Life Lessons in a Small, Furry Package

When I was a child, my father never let me have a dog. Like most boys, I had a short but intense period of craving for one, making every promise under the sun if only my father would bring home a boxer puppy.

It was to no avail. While he was flexible and frequently yielding on almost everything else, when it came to a dog in the house my father knew his own mind completely. His "No" was as formidable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

In time I realized, of course, that my father's reasoning had been sound. He would have wound up caring for a dog, walking it at dawn, tripping among the snowbanks, and apologizing to neighbors for its mishaps.

His steadfast refusal must have made a permanent imprint on me. When my son began begging for a dog two years ago, when he was 9, I reflexively said, "No." Alyosha redoubled his efforts and begged again. I refused again. And I was amazed at how easy it was to say no. If he had asked for almost anything else I would have made a pained expression, equivocated, and finally given in. But his bid for canine companionship elicited a preprogrammed response from me: Sorry, but no.

Of course, I knew that some type of amelioration would follow to soothe his hurt feelings. "If I can't have a dog," he demanded, "Then what can I have?"

I suggested a goldfish - the opposite of a dog for the purpose of parental bargaining. We began our negotiations in earnest and settled, at last, on a guinea pig. I drove him down to a local feed and seed store, and there was one animal left - a 10-week-old Dutch cavy that we promptly named Grover for its resemblance to the former American president.

Within the hour, Grover was nestled in his cage in a corner of our kitchen, not making a sound, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. The sweet aroma of cedar shavings was the only indication that anything in the house had changed. Otherwise, the uninitiated might have mistaken Grover for an inanimate object whose only need was to be dusted.

My son was thrilled. He couldn't keep his hands off his pet. When I was able to distract him from Grover, I explained to my son - while reading from my copy of "Guinea Pigs as Pets" - how to care for Grover, emphasizing that it was his, and not my, responsibility. In the euphoria of at last having a pet of his own, Alyosha was quick to agree to anything.

As it turned out, Grover was the least-demanding animal in the world. All he seemed to want - beyond feeding and watering - was to be held and petted, whereupon he emitted the most consoling purr from the depths of his being. He didn't seem to have much learning ability. He didn't respond to his name and moved only to drink from his water bottle or when he heard the refrigerator door open - a signal that a bit of lettuce or cucumber might be in the offing.

My pride in my son grew as he methodically went about Grover's daily care routine: Change water, change food, groom coat. Once a week he cleaned the guinea pig's cage. Of utmost importance was that Grover be held and exercised.

Guinea pigs are very social creatures, and keeping a solitary animal is frowned upon by devotees. So Alyosha needed to lift Grover from his cage at least once a day and encourage him to move.

Normally, though, Grover just sat exactly where he was planted, his fat settling around his frame until he looked the picture of guinea-pig contentment. When Alyosha petted him, Grover purred; when my son showed him a piece of lettuce, Grover whistled. That was all there was to his show. I was baffled as to how these animals survived in the wild.

The wild. When summer came on it was possible to take Grover outdoors to let him graze. One sunny June day, as Alyosha ran through the door holding Grover under his forelegs, I admonished my son to keep a strict eye on the animal. "The book says he'll run off if you give him a chance!" I called.

But when Grover was set in the grass he immediately began to graze, moving his legs only when absolutely necessary to reach a green blade. I was convinced that had we gone out for the day, Grover would have been in the same spot upon our return.

We really had, then, the perfect pet. Manageable, unobtrusive, and quiet. My son spent a great deal of time talking to Grover, as if the animal could comprehend his every word. And all mention of a dog had disappeared from our family conversation.

It's interesting how a pet affects the rhythms and tone of a home. Even something as sedentary as a guinea pig. It came as a shock, then, when Grover lay down in his cage one afternoon and never woke up. On my son's 11th birthday, of all days.

I wasn't prepared for how affected I was by Grover's passing. When my son came home from school an hour later, I had to steel myself to break the news to him. He didn't take it well. I had placed the small body in a shoebox for a quick interment, but Alyosha insisted on seeing and cradling Grover one last time.

After burying Grover by the stream that runs behind our house, I held my son and listened as he spoke of his loss. His mourning lasted several days. I had never seen him so soulful, so moved by anything before, nor so articulate about his feelings. Even now, four months after the fact, he seems to be a slightly different, more thoughtful version of my son.

That small breath that ushered from a beloved pet on that September day also ushered Alyosha into his 12th year, allowing me a first tentative peek at the promise of the man within.

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