What My Dying Guinea Pig Taught Me

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.  Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.  Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.  Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.  Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.  Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place.  Show respect to all people and grovel to none.”      – Tecumseh

According to my friend Brad, who practices Native American religion, a person’s death song is their final prayer.  I first read about death songs in The Gospel of the Redman.  There were several accounts in the book of white men observing Native American warriors singing a song when it was apparent they were going to die.  Each would continue singing, usually in a high-pitched, wailing sort of way, until his death.  There was also an account of a young Native boy, severely scalded by boiling water, who sang in the same way each time his dressings were changed. 

I felt I needed to understand what a death song is, perhaps even prepare one for myself, but the book contained no information on what was contained in those songs.  I tried looking up “death songs” on-line; you don’t want to see what Google brings back.  So I resorted to asking Brad.  Was the song some sort of an account of the singers accomplishments in this life?  “No,” he said, “the Native Americans were selfless, so the songs aren’t about accomplishments.  It’s more of a welcome song – ‘Today is a good day to die.’  That sort of thing, you know?”  No.  Not really.

I was still mulling all this over the next morning as I went about my morning chores of feeding our animals.  My heart sank when I spotted one of our two male guinea pigs lying on his side in the cage, barely alive.  He had been declining for the past week, most likely from an infected bite from his brother.  We had done our best to treat him, Carol cleaned and disinfected his wound several days, but he didn’t respond. 

I woke Carol and we talked treatment options for the pig, but there’re no vets in our area that will treat these types of pets.  I scooped him up and wrapped him in a towel.  I wanted to force pedialyte down him.  But I realized that he was very near the end, he was suffering, and as much as I wanted to help prolong his life, I didn’t want to make him suffer unnecessarily.  I wept as I held his weak, little body in my arms; it was the first time that he didn’t struggle against being held.

Finally, I decided the kind thing to do was to put him in a bag, just as Carol had suggested.  It took me two tries – the first time he appeared uncomforable and struggled, so I took him out of the bag.  But then he started to convulse and make small sounds of pain.  I put him back in the bag rocked him in my arms as I watched the rising sun through the sliding glass door.

Even though he was weak and unable to care for himself, God used that little guinea pig to teach me in a powerful way.  I helped him to die.  In the end, I had to do what was best for him, inspite of my feelings and desires.  It tore me up to let him go.  I did not meet his death with the acceptance of a person who’s fully alive.

He helped me find my death song.  It has been with me for a long, long time, though I misplaced it for a number of years.  I sang it to him from my heart as I rocked him by the glass door.  In my mind, it sounded just like the first time we sang it in Sunday school:

Jesus loves me!  This I know,

For the Bible tells me so;

Little ones to Him belong,

They are weak but He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me!

Yes, Jesus loves me!

Yes, Jesus loves me!

The Bible tells me so.

Every life has value.  I think I felt so strongly because he was so dependent on us.  So often, I thought of that guinea pig as just another chore: feed him each morning, clean his cage once a week, clip his nails every couple of months.  But as he was slipping away, I was able to thank him for all that he gave to me.  I’ll miss his whistles and squeaks, the way he chewed on the bars of the cage or ran around the edges when he was excited, the way he wresteled with his carrots before eating them or bumped his nose up when you pet him. 

His world was limited to that cage in our livingroom or kitchen, but it felt like I was carrying him with me as I went about my business throughout that day.  The view of a meadow, the smell of a lilac in bloom, the sight of the clouds in the overcast sky, they all brought him to mind, even though we never visited those places together.

How fragile is life.  How little is under our control, even though we believe differently.  I struggled most of that day with feelings of regret and remorse.  I was grieving, yes, but I also mourned the lost opportunities if only I’d paid more attention, tried to be more present.  I understood that I needed to let him go in my heart, that I couldn’t go back and change the time that I spent with him (or anyone else).  All I can do is focus on the relationships that I can nourish today. 

And as I finally accepted that truth, I was blessed with an impression of what that little pig is feeling now that he’s released from the pain he had in this life.  We did the best we could to provide for him, but You, Father, will do infinitely better.  Thank You.

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5 Responses

  1. That is an interesting story.
    I just had my eyes opened opened over the Memorial day weekend, we met up with one of my wive’s brothers that she hasn’t seen in 32 years. He just started going to church about 5 years ago after his wife had been trying to for 27 years. His words of wisdom were that you can forgive someone and it is not a one thing. Both of our families have native Indain background. We don’t forget our family, our pets and our friends as they pass from stage of life into another and for inturnal life. There are good times and bad times, hopefully the good times out weigh the bad. “Try to think of the positve thinks that you have learned and use the not so good as experience to buld on and the positve will provail” md

  2. Hi Dug!
    There is an example of a death song in the movie “Jeremiah Johnson”, with Robert Redford. In the movie, a warriors of the Crow Nation kill his family in retaliation for Jeremiah leading an army column through a Crow burial ground (Jeremiah didn’t want to do this, check out the movie 😉 ). Jeremiah, of course, sets out for revenge. He comes upon a group of Crow and proceeds to slaughter them. One gets away and Jeremiah gives chase. This Crow trips and as he turns around sees Jeremiah coming up on him. He starts to sing his death song. Jeremiah stops, looks at him, turns around and walks away.

    Apparently, the ator who played this Crow was told to improvise something for this song. He sang his real “death song”. His family, upon seeing the movie or hearing about this, were mortified. The brought him home and ran him through quite a few purification ceremonies among other things I’m sure. It sounds as if they were afraid that singing this song would actually bring death upon him.

    Prayer songs can be a powerful thing and singing your death song is not to be taken likely. My uncle didn’t really say too much about it other than, “Be Careful”. My uncle is 70 and says he’s not about to sing his any time soon… if his death song ever comes to him.

    Keep writing!
    -Brad

  3. @Brad,
    I guess this is another fine example of me being a stupid, dumb, white guy. I didn’t realize the implications of sharing one’s song with others. And did I even use that song correctly, singing for a dying pet?

    I have to share that I week after I wrote this post, I accidently discovered a deer fawn hiding in the tall grass near my office. A redwing black bird had been buzzing me, trying to draw my attention, so I had casually looked in the grass to see if I could see a nest. What I saw in the grass at first didn’t register in my mind, so I leaned in a little closer. As I did, I saw the fawn lean back, as if tensing to be attacked.

    I quickly turned and walked away, not wanting to drive that little baby into the busy street nearby. Once again I sang my song for that deer, concern for its welfare flooding my heart. Where was its mother? Would it be alright? It was only after I had sung my song for a while that I felt an assurance: wasn’t the black bird protecting that deer?

    Perhaps my song is something other than a “death song”?

  4. Oh that was a wonderful story. I can totally relate. We lost our two boy piggies this summer. They accidentally got together and fought. Our Cuddle Buddy died within 30 minutes. Schocolate took more than 24 hours. He had a very violent death with convulsions. They are so delicate. As we held him through his ordeal, we felt his spirit slip away. Now my 6 year old daughter has even a better idea of what heaven will be like. Her Schocolate and Cuddle Buddy will be there waiting on her. Thanks for writing your story.

  5. @ angmarcel,
    I’m sorry for your family’s losses. We animal lovers know how those furry, little critters can sneak their way into your heart.

    Dug

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