In Praise of Einstein: Relatively Special

Dogs and cats, I think we’d all agree, rank at the summit of the pet pecking order. This isn’t to suggest that New Yorkers with other companion animals–snakes or ferrets, for instance–are out of step, even a little demented. Only that our narrow-minded society is oriented around the love of canines and felines.

So when we discover ourselves feeling affection, even love, for a different species–particularly one that provides precious little feedback–it comes as a surprise, and forces us to examine ourselves and how we form attachments.

What prompts these solemn thoughts is a death in my family. On July 11, our beloved guinea pig Einstein passed away. Einstein was four and a half, a ripe old age for a rodent, but that didn’t alleviate our suffering. Einstein, you see, was a special guinea pig, though I’d be hard-pressed to provide supporting evidence, since guinea pigs lead rather pedestrian lives.

While dogs do things like catch Frisbees and go swimming and search for contraband in people’s luggage out at J.F.K., and cats astonish simply through their acrobatic grace, guinea pigs spend virtually their entire existence sleeping and eating and, most of all, passing copious amounts of dark pellet-like turds or soaking their cedar-shaving-lined cages with urine.

Which only makes Einstein’s place in our hearts all the more notable. We named him Einstein because he bore a striking resemblance to the great physicist. He was a long-haired albino with a high forehead and tufts of white hair, similar to Albert’s, falling over his face in fountain-like profusion.

There was also something about the nose and eyes, an arresting ruby-red, and their interplay that suggested wisdom and humility, perhaps even empathy, and reminded one of the fellow who formulated the theory of relativity.

Two examples immediately spring to mind as proof of our pet’s superior intellect. Whenever he ran out of water–which was often, given the amount he drank and peed–he didn’t suffer in silence. He’d wait until an adult member of the household happened to be passing his room and rattle the empty water bottle or, if he was especially thirsty or annoyed, give it a sound whack with his nose and send it clattering to the ground to attract our attention.

The second instance of Einstein’s genius occurred at our house upstate, where he resided outdoors during clement weather and where we believe he was happiest, though we have no actual proof. Unfortunately, Einstein’s demeanor remained maddeningly inscrutable whether sitting in his cramped city cage or methodically munching his way through the grass on our front lawn.

Come to think of it, the only things that prompted him to register any sort of reaction were fresh vegetables. He appreciated a good, crisp carrot. He roused himself and hustled over, no matter how deeply asleep (and more and more of his time was spent in slumber as he reached guinea-pig middle age), if you offered him apple slices. In fact, he may have actually preferred the peel. And he was a true connoisseur of lettuce in all its varieties–red leaf, Boston–and of arugula, though I believe his favorite food of all was fresh basil. It brought out the glutton in him. You really didn’t want to get your fingers too close to his incisors when they were demolishing a sprig of fresh basil.

In fact, his loss is most deeply felt when we’re chopping vegetables. Though he appreciated quality produce, he was just as grateful for the stringy part of the asparagus stalk or for discarded lettuce leaves. Now there’s no one to give them to. When we throw them away in the trash, it feels as if we’re tossing them into some great existential void.

As I was saying, the second example of Einstein’s brilliance–not to mention his survival skills–was made manifest one summer afternoon a couple of years back, when a friend drove up to the house and her white Lab came bounding out of her S.U.V. Einstein didn’t exactly blend into his surroundings, being shocking white, and the dog galloped over either to play with him or eat him, or, in all probability, to play with him and then eat him.

Einstein, being no fool, made a beeline for the woods. Despite the fact that he was built low to the ground and had tiny, squat, almost vestigial legs, the guinea pig could cover short distances at great speeds, and before any of us realized what had happened, he’d vanished into the underbrush.

Adults and children started to hunt for him, but Einstein couldn’t be found anywhere, and we were forced to return to the city without him, scared we’d never see him again, that he’d become canapés for a ravenous coyote or met his maker squeezed between the sharp talons of an owl or a hawk.

But when the family returned to the country the following weekend, our dog Mimi promptly discovered Einstein rooting through the bushes behind the house. My kids claim that he seemed slightly more feral after that, but, except for some twigs in his coat, he was none the worse for wear.

We formally celebrated Einstein’s importance as a member of our family last year when I commissioned a portrait of him by Lucien Rees-Roberts, a British portrait painter better known for his pictures of people.

“He had a wonderful face and hair and coloring, but there’s no real form to the body,” Lucien remembered. “The whole thing was more of a challenge than I expected.”

Nevertheless, the painter somehow succeeded in capturing Einstein’s enigmatic essence, his low-key charisma. “In the face, there was incredible sensitivity in the eyes,” Lucien went on. “He should have been a much larger animal, somehow. One could really imagine him in a Beatrix Potter story.”

Mercifully, Einstein passed away with a minimum of suffering. I discovered him in his outdoor country cage wheezing, tossed in a few basil leaves to cheer him up, and planned to call the vet first thing next morning. But he ignored the vegetables–proof that something was terribly wrong–and 10 minutes later he was gone.

We held the funeral a couple of days later. Tombstones double as sculpture on our property. My mother’s three Boston terriers are buried there, and each has an impressive monument. But we realized that something of that size would be inappropriate for Einstein, not just because he could have fit into a shoebox with room to spare but also because he possessed such an understated personality.

Our daughter Lucy, the pet’s official owner, came up with a tasteful solution. On a piece of dark gray shale, in small, meticulous block letters, she wrote, “Einstein Gardner. July 11, 2001. ‘Some guinea pig.'”

That’s a reference, of course, to Charlotte the spider’s description of her best friend Wilbur the pig in the E.B. White children’s classic. Einstein and Wilbur had much in common. Both were shy and self-effacing, their impact on others arising more from strength of character than personality.

We have decided not to replace Einstein, and not just because my wife is sick of being the only one in the family willing to change his cage. It’s also because we know we’ll never find his equal again. In Praise of Einstein: Relatively Special