I was only seven when my parents hired a chimneysweep to wipe out the cobwebs on our brick flue. They didn’t expect him to stumble into a nest of four baby squirrels so tiny they had veiny, bluish, hairless skin and fused eyes. The chimneysweep brought the nest of baby squirrels into our house, but my mother insisted we must put them back, that maybe their mother would return for them, and that if she didn’t, perhaps it was God’s will for them to die.
I was having none of that. I had heard that animals will often reject their young if they have been touched by human hands, and since these baby squirrels bore the scent of the chimneysweep, I was unwilling to take a chance. I was a second-grader on a mission.
A Girl On A Mission
I insisted my parents take me to the veterinarian, so I could learn how to rescue those little baby squirrels. The veterinarian taught me to create a makeshift incubator by filling an aquarium with polyester fiberfill and shining a light on the little babies. Then he taught me how to feed them canned dog’s milk with an eye dropper every two hours and how to wipe their little genitals with a warm washcloth to mimic how their mother would lick them to make them go to the bathroom. He warned me that they probably wouldn’t survive, even if I did everything perfectly, but he praised me for caring about them and suggested that maybe I should get good grades in school so I could become a doctor or a veterinarian one day. I decided, in that moment, that I would.
Every night I set an alarm to wake myself up so I could feed those babies. And I got special permission to bring my squirrels in a duffel bag to school so I could feed them there. Every time I checked on them, my heart raced because I was afraid they might have died. And every time I saw their little pink bodies squirming, my heart rushed with love for them and I praised God for letting them live another day with me.
Then one night, the alarm blared and I peered into the lit aquarium to see that one of the babies was still. The other babies were climbing over her, grabbing for the eye dropper of milk. I wept, alone in my princess bedroom, holding that little dead squirrel to the broken heart that beat under my flannel pajamas.
Over the next two days, the other three squirrels all died. Each time, I felt like my guts were getting ripped out. I could feel the pain in my stomach, clenching, gripping, ripping. I could feel the knot in my throat, clogging my breath and making it hard to swallow.
I could feel my heart cracked wide open like my seven year old heart had never been cracked. I sat on my mother’s lap as she stroked my forehead and I said, “I’m never loving anything ever again.”
My mother rocked me and whispered, “Don’t ever close your heart, darling. That’s how the light gets in.”
I kept that aquarium in my room for weeks with the light still on, gazing into it longingly, wishing they were still there. I replaced them with imaginary squirrels who followed me everywhere and cracked open acorns.
It wasn’t long before someone who had met my babies was driving down the road in her car when a baby squirrel fell out of a tree and landed on her windshield. The squirrel, who I named Romulus, had a broken leg and a bloody mouth when she drove him to my house and laid him in my healing hands. I fell in love and rushed to action. Once the leg was set and the mouth stopped bleeding, the baby squirrel, who was much older than the first four and already had fur and open eyes, became my best friend. I carried Romulus with me everywhere I went, and after school, we’d play in the park. I’d put him down on the ground and run away from him, and he’d chase me until I finally let him catch up. Then he’d run up my leg, all the way up to my shoulder, where he’d burrow under my hair.