by Raju Peddada
(Swans - July 2, 2012) There was an abrupt ignition of energy in the house as soon as I showed my wife what I had brought home. An electric potential charged the house in the possibilities of a healthy guest that could double our joy with its antics. The boys, bored to the brim with frequent excursions to the store with their mother, jumped at the chance to go with me to the supermarket to get food for the newly-arrived guest. I am getting ahead of the story here, am I not? Spring is the time that brings us pleasant, as well as unpleasant, surprises. Well, here is what happened.
At 4:15 p.m., on the 2nd of May, I had parked my car about a furlong away from Lee Street, about a twenty-minute walk to the hair salon. My intention was to put in a forty-minute walk in a round trip. When I had hair, my visits to the barber were infrequent, but, with hardly any left now, I make it a point to go regularly -- a strange dissonance. Anyway, I had parked my car on the south side, on Algonquin Street under a tree, and took to the sidewalk, walking east. A little further up, in the front yard of #1027, to my right, I saw a movement in the untrimmed grass. Upon closer inspection, it was a baby squirrel, about five weeks old, still with its eyes closed, lying on its side, struggling to get on four limbs. It had apparently fallen from its nest in the canopy. I hesitated, and realized that its parents might come and attend to it. A pang of guilt pierced me as I left it struggling there and walked away to my destination, promising myself that I would help it, if it was still there, when I came back. It was well camouflaged in the overgrown blades of grass.
At about 5:10, I started walking back, and reached #1027's front yard around 5:30. It was still there, but, it had uprighted its position, and was crouching on all four limbs. That baby squirrel, all of it, was one big heart. I bent down over it, and had the brave one clamber onto to my Ray-Ban eyeglass case, then I took my cap off and held it underneath the case, almost coddling it. It looked healthy and intact, with no damage. Earlier, I had contemplated on my walk in, and out, the kind of trauma this fall entailed for this little beauty. First falling off the tree, then the prospect of getting shredded by a lawnmower, or eaten by a stray cat, or just be abandoned to die in the grass. In a situation like this, especially with wildlife, when the nestlings fall or wander away from their comfort zones, death became a certainty, while life becomes a flickering flame in the wind.
As soon as I picked it up and set it on the front seat, it curled up and slept. Must have been a relief, especially in that direct sun. And, who knew when it had fallen -- could have been two or even three hours before I had arrived. The baby squirrel was indeed a marvelous creation of nature; it had a small and smooth furry tail, its claws were fully formed for clinging on the tree, the body had that sleek elegance for speed and agility, and the head looked like that of a mini capybara, the largest rodent found in Brazilian and Venezuelan swamps. The eyes remained closed, looking more like wheat grain, with a split in the middle. I reached home, walked in, and said to my wife, "I have something you have to see." Her eyebrows raised, eyes generating a smile, she followed me to the car, with our younger boy on our tails. "Ooh...what a cutie!" Her nurturing instinct took over, and she devised a bed for it immediately after getting inside.
There was a sudden burst of energy in the house. We all got involved. Spring bloomed in our step. Our sons were ecstatic, "Daddy... where did you find it?" "...can we keep it as a pet?" "How old is it?" the questions poured in, and we had no answers. My wife googled "what do the baby squirrels eat?" There was a lot of information: the first thing was the food -- we had speculated that it hadn't eaten for hours, and was probably hungry. Based on the information we found on line, I drove with the excited boys to the supermarket and got a fruity Pedialyte and one feeding filler. On the way in, the boys had decided to name it Winky, rhyming with our older and regular visitor, Binky, who is our yard squirrel. A big puffy ball of fur and energy, who scratches on our back door, in no uncertain terms, demanding food.
In our excitement over the possibilities of having a squirrel in the house, we glazed over other critical information. It was indeed hungry. It guzzled up almost a tablespoon of Pedialyte, and relaxed in its new bed. We all dreamed of new activities for it. It was an exciting night, like we had another kid in the house. Early, before 5:00 a.m. the next day, I heard loud chirping... it was hungry. A great sign. My wife claimed the rascal did not let her sleep -- it woke her up at midnight for food, and then again at 5:00, but in that sleepless face she registered a nursing mother's satisfaction. I and the boys came down for breakfast at 7:00 after the showers, eager to see how our new baby was doing. We again gave it Pedialyte at around 7:15. During our breakfast, we discussed that Pedialyte alone would not be enough. What was another alternative?
