Sunday, March 04, 2001

Death in the family brings early loss of innocence

        Jake the guinea pig died recently, which was no big deal. Except to Jillian, the 11-year-old who'd never seen anything she loved disappear. The concept of death eluded her.

        “Jake's dead,” we told her on a recent Sunday morning.

        “No, he's not,” Jillian said.

        “He died last night. Remember how he was coughing a lot?”

        It's one of those moments you hope not to practice much. Even when you do, you never get it exactly right. There is no exactly right.

        “Jake's in heaven now,” we said.

        “When's he coming back?” she wanted to know.

Jake had detractors

        Jake was 3. Guinea pigs are supposed to live a lot longer than 3. But Jake contracted some respiratory illness that made him hack and wheeze, and covered his eyes in a yellow goo.

        Jake was not a well pig. In point of fact, he was not universally admired, either. The Kid Down The Hall had been plotting Jake's demise. “How do you think Jake would look in a parachute?” he asked his sister.

        The plan was to fit Jake in a custom-designed sandwich bag, wrap it (and him) in string, and throw him out the second-floor window. The Kid has a twisted sense of humor. We're working on it.

        But The Kid understood the sense of love and loss his sister was feeling. He managed to roust himself from his deep, noontime slumber to attend Jake's farewell.

        The Kid was 4 or so when Deja Vu the shepherd collie stopped eating, dissolved into a bag of bones and fell trying to negotiate the stairs. When we put Deja down, her last gaze was one of relief.

        Kelly (really a Kid then, now a blooming adolescent) stayed with the neighbors until we got home. A few days later, we tossed Deja's ashes into a soft spring wind. We gave Kelly a red, helium-filled balloon and told him to let it go.

        “This is going to Deja, right?” he asked.

Closing ceremony

        So here we were in the frozen woods behind our house, trying to force a shovel through hard ground, burying a guinea pig wrapped in a towel inside a shoe box. When the hole was sufficiently deep, Jillian lowered the box and said some things that needed saying.

        “I'll miss you, Jake.”

        “I love you.”

        “Even though you're dead, you're still a good boy.”

        We all agreed.

        A few weeks have passed. Jillian's OK with losing Jake, even though a couple of times a day she says she misses him.

        “We know. We all miss Jake.”

        She's changed now, though, the way we all do when something or someone we love dies. She knows the sense of love and loss. She wonders, I think, like the rest of us: If losing a love is this hard, do I ever want to do it again?

        My mother died when I was 8, and after a few months of believing she was just on a long trip, it hit me she wasn't. I've never held onto anything or anyone quite so tightly since.

        Jake was just a guinea pig. He didn't do tricks or lick your face in the morning. You couldn't walk him or use his head for a pillow. You could put him in a sandwich bag and drop him a couple of stories. If you wanted.

        We could get another one tomorrow. Guinea pigs are 15 or 20 bucks at the pet store.

        But we couldn't duplicate Jillian's affection for Jake. He's buried in the woods in the back yard. Every couple of days, Jillian goes out there. Just to talk.


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