Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Forward Motion of an Accidental Death

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Charles, the guinea pig, died in May. He was barely with us long enough to think of as our guinea pig, and not just 'a' guinea pig. He was a furry little patch I had tried to use to cover a gaping hole in our family. He fell into our hole that spring.
His demise began with the fairly regular occurrence of my eleven-year-old daughter, Mia, telling me her stomach hurt too much to go to school. She had spent late fall of this school year desperately refusing to go to school, but there was more than hypochondria involved. Her father had moved out the first week of November. As her sisters, Anna and Tess, tried to act as if nothing happened, Mia, the long-suffering middle child, acted out for both of them. It took me a while to catch on, but finally enough was enough. I told her if she wasn't going to school she was going to the doctor. As a matter of fact I said, "After the doctor, straight to school with you, missy." That will show her, I thought, no more lounging in bed having Mommy bring her drinks.

So it came as a real surprise to see Mia bent over and vomit splattering on the car floor on the way to the doctor. I was shocked and stricken with guilt. Frankly, as the stench reached my side of the car, I was also relieved. It gave me a free pass to baby my little girl without fear of being an enabler and scarring her for life.

We went straight from the doctor's office to the hospital. She had appendicitis. She also had a very strong reaction to anesthesia and had to remain hospitalized for several days after her operation. I stayed with her, sleeping in a chair beside her bed, tending to every need as she came in and out of consciousness.

Her father came home, temporarily, and we all rallied for Mia. He would bring Anna and Tess to the hospital in the evening and everyone was very nice to each other. I slept well on the fold-down vinyl chair in Mia's room. For the first time since my husband had announced his plan to leave -- and began drinking again after fourteen years of sobriety --I felt we were all safe. I was taking care of Mia, Andy was taking care of Tess and Anna, and they were keeping him safe from himself, at least for a few nights.

When she came home, her friends arrived with presents and her sisters made a big welcome home sign, but Mia spiked a fever a few hours later. We were back in the hospital for four more days. Mia was very sick, her fever was high, her blood pressure low and an infection kept her asleep all of the time. The antibiotics finally kicked in on the second day and she started to ask about going home. By the time she was discharged on the fourth day she was feeling great and happy to be forced to watch TV and nap on the couch.

As my dysfunctional form of vacation ended, I had to face the laundry and papers from school that had piled up along with pizza boxes in my absence. I gathered up the dirty clothes and went down to the basement. "Hello, Charles," I said as I dropped the overstuffed basket, greeting the guinea pig I had gotten the girls for Valentines Day. Their dad had a long history of not wanting any pets, for many good and logical reasons, but the rest of us wanted all the dogs we could get. Little Scout, our cairn terrier, was not enough for the girls, so I thought a guinea pig would be a good substitute for a big furry dog, which is what they really wanted. In those horrible days after Andy left, I wanted anything that would distract them from their parents.

I started the water for the washer and looked over at Charles's cage. The first thing I noticed was the empty water bottle, hanging crookedly on the side of the cage. Then I saw Charles in the corner, his white and tan fur perfectly smooth, shiny and still. I've been around; I know the incredible stillness of death and I could see immediately that Charles was not going to twitch his little guinea pig ears and stick his nose between the bars of the cage for a treat. No, he'd probably tried that several times over the past four days and he'd obviously gotten every last drop from the water bottle.

I had forgotten to remind them about Charles when Mia went back to the hospital the second time. They should have remembered, their dad should have remembered, but if I had remembered, Charles wouldn't be dead.

I sat down in the dirty sheets and towels and cried. Of course, we killed Charles, I thought, we're lucky it was just Charles. Daddy's gone and drinking and Mommy cries all the time. The kids are just hoping nobody from the outside notices us at all, but now we've gone and killed Charles. Murder does not go unnoticed, not even when the victim is a guinea pig.

I pulled myself together and went back upstairs to tell the girls. There they were, contently staring at the television. Mia, the only one without blame, lay on the couch and her sisters scrunched up in chairs nearby.