My wife got on YouTube to see how baby squirrels were being fed. There we discovered that they were being fed with "replacer milk" meant for kittens and puppies. It was around 7:45, a school day to say the least, so after doing away with my breakfast, I rapidly made for the local pet store, "Pet Supplies" on Lee Street, in fact only a few yards from where I had found Winky. I was the first customer there, waiting for the store to open at 8:30. This was the first time I had been in a pet supermarket, and I was astounded at the variety of things to address our pet needs. Then, a flashback to the stores in India, the Caribbean, and Morocco; places I had lived and visited, where stores had less of a variety serving humanity, than animals here. Then again, another flash in another direction: this is the place, I mean the U.S., where we have super slaughterhouses for animals, and supermarkets for animal needs. A sad paradox indeed... guilt? We, the compassionate species, put our pets to "sleep" if they become inconvenient.
After the transaction, I sped home with the purchase: a feeding kit and the milk in a can... I suppose some reconstituted concoction for the delicate constitution of kittens and puppies, but I was not sure of it for our baby. Winky was inordinately quiet, almost sleeping. It was not normal -- squirrels are hyperactive in the morning, like most critters, including humans. After dropping the boys at school around 9:00, I hurried back to see it being fed again by my wife... I saw Winky suckling the feeding filler. Subsequently, she left for work, leaving Winky in its little bed. Then I got busy with my work that took me to about 11:00 a.m.
It was quiet, and disquitingly, there was no chirping. I went down and peered at it, lifting the little towelette. Immediately, I sensed something was wrong, as it appeared to be heaving, as if short of breath, opening its mouth and closing, gulping for air... what had gone wrong? Was the house too dry after the winter? Why was it short of breath -- was it dehydration? Can't be, it's been chugging Pedialyte like a fish... terror seized me. I took it in my palm... stroking it, pleading "live rascal, live!" Then, I heard four weak chirps, evenly paced, as if it was calling its loved ones. In hindsight, I realized that it must have been an S.O.S. I tried giving it water, but the heaving persisted. I then laid it down gently in its bed, and the body had no muscular resistance -- it was mostly limp. At about 12.40 p.m., right after I had cleaned up after lunch, I looked at Winky again, and witnessed it drawing the last breath, then it moved no more. It was gone.
The energy that permeated the house had emanated from that little body, then, a cruel gust of fate extinguished the flame, turning the house cold, in death. It did not matter that it was a baby squirrel weighing less than two ounces. Within an hour, by 1:30, the body had already gone cold and stiff. I couldn't see it coming; then, it hit me hard. I was wracked with guilt and liquid emotions. I was not ready for the boys, who had invested, and envisioned frolicking hours with their Winky. They had essentially waited out their school day, just to be with Winky, who now was gone. My younger son bawled his head off, my wife also felt bad, but had a cursory reaction: "Well, we tried our best." Did we really?
Much later, we realized that baby squirrels had a delicate anatomy, and feeding it at an angle, where it suckles up rather than down, was the difference between life and death. We made it suckle, neither up, nor down; rather, leveled evenly, but somehow it translated to the inundation of its lungs, hence the heaving and the shortness of breath. We had drowned Winky, inadvertently, with our feeding. The piercing irony is that we had drowned it, in our excitement, to have it live. One lesson learned: never delegate research, in matters of life and death.
Winky passed away in my hands on Wednesday, the 3rd of May, 2012, at about 12.40 p.m. It was moved to the basement, where it lay till the next day, in chimeric hope that a resurrection or revival would take place. This brought back another memory, the death of Lucky, our German Shepard, late in the night on Wednesday, the 16th of November, 1977. It is etched so deeply in me that I made it a point to visit his burial site in the New Delhi area of Kalkaji on the same day, thirty one years later, in 2008.
With Winky gone, we boys were distraught. Winky would never be forgotten, till the end of our time. The next day, a stormy Thursday afternoon, I and the boys buried it in the northeast corner of our yard. We had buried the electric potential, and the innocence of the spring. Mani became inconsolable, blaming us for not taking care of it. We had no answer. This scratched in another question -- do we rescue animals that had fallen away from their nests, in spring, and at other times, or do we ignore them to their fate?
Was this a significant experience, worthy of such grief and contemplation? To me, as little as this fleeting incident seemingly was, it had an enormous philosophical impact. Our temporal reality is one of sudden departures, followed by inconsolable grief, which we escape in our denials and rationalization. We spend our entire lives obfuscating our grievances -- and ironically, without this grief we would be deprived of our biggest quarry, for cogitation, and expression. In fact, and unequivocally, the best literature is all about grief. Who the hell is going to buy books on happiness? Living it up is the best expression of it! But grief, on the other hand, experienced by everyone, warrants a morbid deftness in its articulation -- then, it becomes required reading, transforming into our therapy, enabling and equipping us to cope.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)