Our guinea pig died Friday night. Newman was old, had lived a good life, had survived a 4-state move, had been loved by my kids. He was especially dear to Mary Claire. He slept in her bedroom, sat on her desk during homework hours, snuggled in her lap while she read. When he heard her voice, he would squeal and jump and anxiously await her treats or her gentle hands. He had a good life.
Last week, Mary Claire came to me concerned about his growing disinterest in food and water.
“I haven’t had to fill his food bowl in days, Mom. And his water bottle isn’t empty at all.”
And, indeed, he’d become skinny. Once a fat, fluffy ball of energy, he was wasting away. The vet said the end was near, that his liver was failing, that it was a matter of days.
So, we loved on him. The kids took him outside, played with him in the yard, let him run with Maggie and Lucy. We tried to bribe him with special foods, held him constantly, told him we loved him.
After we returned from the Avett Brothers concert Friday night, I put my tired kiddos to bed. Once they were all asleep, I snuck back into Mary Claire’s room to check on Newman. He was having trouble breathing, shaking, convulsing. I knew it was the end.
So, as Friday night turned into Saturday morning, I sat and held that sweet guinea pig while he fought through his final hours on earth. He died in my hands, curled up near my neck. I felt his final heartbeat, his last little gasp of breath. I didn’t want him to die alone.
When he was gone, I gently wrapped him in a soft towel, swaddled him like a baby. The sun was coming up, and Mary Claire walked into the family room with disheveled hair and half-mast eyes.
“Newman’s not in his cage,” she said.
I patted the space next to me on the couch, put my arms around her.
“Newman’s gone, Honey,” I said. “He died last night. I held him all night so he wasn’t alone.”
Crocodile tears clouded those big blue eyes.
“Where is he?”
I brought her the towel, and she cautiously unwrapped him.
“He’s so cold,” she said, clutching his stiff body to her heart. “Why is he so cold?”
And so I explained how death works as she cried and held him and rubbed his soft fur.
She carried his body around all morning. We let her work her way through her grief. And then we decided we needed to keep moving forward. Chris was a little creeped out by her need to carry the dead guinea pig everywhere.
So, shovel in hand, we headed to the back yard to say our final goodbyes. Mary Claire has taken up the hobby of “finger knitting,” and she wrapped her buddy in her favorite pale purple finger-knit scarf.
“Go find Kat and Hermione and Bob,” we encouraged as we wished him well on his journey to guinea pig heaven. Mary Claire covered his burial plot with pine cones.
I know he was just a guinea pig. “The Rodent” as Chris liked to so irreverently reference him. But my girl loved that pig. She took good care of him, didn’t mind when his blonde fur covered her t-shirts, danced around her room with him, sang Bruno Mars songs into his little rodent ears.
Having pets is such a blessing and such a heartache all rolled into one fur-covered package. They don’t live forever — they are a sober reminder that none of us do. They are such great lessons in life. We love these little dudes unconditionally. They, in return, squeak upon our arrival, curl up at our feet, pass no judgment. Having pets has taught my kids how to be responsible for another living being, how important it is to take care of those who are not as big or strong or fortunate as we are.
But traversing the grief when they choose to leave this earth is heartbreaking. So, tonight, we’ll all snuggle up together. We’ll rent a movie, pop some popcorn, stretch out on the floor with the dogs. And I’ll hold all my kids a little bit closer. When Mary Claire gets weepy about her boy, I’ll help her walk through it. Eventually, we’ll get to the other side.
Rest in peace, Newman. Thanks for the rodent lessons you taught us.