Someone very dear to me passed away on Saturday night, and I am completely bereft. She embodied so many of the qualities I admire in a friend. She listened twice as much as she spoke, she was so humble despite her obvious specialness, and she was never the source of conflict. She was a quiet fighter, filled to the very brim with a darling innocence you had to experience to understand. Ruby was her name, and she was a guinea pig I was fortunate to share just over a year with.
I don’t know where Ruby came from, except to say that wherever it was, she hadn’t been shown much love by humans. The presence of a hand (even one offering food!) was enough to send both her and her sister Abigail running to the furthest corners of their pen. While Abigail is the more confident alpha, Ruby was the unassuming, shy girl, forever hiding behind her big sister. It was a slow process, but little by little, they began to trust us. They had no reason in the world to, but they did anyway. What an honour.
I had always felt a particular fondness for Ruby, though I love my other three ladies and their endearing idiosyncrasies too. But Ruby was the underdog. The smallest, the mildest, the first one butted away from the food. After the first time Ruby got sick (it turned out she had a massive bladder stone), I bonded with her in a way I just haven’t with other animals. Thanks to a rigorous medication schedule, I was literally able to help to make her well again. As her “nurse”, I felt our connection deepening, and I know she felt it too, as evidenced by the way she began to come flying towards me each time I came into the room, wheeking and squealing.
To love someone so small, someone who never grows out of their fragility, is such a unique experience. Holding a little 700 gram being in your hands, and so many times teetering on the edge of losing her, it was such a relief the way we always managed to bring her home again. And before you could say “who-wants-a-blueberry?” she’d be good as new, clucking and squealing and occasionally even popcorning.
Ruby was so strong. After passing that bladder stone, it was so undoubtedly painful that our vet welled up as she tried to describe what this must have felt like. We realized we had a real fighter in our midst.
I don’t want to write about what happened when she got sick this time. It is too fresh, too sad, too traumatic, too many questions still unanswered. No cancer, no heart disease, but instead, symptoms that indicated Addison’s Disease, which made her the first guinea pig on record to present with these symptoms. (Sadly, it could be that most people simply don’t allow their guinea pig to live long enough to present the symptoms.)
Though we’d nursed her back to health so many times, this time I instantly knew something different was wrong. I walked into their room, giving them their usual breakfast announcement (“Babies! Blueberrrrries!”) to which they all run out of the pen to greet me, trying to scamper up the side and out. But Ruby didn’t appear. Then I heard a quiet, muted squeal. A very subdued version of the squeal she always greeted me with in the morning, and I peered under the ramp and saw her. Her head heavy, her body limp. She looked as though she’d been paralyzed. Within five minutes we were en route to the emergency vet, and 48 hours later, mere moments after we arrived home from visiting her in the hospital, our vet called to say she had passed. Quietly, unassumingly– she went just as she lived.
One of the greatest sadnesses about someone like Ruby dying, is that she was pure innocence. She existed in her own little way, caused no harm to anyone, and yet her life was cut mercilessly short, proof to me that the universe truly is cold and random. Eduardo Galeano talks about how we live in an “upside down” world, and the fact that the Rubys of the world are stolen so quickly, while those profiteering from violence and oppression can (and often do) live lives too long and too effortless, is all the proof I need of such a fact.
Ruby mattered. She’ll always matter to me. I deeply hope she knew that. There are so many things I wish I could tell her, and make her understand.
Ruby, did you know how much I love you? Did you know how much you matter to me? How dear your every squeal was? I have memorized all of you, and play it back to myself now. Your timid approach from out of your hutch, nose held high, trying to sort out what it was I had for you. I knew your call from your sisters’ distinctly, even from the other end of the apartment. Do you know how very special each thing about you is to me?
What do I do now with all that’s left? Where does all the love I have for you go? It certainly doesn’t dissipate into thin air, but it isn’t something I can simply transfer into someone else. Well, that may not be entirely true. The only true moments of peace I have known since you got sick were when we walked the dogs along the bluffs, or through Cherry Beach. All my other time requires the utmost distraction, or I come apart at the very remembrance of your passing, like a punch in the stomach I can count on again and again. Undone by the smallest reminder of you, finding the wash cloth I wiped your mouth with so many times (when we had to feed you Critical Care). The stains are still there. I’ve tucked it away into one of my drawers, I could never just go on using it again. I’ll keep it with me always, as a reminder of you, that you were a good and beautiful person who existed, and as a symbol of the purest kind of love that is possible: unflinching, unwavering, steadfast love. On days when I cease to remember that I am capable of good things, I’ll look at that washcloth, and remember how many times I snuck into your room, to give you your medicine, how I fell in love with the way you looked when I rolled you in a towel and laid you on your back to feed you. I will remember that I was your guardian, and I did my best to give you a good life. No amount of money would have stopped us from trying to heal you, nor would the looks from people who just didn’t understand it.
Ruby, I was your guardian, the one who kept you fed and safe and warm and content. Hopefully, you were even happy most of the time. I think you probably were. I was the guardian of your gorgeous life, and for the rest of my days, I will be the guardian of your sweet memory. You will never be forgotten, not for a moment. Sadly, this is the closest thing to immortality we can offer one another, dear sweetheart. I will never forget who you are. Ruby, you are gone from this world, but you are not gone inside me.
If you have ever loved a guinea pig, or any other mammal for that matter, please consider familiarizing yourself with the issue of vivisection (animal experimentation). You’ll be shocked to learn that so many of the things we use on a daily basis are tested on animals just like Ruby. Check out an old blog post about this here, as well as the must-see-forthcoming film Maximum Tolerated Dose. My interview with the director Karol Orzechowski can be found here. If you currently love a guinea pig, please ensure they have lots of space, the best quality hay and pellets, and the comfiest digs a pig could hope for. And please– adopt, don’t buy your companions!
“We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle; easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way.”- Irving Townsend