Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Experiencing Death III: Squirrel in the Road

This is the third installment in a monthly thread, where I will be looking back at the early experiences I had with death and reflecting on how those moments shaped my views and fears of it. In order to change my relationship with the concept of death, I have to understand what shaped it to begin with. Our ideas and philosophies are meant to evolve and change, to grow as our own experiences do.

It was a quiet afternoon. I was young enough that we still played to the edges of our block and looked multiple times, both ways, before running across the street to the other side. Halfway down the block, in front of the only house of apartments, there was a squirrel in the road. I thought it was dead, another casualty of an automobile on our mostly quiet street. But I thought I saw it breathing.
I looked back and forth many times and darted out into the road. I think the fact that in my memory the road seemed bigger than I know it to be, is telling of my age. I was glad I did because the squirrel wasn’t dead. He was gasping for air, looking at the sky. And then he turned his eyes to me.
He started trembling, every instinct telling him to run. His tiny hand opened and closed with his labored breath. He was still alive but I knew he was dying. I wanted to scoop him up and run him home but I worried that the grown-ups would be more mad that I had touched a wild animal than that a squirrel was dying.
I’d seen dead animals in the street before, flat shapes in the road. We all have. All I knew was that I couldn’t leave him in the road, half-alive, to be crushed as he died because he couldn’t run away. I talked very softly to him, told him I wasn’t going to hurt him although it might hurt a little. I remember promising him I wouldn’t touch him, having been told that some animals would reject other wild ones that smelled of human.
He was laying atop a large cluster of leaves and I very slowly and very gently pulled the leaves closer to the side of the road, obsessively watching for traffic. He made no sound and didn’t move. He just opened and closed his little fist as he struggled for air.
I calmed a bit when he was no longer in the open and I sat on the curb, my knees pulled in, sitting with him. Even then I had a sense that he shouldn’t be alone. Who knew how old he was, if he had family? What if animals could feel the way we felt? What if he was scared? It must have been autumn. In my memories leaves fell softly while we sat there.
I talked quietly with him and sang softly to him. I wished I could save him. I’m pretty sure I prayed for him to be okay, that he might get up and walk away. After that, my memory splits.
I remember my mother coming to find me. I remember her sitting beside me for a moment. She asked me if I touched it and I told her I knew I shouldn’t. She wanted me to come home but I didn’t want to leave it alone. She said that I was right that it was dying. Its breathing was already slower and less urgent. She told me I did a wonderful thing for the squirrel and it was time to come home.
I also remember a woman sitting beside me, more ether than flesh, with chestnut hair and a weathered housedress. She wrapped an arm around me and we watched the squirrel as I cried. I think I apologized for not being able to be more help. Maybe they both happened. Maybe the ghost arm became my mother’s when she came to see where I was. I remember there was a woman. Maybe my mother was never there and my brain imposed her face onto another, because she is known to me. All I know for sure is that it wasn’t just me and the squirrel at the curb.
There’s no clear lesson in this experience for me except that I have always remembered the look on that squirrel’s face. It was the first time I recognized the shadow of death without having seen it before. I have never forgotten the feeling of knowing that death was imminent, as if I saw it every day. Often our intuition knows better than we do.
Once we see that shadow, however it manifests for us, we are altered. It is our fear that changes us in harmful ways, closing our minds to the reality of it. Sometimes the alteration is as simple as awareness and we open ourselves to a larger cycle of life. Life and death are intertwined, interconnected and those who can embrace the inevitability of death are the ones who can embrace the wonder of the living world more fully.

Relevant Posts:
Introduction to Death: The Unborn Baby (published May 16, 2012)
Introduction to Death II: My Father’s Father (published June 13, 2012)


  1. Thank you for sitting with the little squirrel. He gave you a huge blessing... he showed you your compassionate heart.

    1. Thank you... I have never forgotten that moment, and that feeling of helplessness that gave way to the grace of doing the least I could do in holding space. Many blessings to you.


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