It’s bath day for the guinea pigs.
Ruthie and I pluck Luke and Chewbacca out of their playpen, where they are happily gnawing on their celery dinner, and plop them into the small cake pan that I call their bathtub.
In the four months that we have been guinea pig owners, we have only bathed them once before today. The internet says that’s fine. The internet also says that it’s our most important responsibility to make sure that they don’t get too cold in the bathing process, because that could lead to them catching a respiratory infection, and respiratory infections can be deadly.
Ruthie remembers the rules. “We gotta, we gotta make sure they stay warm! Or they could DIE! I’ll get some blanklets, okay?”
She gets the blanklets, and I carry our furry little pets into the bathroom, where I run warm water and begin to bathe them. It’s easier than I expected it would be–they don’t seem to mind. Their little bodies begin to shiver immediately, and I keep them in standing water while I shampoo and then rinse them. After just a few quick minutes, they are wrapped up snugly in layers of terrycloth and fleece. Ruthie takes Chewbacca back to the living room, and I carry Luke. Chewy, after all, is the one who will stay still in her arms. Luke, on the other hand, is the escape artist.
We dry them with towels and they shriek and chatter in disapproval. Ruthie brushes them with a special small pet brush, and I get some fresh green beans as a special treat to distract them while they dry. They are fluffy, and they smell much better now.
They are still damp, and I am struck by their fragility.
Getting cold could kill them.
When Ruthie tires of feeding them green beans, and I tire of corralling them back onto the towel I’ve placed on the living room floor, I scoop Luke and Chewbacca into my arms and put them back into their playpen. I put an extra fleece blanket in there so they can curl up inside it–getting cold could kill them.
I stand there for a moment, staring down at them. Some people warned me that getting guinea pigs would be a lot of work, and I suppose they’re right in some ways. There are a lot of steps to taking care of them. I am the one who gives them their food. I bring them their fresh vegetables every morning and every night. I move them daily from their cage to the playpen, where I give them toys to play with and tunnels to crawl through, and then I clean their cage. I refill their pellet bowl and soak their food with vitamin C to keep them healthy. I stock a cardboard box in the corner of their cage with hay. I fill the water bottle that they drink from so desperately every night. Later, I move them back to their clean cage and sweep the poop out of their playpen with a little hand vacuum that I bought just for them. I wash the fleece that lines the bottom of their cage and then I clean out the washing machine of excess hair and hay. I watch Ruthie when she plays with them, warning her not to pick them up that way, and not to let them get loose to run under the couch, and not to carry them away from her body like that.
“What a precarious little lives you lead,” I say aloud as they look around, deciding whether to make a run for the igloo or bury themselves under the extra fleece.
It only takes a moment for me to realize that these are not the only creatures in my house that I am responsible for.
My husband is chronically ill. He is not helpless, and yet I am often his caregiver when his health problems flare and he needs me to do everything but breathe for him? What I wouldn’t give to be able to do that–to breathe on his behalf when his lungs aren’t working. But instead I must do what I can: run all the errands, pick up the prescriptions, cooking the meals, clean the house to crack down on dust, find the nebulizer pieces when they’re in the wrong place, carry in the salt for the water softener, shovel the snow off the sidewalk, take care of the kids, explain to friends why we’re canceling plans again. The hardest is when I must think for him. Maybe you should take an extra allergy pill today. And, you haven’t said a word in three hours. I think you need to call the doctor in the morning. And, You’ve waited too long to take your medicine–you need to go do a treatment.
My husband’s needs are nothing compared to those of my four-year-old. Ruthie’s personality is, well, a lazy one. She is a loveable, lazy little thing. She would have me walk for her if she could. She would have me use the bathroom on her behalf. Instead, I must encourage her every step of the day to do things on her own. You must pull down your own pants and get on the toilet, Ruthie. You must wash your own hands, Ruthie. You have to get into the car, honey. Yes, I will open your marker for you. Yes, I will hold your hand up the steps. Yes, I would love to do an art project with you. No, I will not watch RescueBots again right now–you can watch on your own while I grade papers. You can wipe your bottom yourself. Yes, I will take the knife from your silverware packet. Yes, I will cut up your chicken nuggets for you. I will squeeze you some ketchup, too. You do not need me to carry you into the grocery store. You do not need me to carry you into art class. Of course I will carry you so you don’t have to walk in the snow–I know you don’t like the snow. Of course I will snuggle you before bedtime. No, I will not stay in your bed all night. I know you wish I would stay all night in your bed.
Then there is the baby. Neville is seven weeks old. My body makes the milk that feeds him. My hands change his diapers and dress him in clean, warm clothes. They wrap him in blankets during this long, cold winter that he was born into. He sleeps on my chest at night, and together we breathe our nighttime breaths.
A few people discouraged me from getting guinea pigs because it might be too big of a workload, but who are they kidding? Taking care of my guinea pigs is nothing compared to the way I must take care of my family.
I go back to work in less than a week, and how will I ever get it all done?
Luke and Chewbacca poke around their playpen for the best place to be. Their fur is still just barely damp, and I wonder, Is it too drafty here? Will they catch a cold?
For a brief moment, I am a guinea pig in a cage. My life feels precarious and fragile. Flashback to earlier in the afternoon, when I filled out the postpartum depression screener at my six-week check-up. I scored well under the marks for the need to talk to a professional, and yet I looked at those questions and had to admit things like, yes, my anxiety levels are elevated. There are moments I feel overwhelmed. I experience bouts of crying when normally I am not a cry-er at all. My sleep is like the sleep of any new mother–light and frequently interrupted.
Yes, I feel precarious. Sometimes I feel like the smallest thing could push me over the edge from doing fine to not doing well at all.
The moment that I identify with the guinea pigs is brief. The metaphor falls apart faster than the time it takes for me to think about it. I am not a carefree little creature in a cage where everything is given to me without having to work for it.
Is it any wonder that sometimes I feel like a guinea pig in a bathtub? Like I am living a precarious life, just an inch away from getting so cold that I get sick and die? Like I am fragile. Like I am living in a cage that I can’t keep clean myself, and I need help. I need someone to give me my food, and to give me things to play with, and to give me a dry fleece when I am soaked to the bone. I need someone to kick me out of my filthy world and bring me back to it when it is a little cleaner and brighter and fresher smelling.
And this is why I am still a believer.
One of the reasons, anyway.
When I am giving everything to the people around me, I constantly sense the hand of the one who gives to me. I know that the strength to do the things I do–work, nurture, love, care, clean, and create–is not from inside of me. I am not strong enough. I am as fragile as a shivering guinea pig in a kitchen pan full of water.
That strength comes from somewhere outside of myself. I believe it comes from God. Whatever God is, I feel it when I make it through another day.
I feel God when I am shivering in the bathtub, a step away from some kind of metaphorical death, and I know–for some reason that I don’t understand, I know–that the cold doesn’t last forever.
I feel God in the trust I have that I will get dry someday. I will not always be in this water, trembling.
I feel God when I dry out and am warm again.
I am not a guinea pig. God is not a pet owner in the sky. Still, when I get ready for bed a few hours from now, and I pass by the cage, maybe I will reach down and feel Luke and Chewy’s soft fur, now dry and warm and fluffy, and life won’t seem so precarious anymore.