On Guinea pigs, stuffed turtles and optimism
Not long ago, my son brought home a Guinea pig. His sixth-grade class “shares” him. “Reeses”—named for his large peanut-butter colored spots—is a rescue animal. Alex’s teacher, a kind, thoughtful young woman, saved Reeses from sure doom and made him the class pet. Students take turns caring for the little guy over the weekends.
Normally, our house would not be an option for Reeses. But Alex’s teacher was desperate, so…
As a parent, I was supposed to embrace this educational moment, feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have time to get that happy-happy joy-joy feeling. I was too scared—scared for Reese’s wellbeing. You see, our house is not your average run-of-the-mill house.
It’s a place where the undertow washes over joyous activities and drenches them in despair. It’s a place where Murphy’s Law lives in perpetuity, waiting for the right moment to rear its ugly head and extinguish any mirth.
It’s a Guinea pig death trap.
I know, “death trap” is an extreme term, but I am not exaggerating. First of all, Alex has a 3-year-old brother named Merret. Let’s be honest, 3-year-olds and animals mix about as well as Caesar and the Ides of March. In fact, according to my sources, the character Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men—a kind, intellectually compromised man who gets too rough with just about any furry quadruped—is actually based on the mentality of the average 3-year-old. But 3-year-olds can be reasoned with. They aren’t the be-all end-all of Guinea pig danger.
The dachshund, on the other hand, is what truly makes our house a hostile rodent hostel. Dachshunds can’t help themselves. They bite first and ask questions later, especially when it comes to small squeaky things. As Alex noted earlier in the school year, “If Reeses visits our house, he’ll turn into Reese’s Pieces!”
Alex had reason to be wary. Our dog and school projects had a history.
*** *** ***
Alex was a kindergartener. His class shared a pet: Tom, a cute plush turtle. Kids would bring him home on the weekend, take him on family excursions, and snap pictures of the child/turtle activities. Tom was quite the social butterfly, if the photos were any indication. He made it to the Sacramento Zoo and watched the orangutans brachiate from tree to tree. He went bowling at the UC Davis Memorial Union. He visited McDonald’s and In-N-Out.
My wife was out of town for the weekend, but there was no way I was going to screw this up. I would bring Tom to the Farmers’ Market. It would be a positive, uplifting experience for Alex. I would be good father. Friday evening seemed to be going well. We had already snapped a few pics of Alex and Tom. The turtle sat down for dinner with us, spaghetti, if I remember correctly. It was a nice, quiet evening.
Then it happened.
The house got too quiet. A cold wind rustled the trees outside. The dachshund got Tom.
By the time I shooed the dog away, Tom had lost the majority of his stuffing. His thin yarn smile was gone. And his hard plastic eyeball was hanging by a thread, quite literally.
“Noooooo!” cried Alex, at the time an impressionable 6-year-old.
As I surveyed the damage, Alex kept repeating the same phrases over and over: “Tom’s dead! Tom’s Dead!” and “The dog killed Tom! The dog killed Tom!”
I wasn’t a surgeon, but I had to do something. I restuffed Tom; I grabbed a needle and thread. I stitched like there was no tomorrow. The surgery lasted for hours.
When Tom came to, he was battered but alive. Alex’s kindergarten teacher was forgiving—she liked the colorful patches (shell grafts), and Tom’s lazy eye wasn’t an issue, she insisted.
*** *** ***
The memory of Tom haunted me when Alex’s sixth-grade teacher begged us to watch Reeses. The Guinea pig desperately needed a place to crash, so our place it was.
We placed Reeses in Alex’s room and, in addition to a door that was to be closed at all times, we added another layer of defense: a baby gate. Reeses—cage and all—seemed happy. He would scuttle about and squeak happily.
To offset dangers, my wife and I decided to introduce Reeses to the enemy: we brought in our son Merret.
I could see the fear in Reeses’ tiny little eyes. He looked at me as if to say, “Good LORD man, haven’t you read Of Mice and Men?”
My wife and I spoke at length to Merret about being gentle. We had to remind him that Reeses did NOT like hugs, that “to pet” meant to softly stroke with an open hand—not to squeeze like ketchup. Merret was fantastic.
The dachshund? With three layers of defense—a cage, a door and a baby gate—we managed to keep Reeses in a single, unconsumed piece.
The whole Guinea pig non-incident made me realize that I need to stop worrying about the worst-case scenarios and start accepting the jeopardies of everyday life. I’m almost hoping that Tom the Turtle—or some iteration thereof—will exist when Merret heads into kindergarten. I’ve got a whole new perspective on life—and a heckuvalot of stuffing and thread.
David Weinshilboum, who is still frantically trying to find a photo of Tom after his reconstructive surgery, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.