"It looks like everybody forgot to take care of Charles while I was gone." I tried to look sympathetic when Anna and Tess jolted up in their chairs.

"Oh, no. Is he all right?" asked Tess, who was nine and had hope. Anna, thirteen, didn't say anything.

"No. He's dead." It came out flat, but the word dead can't sound any other way. Dead. It comes out flat and blunt every time.

Tess's eyes welled up with tears when Mia said, "You let our guinea pig die?" We passed the idea around, each saying Charles is dead or We killed Charles. Then for some reason when Anna, sounding more amazed than upset, said, "Oh my god, we just let Charles die," we burst into a laughing hysteria that had us drooling and gasping for air, the kind of laughing fit that exhausts you to such an extent that you can't go back to what you were thinking before you started laughing.

After the laughter died down, we began to discuss what to do now that we had accepted the death and our hand in it. Throwing him in the garbage was never mentioned, although the thought certainly occurred to me. Burial was immediately agreed on. "In the backyard," Mia suggested.

This plan was rejected, as Scout would be sure to dig Charles up and bring him back to us. We decided to bury Charles by our old house, which we hadn't sold yet. Tess was the only one who wanted anything to do with it, so she went upstairs and got a shoebox for me. "I'm not going to get him," she said as she handed it to me.

A Nike shoebox has a top that folds over and tucks in, rather than a separate piece that comes off, which was a good design idea for shoe stores but if you are using the box for the dual purpose of casket and corpse removal is not as good. I did not want to explain to Tess why I needed a shoebox with a separate top -- I was hoping to accomplish this task without looking at or touching Charles -- so I went down to the basement with the poorly-designed box.

I managed to get the box through the cage door without actually looking at Charles, but as I gently pushed the edge of the cardboard box under him and tried to lift him away something caught. I dropped the box and jumped back. Oh my God, I am not doing this. I thought of putting a sheet over the whole cage and burying all of it but the hole would have to be larger than I could dig. I have a bad back. I'm old. I am stupid. We killed him. I was crying again.

I wiped my face and stood. You are a mother, I told myself sternly. I reached in, unhooked his stiff little foot from the cage and placed him gently in the shoebox.

As the big front end of our old gold Cadillac turned onto Magura Road, the wheels slowly ground in and spit out the gravel beneath them. The "For Sale" sign was barely visible from the bottom of the road and the ride to the top had to be taken slowly in order not to kick up stones. I glanced down at the shoebox that lay between Tess and me. It was undisturbed; even the wilting daisy on top was still in place.

Tess and I got to the top of the gravel road and sat for a moment, staring at the house. Tess still loved this place; unlike her sisters', her life was not yet about Starbucks and hanging out with friends. Having just turned nine, she was still happiest at home, playing with Anna and Mia and being tucked in at night by her parents.

"Do you want to carry him?" I asked.

"No, you can do it," she said, keeping her head down and standing by the front bumper of the car. With that, we walked to the back where the grass meets the woods and I dug a hole with my small garden shovel. Tess gathered rocks and flowers to put on top of the grave. We stood looking at it, the rocks and flowers all mixed together.

"It's a good thing we did this," I said. "Thanks."

"Yep, let's go." Tess rubbed her dirty hands on her pants and we were back home watching TV with Mia and Anna before dinner.

Mia was much better about going to school after her two week appendix break. I went back to college and stopped crying so much. Andy stopped drinking and began to think he had made a mistake. The girls and I found ourselves laughing in a calmer and more frequent manner.

The next Christmas, a small, furry puppy was under the tree. We named him Otis and all of us, including little Scout, have succumbed to his cuteness and control. He eats and drinks every day. If his water bowl becomes empty, he picks it up in his mouth and lets it bang down on the floor. Otis can never be ignored. And Charles will always be with us as we make our way.


Nancy Hanley received her MFA from Carlow University. She leads nonfiction workshops throughout the Pittsburgh area including the Madwomen in The Attic Workshop at Carlow University. Nancy lives in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, with three brillant young women who are also the most wonderful daughters.


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