I ran over a squirrel yesterday.
My usual reflexes failed me and the squirrel’s timing was such that the result was inevitable. Not an hour later when I went back past the scene, two vultures were already answering nature’s call. I was unexpectedly comforted by the efficiency of this road kill removal. It almost seemed like nothing had happened.
Though it seemed inconsequential — I could easily justify the “accident” by rationalizing that squirrels are varmints and they make my dogs crazy — I had still inadvertently taken another life. Involuntary squirrel slaughter. I will admit that my better angels are not quite as vigilant when an inch long cockroach crawls across my kitchen in the middle of the night, but I still feel a twinge of regret when I peel the unfortunate interloper from the tread of my flip-flop.
Maybe that twinge can be traced back to an incident that I have yet to fully recover from. One day, many years ago when I owned my first car, I was driving along a back road in New Hampshire and as another car was approaching from the other direction, a big dog, a German Shepherd, leapt into my path from the tall grass at the side of the road. Even if I’d had time to swerve, doing so would have put me head-on in the path of the approaching vehicle. Instinct left me with only one option.
I pulled over at the next driveway and looked back. I didn’t see the dog. The impact may have knocked it back into the tall grass or it could have gone somewhere else, injured. What haunts me to this day is that I couldn’t go back and look. I was trembling and could hardly breathe as I tried to figure out what to do.
I walked up to the house where I’d stopped and knocked on the door. A woman answered and I told her what happened and asked if that was her dog. She said no, it belonged to a neighbor and that it was always out chasing cars. She said she wasn’t surprised that someone had finally hit it. I left her my name and number and asked her to tell the owner to contact me if there was anything I could do. I never heard from anyone.
As I continued on my way, still shaking so hard I could barely grip the steering wheel, my emotions crashed around in my head. Damn that dog! Why had it run in front of MY car? And, oh my god, I just killed a dog. And, I can’t believe I’m just driving away…..
That day changed my life. Something in me knew that I was going to have to spend the rest of my life making up for what I had done. Not for hitting the dog — that couldn’t have been avoided without me, and possibly another person, not being here to write about this right now. Natural selection and 2,000 pounds of metal decided in my favor that day.
A few weeks ago, as if to offer me some sort of redemption, I was graced with the gift of ownership of a sweet, wonderful, humble dog who was the victim of a vehicular hit-and-run that left her with a permanently disfigured leg. This dog is allowing me to imagine that the one I hit didn’t die, that someone more emotionally capable at the time found that Shepherd and took it to be repaired. But most of all, she gives me the chance to say I’m sorry and to offer forgiveness to the driver that hit her, who, perhaps like me, had been unable to muster the courage to face her. When she plays with the German Shepherd puppy across the street, I feel my heart begin to heal in the place that was ripped open so many years ago.
Our hearts always know what is right, though our minds will try all sorts of tricks to convince it otherwise. To the young woman who hit and killed four children while driving through a dark neighborhood a few years ago, whose trauma caused her to shut down and try to hide it, I offer an inkling of understanding of what it is to have the reality of right and wrong shatter right before your eyes and to know you were incapable of acting on what you knew to be right.
That squirrel may have been “just a squirrel”, but to me it was a beautiful dog, or for someone else, a group of happy children, invisible on a dimly lit street until it was too late. In whatever way we take the life of another being, a part of us dies, but if we will allow it to come through, a part of our own life is animated that would never have emerged otherwise.
We can’t always avoid the circumstances that strip us of our illusions, nor, maybe, should we. But we can learn from them and build an even stronger place in our hearts that will help us to be able to stop and do the right thing should such an event ever happen again.
I am strangely grateful for another squirrel who greeted me when I arrived home after crushing his friend, that sat up on its tree branch and spewed an unholy earful at me. Maybe it was there to give me a chance to take responsibility in the present instead of years later. Indeed, out loud I said to that little squirrel, “I’m sorry”…. and that put to rest his pain…. and mine.