Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. — Luke 12:6
Jon Katz has written that we get the animals we need. I think this is often true, but it does raise the question of what I needed when my life crossed paths with a weak and ailing guinea pig. If animals give us gifts, what gifts are on offer from a small, sick rodent? It’s one thing, isn’t it, to have a connection with a dog or a horse or a donkey, each of which might be said to possess some degree of sentience. But when I think of a spirit animal, I think of my dogs, one who led me to nature, and the other who led me to myself. I was not prepared to receive gifts from a guinea pig.
We got Squealie and Eatie for my son as Christmas gifts. As you might have guessed, their names are a reflection of their primary behaviors. We had these small pets only three weeks before it became evident that they had been fighting off a bacterial infection since before they arrived at our house. (We got them from their previous owner, not from a store.) The exotic vet gave us grim news. Eatie, the healthiest one (see her name), was the one who passed the infection to her cage-mate. As long as we’d had her, Squealie had seemed smaller, less aggressive about food, and more reticent. And she was far more vulnerable to the infection that both of them had. By the time she showed clear signs of illness, which in her case was a complete loss of balance that she never regained, she was already suffering from a middle ear infection, an abscessed lymph node, and pneumonia. Her appetite went quickly downhill, and she became too thin to survive a surgery to remove the lymph node. She almost immediately stopped eating on her own.
All of this meant that I spent the better part of a month feeding and medicating this guinea pig multiple times a day through a syringe. Eventually, I was even giving her water through the syringe. My game plan was to get her nourished enough to withstand surgery, and take a shot at recovery. She kept failing until the vet added in an anti-inflammatory, and then things improved a great deal. She even began eating her own food and some parsley and cilantro again – but not for long. As Eatie recovered, Squealie declined, and the race with the infection was lost this week. When she stopped eating and even drinking yesterday, I knew that if she survived the night, I would take her back to the vet today and ask for her to be put to sleep. It was clear she was no longer living life, and that is the boundary for me – not how much attention she required.
The truth is that feeding this small creature through a syringe four times a day was not an imposition or even a chore; it was a gift – to me. I am in transition right now, passing through one of life’s deep and unsettling sea changes. This transformation has been brewing for years, and there is much to be gained, and much to be lost. These changes in the river’s course, where we try have to let go and submit ourselves to the swirling eddies and drops, and brave the submerged rocks, involve all manner of anxiety and uncertainty. And fear. I have had full days where my palms never stopped sweating, and a steady stream of adrenaline trickled constantly through my veins. But when I was propped up on the bed, holding a tiny, furry animal in a towel and squeezing a careful amount of food into her mouth at regular intervals, I was completely calm.
Getting in sync with the rhythms of this small creature, right down to knowing when she was finished chewing her food and needed another bite, was the most effective anxiety-killer I’ve ever experienced. There was something deeply meditative about it, something that plugged me into a source of peace. Nursing a guinea pig for more than three weeks is an unexpected thing to do. But as I sat one day on the bed feeding her and looking out the window over the coyote fields, I thought about a turn I took in my life more than a decade ago, when I walked away from a situation and waded into utter uncertainty. And I know that if I hadn’t made that choice, I probably would never have devoted three weeks to a sick guinea pig. In turn, I would never have experienced that peaceful connection with this small animal. It was clear to me at that moment that I had made the right choice a decade ago, that it was one step toward becoming myself, and that I was absolutely correct to stop struggling to become something I would – and should – never be.
The process of becoming who we are is never really over, and it’s time for me to build on what I started ten years ago. The tools life sends us to do those things are often strange indeed. In my case, a sick but persistent rodent was undeniably one of those tools.
Last night, when it was clear she was failing, I held her in the towel one last time and offered her a strawberry. It’s a decadent treat for these little guys, and shouldn’t be a staple for them. The sugar and acids in them can be dangerous to them at high doses. Timothy hay is their ideal food, not fruit. But it was the food of last resort for her; she would always eat strawberries even when she would eat nothing else. This small animal was weak and dying, but she dug into that big red berry with the only expression of gusto I saw from her this week. She bit away diligently at it, the red juice flowing freely down her chin. I couldn’t help but smile. A few short hours later, she had flown. That’s how it ought to be, don’t you think? It seems fitting to me that the last thing we lose touch with in this life is the sweetness.