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Grief and Guinea Pigs

Dad passed away in July. 

He had a pretty rough day one Saturday – was uncharacteristically difficult and hostile toward the Hospice CNA and my sister when they were trying to get him cleaned up and I called Hospice to let them know and to get advice, different meds, whatever might help.

I headed there after work and Meredith went home, and a little bit later a Hospice nurse – a different one from “our” nurse because it was the holiday weekend and schedules were different – came to check in on Dad.  He sort of resembled Sam the Snowman from “Rudolph.”  He was kind and smiling and, like all the Hospice workers we met, so supportive.  Told me, after I went through a synopsis of what was going on with Dad and what we’d been doing to care for him, that we were doing everything right.  We were good daughters. 

I can’t describe how important little comments like that were to us. 

He also said Dad was angry, and that’s why he’d been so hostile earlier.  I didn’t have time to process that but it made sense.  Angry, frustrated, at what his body wouldn’t do, at the pain he was in.

Anyway, by the time this nurse arrived, Dad was in a better mood, watching the Red Sox and resting. 

The nurse – I’ll call him Sam – introduced himself and he and Dad talked for a while.  Sam asked Dad about his life, they talked of military service and family and sports and photography and flying and birds and the cat and sometimes Dad drifted away onto other topics, but Sam went with him and kept smiling throughout.

At one point toward the end of the visit Dad told Sam “There are still so many things I want to do…but I guess I can’t do them now.”

After Sam left, Dad dozed off watching the ball game, and slept.  He wasn’t really eating much by this point, and sometimes it was difficult to get him to take his meds.  His sleep that night was sometimes loud, labored, liquidy.  I didn’t sleep well on the couch.  Sometimes it would sound like he wasn’t breathing.  But his feet would wiggle or his hand would move, and I’d start my own breathing again.

The next day he slept late and I don’t remember if we had a CNA come that morning or not.  It was Sunday, July 3rd.  I was scheduled to work the closing shift that day instead of my usual opening shift.  Dad mostly slept.  And the sleeping, again, was sometimes ragged and gurgling.  Hard to listen to, but the nurse had said he wasn’t in pain.  It was just saliva and secretions.

As the morning went on and Dad kept sleeping and his breathing kept being ragged and, yes, upsetting, I felt more and more like I should stay.  Meredith got there and I let work know – with apologies for the late notice – that I wouldn’t be in.  They understood.  My coworkers were so supportive during all of this.  So supportive. 

Meredith and I sat with Dad.  We cleaned him up as needed.  We tried to give him meds when he was awake.  We crocheted.  Watched TV.  Ate.  I don’t remember what else, really.  I stayed the night.  And I didn’t work the next night either.  I just felt like things were winding down and I didn’t want to leave.

I stayed during the day on Tuesday.  It was my birthday.  Meredith came over after work and I went home.  Bill and the kids made me a great dinner of steamers and lobster and I’m sure there was dessert but I remember very little, to be honest.  I checked in with Mere periodically and nothing had really changed. 

The next morning I drove down.  I lingered so I could have a long cup of coffee at home, with Bill.  And I got stuck in some beach traffic on my way to Dad’s, even though I took the back route.

And when I pulled into the driveway Meredith came and opened the porch door and by the look on her face I knew, before she even shook her head.  He was gone.  Ten minutes ago.

We did all the things you do next.  We notified Hospice and they sent a nurse over who “pronounced” him dead.  Meredith had written down his actual time of death, but apparently time of death is determined by the official nurse, not by the actual time on the clock.  It bothered me.  I am a little obsessive about accuracy at times.

Anyway, we notified our families, and the nurse contacted the funeral home.  The men came to take Dad away, and we set up a time to meet up the following day to plan the wake and the burial. 

The house was so empty and quiet after that.  There was nothing to do.  No one to take care of, except the cat.

I took the rest of the week off.  We found clothes for Dad to be buried in, and we held a wake and saw lots of familiar faces as they came through the line and paid their respects.  There were hugs and tears and laughter and what has stayed with me was how many people said what a kind man Dad had been.  “Never had a bad word to say about anyone.”  Not a bad legacy at all.

Meredith and I went back to work and found ourselves at loose ends at first. We weren’t used to not going to Dad’s all the time.  Free time was strange and it took time for us to relax into it.

At some point I remembered what Dad had said on that Saturday.  That there were still things he wanted to do, but he guessed he couldn’t do them now.  And I realized that was when everything shifted and Dad let go.

~~~

Cookie died on September 11th.  We’d been feeding him by syringe because his molars weren’t growing back any better and he wasn’t able to chew properly.  The vet had told me this could happen, and euthanasia might end up being the kindest option.  I’d been thinking about that conversation in the days leading up to Cookie’s passing.  He just still seemed so full of life….  September 11th was a Sunday.  I got a text from Alex while I was at work that just said “You might want to answer this phone call. Sad smile“ So I immediately called him and he told me and at the same time Julia was calling me so I called her back from a storage room and felt my heart break for her as she sobbed over the phone. 

She’d gone to give them hay and water, and Cookie was just lying there.

Cloudy was sitting right beside him.

~~~

Alex pointed out to me that Julia cried more when Cookie died than when my Dad did.  And I told him that was okay.  Small furry creatures can have a big grip on our hearts.

I felt pretty horrible when Cookie died, too. I felt guilty for not knowing enough about Guinea pig health issues, and it hurt to see Julia cry.

