“You drown not by falling into a river
But by staying submerged in it.”
As we hunker down through another winter and another year slowly moves towards spring it occurs to me that I have been very neglectful here. But to be honest, the last two years have been filled with some very rough losses and, while writing has always been a part of the healing process, these particular losses left me at a literal loss for words.
On January 9, 2017 we lost our Joy. After almost eight years of the endless pad-pad-pad of those fat little paws and bright sassiness flung at us at every opportunity, she flopped onto her back for an inevitable winter afternoon nap but, this time, she never woke up. Of course we were relieved that she took her leave in such peace, content and secure in the big old house around which she had wandered so happily, but at the same time the resulting silence was deafening. Indeed, for the first few days that silence was almost unbearable. Everywhere we looked there were reminders of a charmed life that had ended much too soon; one of her favorite “dens” was under a dresser in the room that houses some of the educational squirrels and I had learned to enter that room cautiously because Joy took great delight in chasing me back out of it. Even now I occasionally catch myself looking for her and the realization there is no need for such looking, the silence, still hits like a gut punch. I could write a million words about our time with Joy, but for now these few will have to suffice for I still have no heart for it.
And so it was, as with all hard losses, a long adjustment. But it would not be the only one. By the time summer came, my brother’s ALS had began to really overwhelm him and his care, until then primarily performed by our mother and hospice, became a priority for my sister and I, too. He left us on July 22nd; in his own way as peacefully as Joy with my holding him as I’d promised him, the same way I hold all of our animals, but it was another deafening and equally silencing blow.
Of course the rest of us had to figure out a new balance in our lives but my elderly mother was, by then, quite crippled by a bad knee so we decided she would have a knee replacement done. It was scheduled for late September and she’s done very well, but no sooner was she home from the hospital after surgery when my precious, oldest squirrel, Mira, took her leave of us. Some of you may remember her; Mira was born blind and because of her calm, easy-going temperament had been my primary educational squirrel for many years; as she reached her dotage she retired and last summer we celebrated her 14th birthday. She came into care at only 3 weeks of age so losing her was yet another heartbreaking loss.
But the only choice was to ourselves off again and continue to work on rebalancing. God, however, had other plans as hinted at by transiting Uranus in my 7th house so in mid-October, Marco Polo, a fox squirrel who had been released then returned after a puncture to one of his eyes, had a stroke. He left us at the end of the month, breaking my heart with the inevitable “why?” because he was only 6 years old.
Junior left unexpectedly Thanksgiving morning. He of the blunted little face missing his upper incisors and requiring years of lower incisor trimming was always the wild child yet more than happy to be well-fed and warmly housed. Nothing obvious nor untowards was wrong but he was almost 9 so it is likely that whatever caused such trauma to his face also injured internal organs and thereby shortened his lifespan.
Mr. Hoppy decided it was time to go right before Christmas but waited until the Day was done to break our hearts. We’ve no idea how old he really was but he was decidedly full grown on intake which made him no less than about 9 years old but perhaps as old as 11 or 12 or more. Other than his dislike of requisite tooth-clipping due to a badly-healed broken jaw that allowed his upper incisors to overgrow horribly (the reason he came into care) this was one wild boy who took to captive life like a duck takes to water. He loved it all: the food, his cage, his bed; he even enjoyed being rubbed gently and lifted his arms for jaw-to-armpit scritches for as long as I’d care to do it. Definitely one of the best-natured adults it has been my pleasure to know so when he decided it was time to leave, the sadness was palpable.
With Mira gone, Horatio and Alexander T. Squirrel became the patriarchs of our little group. Both turned 12 years old in late summer, both had suffered similar injuries as babies resulting in neurological issues, but Horatio’s were worse. It never seemed to really bother him; he simply toddled on; and in his dotage was basically an old mess. Pretty much every day a rather happy old mess, but a mess nonetheless as he began to lose his vision, then struggled to sit up, then to even walk more than a step or two.
But he didn’t want to leave. Even when every breath became a struggle, he clung so stubbornly to his odd little life; always happy and eager for every meal even when those meals finally came out of the end of a syringe and his beloved avocado was held so he could more easily eat it. “I love you, Horatio,” I always told him quietly as I held him and gave him gentle scritches and massages after his feedings. He always closed his eyes when I said it, as if to say he understood. So fiercely independent despite the neurological issues that rendered him unrealeasable, until the day he left us I guess I never really fully realized how much he loved our life together. And I think that, more than anything, is why my heart is so utterly broken even now.
We’d known this day was coming; indeed, I thought it had come almost two months ago. But Horatio had other ideas and was unwilling to simply take his leave as is the way of wilds. As his oh-so-old, oh-so-weary body finally began to shut down that frigid morning a few days after Christmas, he vainly railed against it even as I held him close and reassured him. It finally dawned on me to tell him not only that everything was all right, that he should run to those bright, leafy trees on the other side of the Bridge, but that he could come back. At those words, he lifted his head and he stared at me with his nearly sightless eyes. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you this, old bear?” I asked him. “It’s true, you can come back again.” And with that he laid down his head and no longer struggled to breathe. Indeed, it was only a few more quiet breaths and he finally slipped these earthly bonds to bound his way with sure, unerring leaps across the Rainbow Bridge, leaving me with only heaving sobs at the loss of such a unique and special little soul.
Alexander T. Squirrel left us shortly after our birthdays last July. His sweet temperament helped him reach the ripe old age of 13 and his silliness shone brightly up until the end. I couldn’t have asked for more than the true bond of friendship that we shared so he left a big hole as well.
Lest you think the silence has been only a dark one, as it always is for those who have eyes to see we have been blessed with many bright moments as well. We got the small pre-release pens up and have successfully released a number of furballs into our wonderful woods. We overwintered and released three fall babies and two of them now command the back. Their juvenile affection for their foster parents and sheer goofy, quirky little personalities created some laugh-out-loud hilarious fun just about every single day making it impossible to remain sad when face-to-face with their happiness and enthusiasm for everything. Well, for everything except the vacuum cleaner, anyway.
So, no matter what, life is still good.