My first baby was a guinea pig named Tilly. I had other pets before her – in fact, I had many of them. A faithful German Shepherd cross named Kali was my childhood companion. A fierce cat named Fluffy came to live with us when I was six years old, and survived to see her 20th birthday. There was a budgie named Benjie, and a hamster named Patches. And so many goldfish, whose names I no longer recall. But none of these pets were truly mine, in the same way. They were family pets, and ultimately the responsibility for them rested with the fully-fledged adults, not with me.
Tilly was different. I adopted her in the early days of 2000, after moving into my own apartment. The apartment allowed pets, but only if they lived in cages. Dogs and cats were out of the question, but after doing some research a guinea pig seemed like a genuine possibility. They were awake during the day, and large enough not to sneak into a crack and get lost. They couldn’t jump like rabbits, and they couldn’t climb, which meant that you had no fear they would somehow end up peeing on your bed. It seemed the perfect answer to my desire for a little companionship.
My trip to pick up Tilly was delayed by several days, because Jon had the nerve to propose to me on New Year’s Eve. It was Y2K, and we were all going to die when the computers stopped working and the planes fell out of the sky. The man I had been dating for over eight years at that point was planning to seize the day and pop the question, but I didn’t know it. Not for sure, anyway. When I suggested he could take me to pick up my new guinea pig on December 30 (having no car of my own at the time), he balked. Couldn’t it wait a few days? Just a few? He wanted us to stay in Abbotsford, where our parents lived, on New Year’s Eve. Then he wanted to spend New Year’s Day with our families. It was important, although he wouldn’t explain why.
I suspected that something might be afoot, but there had been several moments over the previous year and a half when I had thought to myself, This is it, he’s going to ask, and then he didn’t. There had been a Valentine’s Day when I asked what he wanted and he told me he knew just what to get me, he’d been planning it for ages. His plan wasn’t a diamond, as I hoped, but a Home Depot gift certificate. And then there was a weekend getaway when he left me at the table in the fancy restaurant to get something he’d forgotten back in our room. I thought maybe this was a set-up, and he’d return with a ring. Instead, he came back with his camera, and snapped a photo of me looking aggrieved.
As we approached the New Year’s Eve when the world didn’t fall apart in spite of our Y2K fears, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. So instead of speculating about why Jon was insisting on spending time with our families, I pouted about the delay in my guinea pig plans. All was forgiven when he got down on one knee in the same park where he’d first asked me out. However, I didn’t allow my mind to wander too far. This is how, a few days later, I stood in the PetSmart sporting my new engagement ring and surveying the guinea pigs.
I was smitten with Tilly right off the bat. She was so cute, and her squeaks of delight when she heard me opening a treat bag slayed me every time. My family liked her, too, and looked forward to having the chance to take care of her when I was out of town. When we moved to this house, and adopted our cat Dorothy, Tilly even got a room of her own where she could run around without fear of being attacked. She was thoroughly spoiled in her way.
When Tilly was four and a half years old, Jon and I went on a trip to Atlantic Canada. Tilly went to stay with my mom and her husband. When I got back, I could see that she wasn’t well. Her health had probably been declining slowly for a while, but the extended absence made the situation obvious. I took her to a small animal vet, who confirmed that she was deydrated, and diagnosed her with a kidney blockage. She could operate, but it would be expensive, and the odds that Tilly would come through it well were low. I cried a lot, but ultimately made the decision that it was time to let her go. That prolonging her life through procedures that would terrify her wouldn’t be a kindness.
This week, however, I have again welcomed a guinea pig into my home. My good friend and her family are off on a trip, and her guinea pig is visiting. My children, who were both born after Tilly died, are enchanted and enthralled. My cat, trained from a young age to give guinea pigs a wide berth, is keeping her distance. Once again the rustle of a plastic bag is greeted with high-pitched squeaks, from a small animal hoping for a treat. And I am remembering my first baby, the first creature that was truly mine and mine alone. Sometimes I still miss her a whole lot.
Did you have a first pet that truly captured your heart? I’d love to hear about it!