On Being with Dying: A Story of Squirrels and Little Girls

November 5, 2012Caitlin Desjardins

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Editors Note: Originally posted at State Of Formation

At an evening party some friends of mine threw last spring, two friends came up to me and asked for my help with an infant squirrel they’d found in their yard that seemed nearly dead.

I quickly followed them to the basement where they’d placed the squirrel in a box with some leaves and well-meant water. In general, I believe most baby animals do best when left on the ground, but in this case, since he had already been collected, I agreed to offer my help. Unfortunately, while I have experience in animal rehabilitation, my experience is exclusively with reptiles. You wouldn’t believe how all that fur intimidated me.

For the next two days I hydrated this little squirrel every thirty minutes. Even in the night, I set an alarm each half-hour to check on him and hydrate him. I can’t remember just why, but my friends and I named him after a kind of glacial formation: Esker. Over the next day I called various mammal certified rehabilitators and I was waiting for a call back. After 24 hours, he seemed to be doing far better: he was scurrying around the box we’d put him in, breathing strong with no more visible signs of dehydration. Then, as I opened his box to check his heat-source and give him some more pedialyte, I noticed that he was moving his mouth oddly and he was twitching. He had been fine just thirty minutes before. I upped his heat, tried to give him liquids…but nothing seemed to help. I held his little body going over and over each inch of it looking for an injury, anything I had missed the day before. But before I could fully inspect him, I felt something change: his twitching became more rapid; his mouth stopped moving. He died in my hands.

I’m no stranger to death, of squirrels or human beings. But something about holding this tiny, earth and God-beloved creature in my hands during the moment of his death shook me. I called a friend in tears, who came over to comfort me with that ever-needed phrase, “you didn’t do anything wrong,” help me gently bury Esker in a corner of my garden, and choose a poem to read for the occasion.

This fall, as the leaves turn and I watch that same garden go from green to brown, yellow and deep tomato-red, I find my eyes often trailing to that corner where Esker is buried. Fall is a season that perpetually reminds me of mortality. Bridget Liddel, on State of Formation, reflected beautifully about the connection between Fall, Death and Samhain earlier this week. Though the majority of major death-events in my life have happened in the Spring or Summer, Fall is the time I remember those loved ones, think of their passing and hope for their souls.

The Sunday before the 1st of November, my Mennonite congregation will celebrate All Saints’ Day. Sometime in the subdued service people will stand and ease toward the front of the sanctuary where a large pot of sand rests on our communion table.

One by one, we will light a candle for the loved ones we remember. There will be candles for unborn children, parents, siblings. My dear friend Annie will light a candle for her family that died in the German occupation of France. I will light candles too: one for a friend in high school, one for each of my paternal grandparents, one for a beautiful nine-year old boy whose death I witnessed when I was far too young for such things. This year I will add two more candles to the pot. One for Esker, because not only were the moments I shared with that little squirrel precious to me, but also because this has also been the year I’ve understood in new ways the sacredness of animals. I have ceased eating animals out of deep reading of my own Christian tradition, new awareness of the devastation of meat on much of our environment, and new reverence for Buddhist traditions that call me to compassion for all sentient beings.

Next Sunday I will also need to light one more candle. This one, I know, will singe my heart. I will light a candle for Stella, the 3-year-old daughter of friends, who died on Monday from an inoperable brain stem tumor. Stella Joy, much like Esker, was all red hair and spirit. Before her tumor, she loved biting others more than that squirrel, I think.

This autumn has been marked by daily updates from her mommies about her days and health. For a 3-year-old kid, with a devastating brain tumor, each day I was amazed at Stella’s vivacity, strength, and determination to stay present and involved with the world, and to keep eating chocolate donut holes and ice cream. It was Stella, in fact (or perhaps the Divine working through her) that called me to a more contemplative lifestyle. Her illness was far, far more than I could comprehend or even pray about.

Death does this to us: the categories we’ve been comfortable with before, in this case angels and heaven and being with Jesus, suddenly seem bare. Not utterly useless, only I have the nagging sense that the Sunday School version of Christianity I was taught is a grain of sand in the ocean of what death really is. And so I turned to new traditions: Buddhism and Contemplative Monastic Christianity to try and learn to live with some faith in a world with cancer and death. I knew I couldn’t ever really learn to understand death, but perhaps I could learn to be with death: Stella’s, Esker’s, and my own mortality and my finiteness.

Roshi Joan Halifax, in her book Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, taught me that Tibetan Buddhists like to say we have all been one another’s mother in a previous lifetime. 1 This has been one of the most comforting and beautiful images that has held me through Stella’s illness and death. For Stella, in a thousand ways, has been my mother. She has taught me Joy, that it is perfectly acceptable to eat Ice Cream for dinner sometimes, that Green toenail polish is awesome, and life offers itself to us in unspeakably beautiful ways—even in death. It is Stella, too, who—in her tumor-induced wordlessness—taught me the healing power of Silence and the depth of communication therein.

I think Stella would agree with the Buddha, who once found a woman grieving for her daughter by a riverside. The Buddha pointed all around the woman and himself and awoke her to the hundreds of other children that had died and been buried through time. He urged her, then, not to abandon her grief, but to move through grief into compassion and even on towards joy. 2

On All Saints’ Day this year, even amidst great grief, compassion and joy are my lessons. Compassion for little girls and their families worldwide, compassion for exquisitely created squirrels, and compassion for myself as I move through this journey and take up the joy of life offered to me each and every day.

“Don’t postpone joy until you have learned all of your lessons. Joy is your lesson.” -Alan Cohen

If you’d like to read more about Stella Joy’s journey you can read her mommies’ heartbreaking and beautiful blog at stellabrunermethven.com

Notes:

  1. Joan Halifax, Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, 1 Reprint. (Shambhala, 2009), 21.
  2. Ibid., 194.
  • Nekeisha

    Wonderful piece, Caitlin! Glad to see it posted here as well.

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