with our ministrations alone, we set out to find him a friend. How we stumbled onto the Guinea Pig Lady (our name for her), I don’t recall, but we drove a half hour south to see this woman who gave much of her home to be a guinea pig shelter. In addition to some 30 sheltered pigs, she had 20-odd pigs of her own, living in the most elaborate three-or-four story (pig stories) structure. At some point, my younger mentioned that the pigs might want a snack, and the cacophony of squeaks that followed his words was nearly deafening. Somehow in all that, we found Alfie, a white and brown Abyssinian who was between one and two years. He was the friend for Woodstock.
Cautiously, we introduced them, first putting them in adjacent cages, then supervising time with them out of the cages, and finally caging them together. And they didn’t care. Sure, they chuttered at each other a bit over which shelter to use, and for the first few years of their cohabitation, they would mount each other, with no clear dominance emerging, but really, they just didn’t seem to care about each other. Ah, well. We decided they were friends. And we’d become bona-fide pet owners. My parents were surprised. Honestly, I was surprised. I hardly needed more bodies to care for, but I really did bond with the stinky, messy guys (the guinea pigs, well, and the boys).
Gerbils followed, then aquatic frogs. Mealworms, ants, guppies, fighting fish, slugs, and snails all found shelter in our home for prolonged periods over the years. And while the gerbils and most of the rest have passed on or been released, only the guinea pigs and those immortal aquatic frogs remain. The pigs were our gateway drug of sorts, opening our doors to an ark-load of creatures over the years.
And, over the years, we’ve lost fish and gerbils, ants and slugs. But this was different. Woodstock was my first furry pet, and, for a rodent, he had a remarkable amount of personality. He was the one who squeaked every time the fridge opened, hoping for lettuce, carrots, curtains, fleece, plastic… he was hardly a discriminating eater. He was the one who greeted each foster cat that batted a paw between the bars of the cavy cage with a hopeful sniff, looking for food. Yeah, he was a bit slow. We didn’t dub him least likely to survive in the wild for nothing. But he had personality.
My older was initially sad, although not as bereft when, several years back, we had his first gerbil put down. My younger was a bit scornful of his brother’s and mother’s long faces and sad tones. “It was just a guinea pig,” he scolded. “It’s not like it was a cat.” Ah, priorities.
But life goes on. Alfie seems unphased by the loss of his cagemate of six years, and I imagine he’s glad to have the food to himself. And the three of us are rather distracted. Today, February 22, the boys’ half-brother was born. They’ve been excited about his coming, which is a contrast to their reactions when first hearing about him seven months earlier. In contrast, I’ve been sad and pensive over the past few weeks, as birth became imminent. I’ve ridden waves of anger and sorrow, tempered by the hope that my children and this child can bond and grow to love each other. I’m watching what I feel become colored by my thoughts and vice versa, and simply watching that process reminds me how easily I can confuse those thoughts and feelings with the reality of the situation. Reality is that one life has left the world and another has entered. Reality is a universe taking care of itself, ever maintaining balance. So I keep breathing, sometimes crying, sometimes simply being, and, occasionally — just occasionally — smiling.