“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya AngelouThis quote is everything to me. It’s a way to forgive myself and to aspire to improve. I’m really, really fortunate that I’ve had a fairly drama-free, tragedy-free, trauma-free life and I can say the same about my childhood. There is little I would want to change in my life.
One thing I do regret, deeply. Deeply. The way animals were treated in the area I grew up. Dogs were mostly kept outside, tied to dog boxes, even our two dogs. They received food/hay/water, but not the companionship they should have had. Of course, I was a kid and had little control over this, and my parents lived in a culture where this was the norm, and I didn’t question it much until I became a teenager, and the dogs had passed away. I can feel forlorn over these memories at times, but I remember the quote above. When I worked at a vet clinic in Illinois, I told my friend and colleague about my regret and she reminded me that this was a common living condition for dogs in the country during the 1970s and 80s and that, at any given time, we can only do our best, and to not look back with regret but to look back remembering we were doing the best we could at the time. A corollary of the Angelou quote.
And so I live my adult life atoning for actions I wish had been better when I was a kid. One of those include my first guinea pig.
Her name was Rebecca. I named her after my friend. I remember so clearly everything about adopting her. She was in the pet section at Meijer and she had a bite taken out of her ear, likely from another guinea pig. I implored my mom to allow me to adopt it and she said okay (which is surprising when I think about it now). She lived in my bedroom. And I have all sorts of memories of her being out and about with me (I have a photo I love of me sitting in a chair, striking a pose, ribbon in my hair and Rebecca on my lap). However, I also know she was terribly neglected. She was kept in a fish tank for the first few years of her life (a big no-no) and I HATED cleaning her cage and avoided it for as long as I possibly could. The filth in her cage would build and build until mom threatened me with a punishment of some kind, and I would take the aquarium out to the edge of the woods to dump it and I did it with such attitude that I broke the acquarium at least twice. Thinking back on how I let her live in such filth literally makes me cry today (as I write this).
Eventually I think my mom took over taking care of Rebecca as I become a preoccupied teenager, too busy thinking about other things and trying to (unsuccessfully) fit in. Surprisingly, Rebecca lived for five years…a decent lifespan for a guinea pig that didn’t receive any sort of vet care. I was in Texas with my mom when Rebecca died. My stepdad was with her and her discomfort during her death brought tears to his eyes as he kept her company. I’m actually embarrassed and ashamed when I think about it all today.
In my twenties, I adopted two guinea pigs (at two different times) knowing how to be a better caregiver. They both lived shorter life spans–one for three years and the last for only one and half years–in spite of having better care.
Now, as a 41-year-old pet owner, I have added a guinea pig to the mix and plan to add another (as early as tomorrow, depending on how things go this weekend). I’ve learned you can rescue guinea pigs rather than buying them from pet stores, so that’s the only way I will bring them into my life. I’ve learned they are incredibly social animals, so I’m hoping to adopt a second one so Penny (my current pig) will have company; I’ve learned they shouldn’t live in cedar chips or wood chips because of the dust (prior to this, all my pigs lived in chips) so instead I use recyclable fluff and I’m trying to figure out how to change over to fleece blankets; I’ve learned they shouldn’t eat iceberg lettuce (poor Rebecca ate ONLY iceberg lettuce) because it can give them diarrhea.
I learn. And I try to do better.