Pawprints On My Heart
How It Came To Be
It was my Junior year in college and I it seemed like nothing was going right for me. Recently dumped after a brief “romance” that went awry, I was feeling unlovable and otherwise down on my luck. In addition to this, I was currently in between majors after discovering that the music education realm was not (let’s just say this realization came after trying and failing desperately at conducting a group of body odor-ridden eight grader choral students at the ungodly hour of 8:00 in the morning). In a lot of ways, at this point in my life, I had way more questions than answers and needed a way to reap some comfort for myself. That’s when I met Franz.
My soon-to-be college roommate (we had agreed to live together during our Senior year) convinced me that we should adopt a hamster. We had both recently experienced breakups and were on a “No boys allowed” phase of our lives. She had decided for the both of us that we should fill our hearts with love and adoration for a furry friend instead of boyfriends. “But it’s against the dorm rules!” I remember attesting; trust me, I was a goody-goody and needed a lot of self-assuring when it came to breaking the rules back in those days. Luckily for us, our university had a policy that resident assistants could not go into our dorm rooms without advance notice or a solid reason (i.e. the knowledge that you were storing alcohol in a room where any student under the age of 21 lived, etc.). In fact, we knew plenty of peers that had “illegal” pets in their rooms - everything from hamsters, rabbits, frogs, and even kittens! Essentially, if you didn’t let your RA see you with a bag of kibble or a rabbit cage, you were set.
So, begrudgingly, I went to the pet store with my “roomie” to pick out our new dorm room pet. I use the word “begrudgingly” not only because I still needed convincing that breaking the rules was okay, but also because my last fling worked at the exact pet store that we currently found ourselves standing in. With reddened cheeks, I hid between aisles praying that we could get in and out of the store without awkwardly running into him - something that I envisioned would make him and I both uncomfortable. As we browsed, my roommate’s focus went to the display of guinea pigs that were playfully running about in their tank. Almost immediately, my eyes locked with a sweet little guinea pig that could not have been more than 2 months old - he had a tan nose and his body was covered in a pattern of white and brown stripes that reminded me of a Beagle. He could not have been much larger than a deck of cards.
Before I could finish the phrase, “look how cute this one --” I sensed a large figure standing behind me and could feel their respiration on the top of my head. I looked up to see the 6’5” figure of the associate that I was trying to avoid. I turned around, looked up and was greeted by a playful smirk that read, “this CAN’T be a coincidence.” Before I could come up with an explanation, my roommate pointed out the guinea pig that I had been gazing at and stated that we needed help adopting him. Although - to my dismay - he was eager to assist us, we needed another associate to help us complete the adoption process because he happened to be allergic to guinea pigs (well, that’s one way to ward off a man). After it was all said and done, we were at the register purchasing a cage, bedding, hay, guinea pig food, and of course, the guinea pig. We split the cost 50/50 - each of us paying about $35.00 for the entire purchase (not a bad deal!). It was on the car ride home when I came up with his name - Franz - named aptly after Romantic period composer and pianist Franz Liszt (well, I DID mention that I was a music major).
Our Life Together
Flash forward to seven years later and Franz and I are still together. Although he was an elderly pig at this point (approximately 90-years-old in “guinea pig years”), he was still my sweet little boy and my most reliable companion. After our Senior year of college, Franz came to live with me and stayed by my side through two years of my Master’s degree program, a four-year relationship with a live-in boyfriend (no, sorry, not the associate from the pet store), post-breakup “couch surfing,” and life after “love” as I found myself newly single and living on my own for the first time. Through heartbreak, a slew of mental health disorder diagnoses, and years of uncertainty, Franz was always there to come home to. He had an incredible way of immediately loving anyone that he met and greeting them with his characteristic “purr” of affection (yes, guinea pigs can purr like cats!).
He was a “Mama’s Boy” through and through and would always be expectantly waiting for me when I got home from class, work, a weekend road trip, or even a first date. Our evenings always ended the same way - with Franz on my lap as we would wind down with whatever the television program of choice was that evening; I’d rub his back until he tired himself out from purring and would fall asleep. Some evenings, those cuddle sessions were filled with laughter as I played with him. Other evenings, his fur offered the perfect landing spot for my tears as I came to terms with symptoms of my newly realized Major Depressive Disorder. Regardless, he was there and always had the same loving, adoring attitude towards me regardless of what the world threw at me that day.
Bittersweet Endings and New Beginnings
After seven and a half beautiful years together, Franz became very ill and entirely lost function of his nervous system. On top of that, he had severe arthritis in his hips, which made it impossible for him to walk. Although a self-made wheelchair crafted out of K’Nex and a dish sponge offered him some mobility, he continued to physically decline throughout the month of January 2018. On January 20, 2018, I made the painful decision to end my best friend’s suffering. It was a frigid Saturday morning when I carried him, wrapped in a blanket, into the Veterinarian’s office and said my goodbyes. In tow, I brought his favorite today - a plush replica of “Ham” from the Toy Story franchise with a squeaker in its belly; the sound of the squeaking always made Franz purr and even in his final moments, he was able to purr for me one last time.
If there is anything that I learned from Franz, it was the value of loyalty, loving others unconditionally, and finding joy in the “small things.” The ease in which he would purr and greet strangers with affection always amazed me. As a natural-born creature of prey, his trust towards members of the human race generally struck me as a courageous act and a clear cut sign of an upbringing filled with love. The emotional support that animals offer to ailing humans is often under-appreciated. Aside from the unconditional love that you will receive, their care taking will require to you to step away from yourself and your problems to focus on the wellbeing of another - it will help you to step outside of your world of hurt and self-loathing long enough to find relief in the company of another species - a species that doesn’t care if you aced that job interview or had another bad first date - a species that will just love you for who you are to them. Since Franz’s passing, I have adopted two new guinea pigs, Henri and Oliver. These two fill my heart with such joy as they greet me each with a similar sense of enthusiasm. Their unique personalities keep Franz’s memory alive for me while simultaneously reminding me that no other guinea pig will ever be exactly like him. All in all, they continue to remind me that life goes on.