Recently I experienced one of the shockingly few occasions, in my thirty years and change on this world, in which death wasn’t just an abstract concept for me to vaguely understand from an intellectual distance.
Our guinea pigs died a little over a week ago, and as such, this blog is now sadly mascotless.
A couple of years ago I wrote about the loss of Kirsty’s cat Bruno, in a post critically acclaimed and highly lauded by a wide audience of in-laws who’d known Bruno for years longer than I had and were also sad that he’d gone.
This isn’t a eulogy post for Higgs and Boson in the same way that that was for Bruno. But I wanted to write about a few things that I noticed, in the immediate aftermath of that time I wandered outside to give our furry friends some fresh water and grass, only to discover two motionless corpses.
1. I was surprised how bothered I was that they were dead.
I say “surprised” because this was undoubtedly a less significant and tragic moment than when my cat housemate died in 2011. This is true even though I’d only lived with him for his last couple of shaky months, while the pigs had been around for a few years.
I mean, guinea pigs? C’mon. Not to diminish anyone else’s attachment to their own furry rodents, but they’re a bit rubbish.
Higgs and Boson were squeaky idiots without a great deal of personality, lacking the brainpower to even conceptualise who I was in any meaningful way which might have let me delude myself that they cared about me. Not like cats. Cats are very good at forcing that delusion upon you, especially when they’re hungry.
Our pig-interest had drifted notably in recent months, anyway, especially since Pi came along and was way more interesting. We kept them fed and watered and safe from wild animal attacks, but we hadn’t had much socialising time with them lately. Aside from bringing them in to splash around in the bath while I was cleaning out their hutch a little while ago, we hadn’t really ventured very far above the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of piggy needs. They were fluffy and cute, and a regular part of my life – just not a hugely important or stimulating one.
But for nearly a week, my mind kept wandering back to the fact that they were gone, and feeling horrible about it. Several times a day my face and throat would start doing that thing like when my wife sees a John Lewis advert or a lonely owl.
I’ve never actually lost anything that’s been as big a part of my life as they were. Which sounds ridiculous, but I think it’s true. Nothing else has been there so constantly and consistently – checking their water and food just about every day, letting them run about in the grass while their hutch gets cleaned out most weekends, making sure they’re tucked in safe every time the wind and the rain picked up – and then suddenly not been anywhere any more.
This was the first death of a pet that was really mine. Not like Bruno; I was just his fellow lodger for a couple of months. But I went with Kirsty to pick Higgs and Boson out from the pet shop. And I dug a hole to bury them in at the bottom of the garden.
2. I think the pigs have kinda acted as a proxy for something I’ve had very little experience of having to face directly.
There’s something ideologically offensive about the idea of something, which once was, just suddenly ending like that. The guinea pigs turning up dead has been a reminder that this is something which can just happen, out of nowhere, to me and to things in my life. Even if pigs rank pretty low on the heartbreak scale, I’m going to lose things I love.
I didn’t so much miss them and want them back – they’re guinea pigs, there’s not a lot to miss – but I wanted this whole thing not to have happened. And let’s be honest: I wanted it not to have happened to me. It was a selfish feeling, more than something based on real sympathy for the pigs’ own plight.
It makes everything feels less certain and stable, in a way that I’m pretty sure you’re meant to figure out when you’re about six, but which I seem to have missed.
3. Often, your physical response determines your emotions more than the other way around.
The phrase to Google if you want to find out the fascinating story here seems to be “misattribution of arousal“. Basically, various physiological states such as fear and excitement have a lot in common, as far as what’s going on in terms of your body chemistry – and whether you’re frightened or excited in any given moment is, to a surprising extent, something your brain can just decide for itself, rather than being entirely determined by the situation you’re in.
This is why horror movies and roller coasters are good first date ideas. The actual reason someone’s pulse is racing might be because they’re being flung through the air, or screaming at an actress not to go outside alone because she’s going to get eviscerated – but on some level, all they know is that they’re sat next to you, and they’re manifesting all the same physical symptoms of romantic interest and excitement, so they unconsciously make up a story to explain why you appear to get them all hot and bothered.
I’ve been able to watch something similar happening to my own emotions. When I was back at work a couple of days after burying the pigs (it was a long bank holiday weekend, I didn’t take compassionate leave), there were a couple of moments when I walked briskly across the office, sat down, felt a bit out of breath (because I walk fast and my body is a frail bundle of out-of-shape twigs) – and suddenly felt sad about them again.
The natural assumption, if I were still labouring under the common misconception that I have any innate understanding of my own thoughts and feelings, would be that my grief sometimes causes me to feel physically lethargic and run-down. What’s actually happening far more often is that, after some minor physical exhaustion, my brain notices that slight feeling of sagging due to being a bit puffed, and decides after the fact that I must be feeling sad about the pigs, so it conjures up some appropriate emotions to suit my physical state.
Sometimes, I’m not crying because I feel sad; I feel sad because I’m crying. This is a ridiculous way for a conscious mind to arrange things. But it’s also seriously empowering to know that, if your mood’s kinda low, maybe you just haven’t stood up straight, adopted a Superman pose, and forced a smile in too long – and that such easy fixes can really make a big difference.
4. I gave blood again last week.
It was my fifth time, and it’s still an important, easy, wonderful thing that you can probably do too. It hurts less than banging your toe on a door, which I’ve also done this week, only this way you save lives and you get a free biscuit.
And although that’s still all true, and I believe and stand by my usual spiel as much as ever… I believe it as an idea, on an intellectual level, at a remove from what it means.
When I exhort you to find a blood donation centre near you, and go along sometime to chat about your suitability to donate with some wonderfully professional and friendly nurses, and let them look after you every step of the way while you stop people from dying, just by having a bit of a lie down and then a snack… I’m not really feeling the emotional impact of what I’m talking about.
I absolutely mean every word. Giving blood is good, saving lives is wonderful, and people are important. I’ve been sad, and I’ve missed people, and there are people in my life who I really don’t want to die.
But these two guinea pigs are about the greatest loss I’ve ever actually had to personally deal with.
What it’s actually like – the actual sensations, the qualia, the damnable phenomena and experiences we’re trying to prevent, the aching hollowness, the bewildering sense of loss and being lost, the disorientation of stumbling on a missing stair… that’s all still new to me. It shouldn’t be, for someone my age, given the inevitability of having to face it, and the lack of notice with which it may come. But there it is.
And if it scales up proportionately – from unremarkable whiffly balls of hair who it’s been quite nice to have around, up to, like, people, with brains full of personalities and agency and hopes and clichés and all the rest – then holy crap. Death sucks.
Yep. That’s why you come here. For the frequent updates, and for the profound and original insights into the human condition.
That’ll do, pigs. That’ll do.