Lessons from a Dying Squirrel

Yesterday I had rehearsal for a theater group I have recently become involved with.  My parents very graciously came up to watch The Fiend. 

I love when my parents watch The Fiend because first she absolutely adores them and second my mother is incapable of being at my house without cleaning or folding laundry.  And sure enough when I returned the laundry was done, they had run to the grocery store to pick up snacks for The Fiend’s lunch and dinner was prepared.

Unfortunately there was something else.  My mother asked me to come outside with her.  She said, “I hate to leave you with this, but….”  She brought me to the side of the house where there was an overturned bucket with a rock on top.  When the bucket was lifted there was what appeared to be a dead baby squirrel underneath.  Upon closer inspection I realized the poor thing was still alive, but barely.

My parents had kept it from The Fiend, not wanting to upset her.  Unfortunately that had to go because their three dogs needed to be fed, watered and walked.  I thanked them for their troubles and saw them off. 

I walked back to the side of the house.  I knew I couldn’t leave the poor squirrel lying in the dirt under a bucket.  I went back into the house to grab a pair of disposable gloves and some old linens.  The Fiend was curious about what was going on.  I believe there isn’t much benefit in keeping The Fiend from experiencing life or death.  I quietly explained there was an injured squirrel beside the house and I needed to get it away from the cats.  She wanted to see.

After making her promise that she would under no circumstances get too close or touch the animal, we went back to the bucket.  When I lifted it she seemed a bit startled. “Will he die?” she asked.

The squirrel had not moved even slightly since my mother first lifted the bucket.  It was breathing shallowly and occasionally gasping.  It stared blankly.  This squirrel was probably not going to make it.

“I think so.”  I told her.  She nodded and watched from a distance as I donned the vinyl gloves, lifted the small creature as gently as possible and placed it on the pile of old pillowcases I had brought from the house.  She followed me to the shed where I laid the bundle carefully in the corner.  The squirrel did not acknowledge any of this.

The Fiend and I went back into the house.  She asked when we would eat dinner. I responded a bit harshly.  Her lip began to quiver.  I immediately apologized for snapping at her.  She began to cry in earnest and replied “I’m not sad because of that, I’m sad because my great grandpa died and I never got to meet him.”

I was caught completely unprepared.  The Fiend explained the squirrel made her think of her father’s grandfather who recently passed and how that made her sad.  I explained a person’s spirit never really dies and Grandpa Doug’s spirit was still alive.  She asked me where spirits go after people pass.  I thought for a minute and decided it would be best to admit my own ignorance.  “I’m not sure sweetie.  Some people believe in a place spirits go after the body dies.  Others believe the spirit comes back in another body.”

“What do you believe?” she asked.

“I don’t really have a solid belief about the state of the soul after death.” I replied, again opting for honesty.

“What should I believe?”

“Whatever seems right to you.  And you don’t have to decide that right now.  You have plenty of time to sort that out.”

“Do you think my great grandfather was like the squirrel before he died?”

I thought how curious it is the way kids can create those kinds of parallels so easily.  “I think Grandpa Doug went very peacefully in his sleep.”

“OK.”

She wiped her eyes on her hand and asked if she could serve supper while I dealt with the squirrel.  “I don’t want to see the squirrel again.  It makes me sad for Grandpa Doug.”

I smiled and kissed the top of her head.  “Of course.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

I went back out to the shed.  The squirrel was just as I had left it, wrapped in flannel and occasionally gasping for air.  I pulled out my phone and found a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the general area.  I called the seven closest and none of them answered the phone.  I started calling rehabilitators within a wider radius.  On the 11th call I got an answer. 

The gentleman I spoke to was very kind but told me that he wouldn’t be able to help me that night.  He also told me from the sounds of things the poor creature was not long for this world.  He explained keeping the squirrel warm and trying to get it to drink some water was probably the best anyone could do for it. 

“I can’t just let the poor thing die!” I said in disbelief.

“Unfortunately sometimes that’s all you can do.”

I thanked the man for his time and hung up the phone.  The squirrel’s gasping breaths were becoming fewer and farther between.  I made sure that the linens were tucked in all around it.  Then I began to cry.  Not just for the squirrel.  I, like The Fiend, was making parallels between this creature and losses I had suffered.  I thought, “I guess The Fiend’s response wasn’t so curious after all.”

I gently stroked the poor little squirrel’s head with my gloved hand while it struggled for breath.   I found myself wondering if this squirrel’s mother was frantically searching the surrounding woods to find her lost baby.  I felt a deep sadness for this suffering creature, its mother, the spirits that I have lost and myself.  And I cried for them all.

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