Change's Guinea Pig

Some nights when the house is quiet, a dark monster breathes his warm scent down my body as I lay in bed. I do not fight or scream. I lie in bed breathing, a yoga version of playing possum. My belly rises and falls, air whooshes out my nostrils, hours pass. Sleep’s peace evades me. Sometimes I know this anxiety is due to drinking too much coffee or having iced tea with lunch. This is the price I pay. I should have known better. Sometimes it’s something at work, like a wooden puzzle I turn my thoughts around and around until finally the extra piece slips in and with a sigh I know what I need to do and can roll over and snooze. Or it’s something I should have said or done differently with someone—once I figure it out I know I can right things in the warmth of sunlight. But the last two nights my exhausting inability to sleep, the waves of fright rolling through me, are due to a 6-inch creature who is just four-months-old.

A native of South America, the guinea pig is a tail-less rodent who eats grass and berries. With a lifespan of about five years, it is a furtive prey animal who tames easily. I have seen a photograph of the furry animals running free as kittens in the huts of Andean natives. Guinea pigs have no known purpose I can tell, though the book we checked out of the library claims that they absorb negative emotional energy and replace it with calm. So far, I have experienced the opposite affect.

It could have been worse. For two days my nine-year-old son and his best friend, would-be co-owners of a theoretical pet, researched animals they could purchase and care for entirely by themselves. For Cope, an only child, this creature would be a younger sibling to dote on and guide. For his friend Grayson, the older brother of ultra-busy twins, a pet with a primary residence at our house would ensure regular escapes into a shared older boy world. After seriously considering a sloth, ferret, and rat, the boys made a wise choice by anyone’s standards. Having had rats, of the non-pet variety, in our home one winter I knew their intelligence (ours knew where the doors and windows were and how to wear out our two cats without getting caught!) but the long hairless tails of the pink-eyed rodents in the cage looked like creepy dead snakes to me.

When I took the boys for still another research trip I found I liked the guinea pig they chose. Cupping his body in my hands, his tiny quick heart calming, his unblinking brown eyes, I could see the qualities my son liked in this fellow. I could imagine a calming effect and hoped this guy’s affinity for carrots and broccoli would inspire my son. So why did anxiety return again that caffeine-free work-free night? How could a $30 twitching ball of fluff deprive me of another decent night’s sleep?

Each day I try to “be here now.” But in the dead of night the recent past and dreaded future tango in my head. A quick scan of the past week tells me something a sloth could have figured out days ago. Last week we went on vacation to visit my family and for Cope to renew an ongoing play fest with his cousins, but on the second day of the trip my best friend Lauri had emergency surgery and I drove 100 miles to where she lives to care for her. Three days later I rejoined my family for one final day of relaxation. That night, after a celebratory sushi dinner at which Cope proclaimed his love for octopus (eating them not, thankfully, owning them), we had the unfortunate experience of a 17 year-old backing into our car, leaving a jagged hole in the fender.

These two events were relatively mundane—a week later my friend is almost like new but without the excruciating pain that drove her to E.R., and we’ve got an appointment at the body shop and a police report that says it’s not our fault. All’s well that ends well, right?

Lately, after I finish my morning yoga set I’ve been reciting aloud a Buddhist meditation. It enumerates different ways that life is apt to change, promising that the very nature of everything -- my body, health, and loved ones -- is change. All I can control, it declares, is my own actions. Reading this meditation to Lauri on the phone one day, and to Jim one night before bed—we all agree that to believe this can be startling but is ultimately quite freeing. If everything is of the nature to change then there’s no use in me worrying about the house burning down, or mentally deflecting the other cars as we hurl down the interstate at 75 miles per hour, or obsessing about a small mammal joining our family—I only have to be responsible for my own actions. A hard enough job, but it sounds do-able.

But then the phone rings with word that a friend is rushing to the hospital, or someone hit the car containing four of my loved ones, and all that Buddhist stuff flies right out the window.

I can’t help it. I excel at envisioning a safety shield around the car—especially while I’m still paying for it!—and Lauri and I spend hours on the phone advising each other on our lives. I work hard to keep all that I love safe. When we were out of town for a week, didn’t I unplug all the appliances and hide my jewelry in three different places? I am an expert at protecting, warning, worrying, and sensing the next disaster around the bend.

I think of our new addition (they named him Ranger) as a scurrying reminder that I cannot prevent loss or change. I cannot keep his tiny heart beating past his 10-day guarantee and I cannot stop my son and his best friend from feeling extraordinary loss when Ranger’s five-year life span ends. In the next room our lazy cat and elderly dog lounge, unaware of our new addition, so I make sure to shut Cope’s room after I say good night. In bed, I’m not surprised sleep finally chooses me completely and deeply, no hint of fear’s dreadful hot breath. After all, everything is of the nature to change, even change itself.
Robin Bradford
, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in recent anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons, Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Visit her at www.robinbradford.net