Bill was mostly worried about Cloudy, who was now living alone in his cage.  We tried many times to see if he and Oliver and Marshmallow could live together, but Oliver wanted to be the alpha male – despite his being about half the size of Cloudy – and after one bad altercation where Cloudy bit Oliver and drew blood in two places, I decided that was the end of THAT wish.

And I started looking online for rescue Guinea pigs.  I didn’t want to go the pet store route any more.  I wanted to do better.

I don’t know why I became so obsessed.  I never had any particular desire to own a guinea pig or hamster or gerbil or rabbit or any of those things.  Didn’t hate them, it just never occurred to me to want one. Might be because my mother was TER-RI-FIED of mice and so the notion of pet rodents was NEVER entertained in our home when I was growing up. 

I wonder what she’d think of these guys.

Anyway, I was obsessed.  I found websites that would locate the desired species of rescue pet within any mile radius I could request.  There weren’t a lot of Guinea pigs in Rhode Island, but I admit I felt the Boston area wasn’t too great a distance if there was a lonely cavy in need of a home.

The thing was, I needed to find the right one.  I’d read that when trying to pair boars, sometimes it works better if you’ve got an older male and a much younger male.  They are less likely to fight for alpha status. 

I found one young male listed at a shelter in Providence.  I emailed and called to inquire about him, and I visited him when I dropped off my application.  I learned his owners had to give him up when they discovered someone in the family was allergic.  He was 8 months old.  Black and white.  Smooth fur.  I was told the woman who handles small animal adoptions would be in touch if I was chosen.

I marveled at my nervousness.  Would they like me?  Would they think I was an acceptable adoptive Guinea Pig parent??

The next day I was doing another Guinea pig search online – because clearly I had lost my mind – and !  A new posting!  This one was at a shelter in Middletown, which was across two bridges and next to Newport from here.  This one was a baby!  A male baby!  I called. I’d have to fill out an application and then I could visit him, if I wanted to.  I filled out their online application that night and the next morning (!!!) they called me to let me know they’d received the application and was I planning to visit?  I was out of breath from moving stuff out of the house and into the back of the truck (long story) so I think I sounded a little nuts, but I told them I would be there in the afternoon.

Julia came along.

The shelter had named him Mason, and they figured he was about 7 weeks old.  He’d been in foster care with his mother and sister and was now ready for adoption.  One of the volunteers went to get him and brought Julia and me into a little room, like an examining room in a doctor’s office, and left us all to get acquainted.

Julia took this picture while I was holding him.

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And yes, we brought him home.

He is so small and sweet and we changed his name.  First, Julia suggested Pepper.  It seemed perfect – the gray fur looked like the ground pepper in a dish by our stove.  But then she thought is was too girly a name.  I didn’t agree, but she was adamant, so I told her to come up with other names. The ride home went something like this:

“Um…Schnitzel?”

“No”

“…Squeakers?”

“No”

“…Bread?”

“Julia, we’re NOT naming an animal ‘bread’!”

“Pretzel?”

“No”

“Tree?”

“NO”

and you get the idea.  Weird suggestions from Julia, with lots of crazy laughing.

She got tired of all my rejections and asked me to suggest something.  I thought a minute and came up with something as silly as I could for a tiny little sweet fluffy creature.

“Thor?”

“Yes!”

And we laughed, but we also kept coming back to it, and by the end of the drive, Mason had become Thor. Our tiny God of Thunder.

~~~

We introduced him to Cloudy far sooner than recommended by all the websites I’ve read, but I just really really wanted to find out if they would get along.

And – miracle of miracles – and after back and forth attempts at domination (which consists mainly of the would-be alpha guinea pig mounting the other one – nothing reproductive about it, it’s all about who’s going to be in charge – and let me tell you it was pretty funny to watch when it was tiny Thor trying to dominate fully grown Cloudy…kind of looked like a bizarre Circus act), they pretty much settled things and Thor decided it would be perfectly fine to just be the annoying youngster rather than continue his fruitless attempts at alpha-hood.

So here they are:

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Thor watches Cloudy and copies what he does sometimes – most noticeably with new and different vegetables. Thor will watch Cloudy eat something, and then he’ll bravely decide to have a try.

It’s unspeakably cute, at least to us.

And also cute – the two living areas (Cloudy/Thor and Oliver/Marshmallow) of the cage are separated at the feeding area, and all four of the boys hang out near that panel and talk to each other and sniff and chomp on hay. We have put them all together in the “corral” a couple of times, but peace is fleeting and usually we have to remove Oliver within a few minutes. They can’t live together (Oliver and Cloudy just don’t get along, and I know Oliver would want to dominate Thor, too), but like Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

~~~

Guinea pigs are funny creatures.  Ours are all sweet (to humans) and cuddly and have definite personalities. They insist they are starving when they see any of us near the cages, and they go loud with mad joy when they see us open the hay bin.  They run for their little lives when we try to pick them up, but then settle in for a little snuggle under our chins or on our chests when we have them in hand.

I don’t know why they have worked their way into my heart so quickly and insistently, but there you go.  Some things can’t be explained.  I guess the timing was right.

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One thought on “Grief and Guinea Pigs

  1. I am so sorry for your loss–both your losses, because sometimes, I think grief is cumulative. And, as you say, these little creatures manage to wriggle their way into the deepest places of our heart and their loss hurts. Thinking of you.

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