She is near six weeks old, I’m told. Six weeks, and just about two pounds on the postage meter I keep for weighing small, wild things. She came to me with her brothers last Thursday night, and in her first few hours with me, she became my lesson in humility.
I recently completed a wildlife rehabilitation training, which I figured had gotten me on the way to being “up to speed” with this work, which I had put behind me thirty years ago. Hah! The training program was, I’m discovering, simply a different kind of coming of age ritual.
When tribal boys are ceremoniously initiated into “manhood,” they are not men at the end of the ritual. Rather, through the ritual, they have gained the right to begin acting like men. My training weekend merely allowed me to begin “acting” like a wildlife rehabilitator.
Because of my own mental overwhelm at sudden raccoon motherhood, I didn’t really notice that Faith only drank half her allotment of formula when I put her to bed in her snuggle sack Thursday evening. I mean, I noticed it, but it set off no alarm bells. But when she refused her morning bottle, my hackles went up. She would not even let me put the nipple in her mouth.
As I bundled her up in my hands to place her back in her carrier, she let loose what I thought was a stream of hot urine, until I saw that it was green. Thirty years ago, diarrhea—or scours—chilled me to the bone. For many wild babies in rehab in those days, it meant dehydration and death—a stream of green liquid carrying the small orphans out of life as we scrambled to stem that deadly flow.
These days, the profession has come a long, long way, but scours can still be a deadly visitor. Suddenly everything in my world went away but the sad, poopy creature in my hands. I was on the phone. I was on the Internet. I was nose-buried in books. For the next two days, nothing I tried worked, and Faith was fading in front of me.
While her two brothers, Frank and Ernest, glugged their bottles and did their best to settle into yet one more huge life change in my care, Faith seemed to be taking all the horrors of her young life into her body, and pouring them out in a bad-smelling flood. I was forced to drip fluids down her throat, with her protesting the entire time. Two diarrhea medications did nothing. By her second day with me, her weight dropped, and her eyes took on that terrible, slightly sunken look. In her carrier with her brothers, she sat with her back pressed into the corner while they wrestled and caroused with each other.
But the most heartbreaking thing was her hands. What she did with those hands. Staring off into space with a blank look, she wrung her tiny, delicate paws together in a ceaseless gesture of anxiety. “Oh dear…oh dear…oh dear” the black hands said. When I picked her up to console her and snuggle her, she put her hands out, tentatively, and patted me with the softest touch. It was as though she were touching me to see if I were real. In her short life, being thrown from trauma to trauma, perhaps nothing seemed real anymore.
When I was young, all my emotions lived in my body. I often did not “feel” emotion as I imagined my friends did, with tears of joy or fear, but my body felt it for me. Fevers, chills, stomachaches, headaches, energy coming in manic waves—this is how love, fear, worry, excitement “felt” in my world. I didn’t get mad, or sad, or filled with child-euphoria. I got sick.
I can’t remember all the times I missed fun outings, or even summer camp, because the anticipation flowing through my blood came to the surface as illness—usually fevers—and I ended up in bed with chicken soup and a thermometer stuck in my mouth.
There are many ways to face stress—and I don’t just mean “bad” stress. Good events can also cause a stress response: a new home, a new job, a new love, a new college. I felt stress of all kinds in my body, and I felt it hard. Looking at Faith wringing her hands fitfully in the corner, it occurred to me that she did, too. And it was killing her.
What can one do in the face of overwhelming trauma and stress? I don’t believe we can do much of anything when caught in the whirlwind of awfulness. Our fate is in the hands of others—those who love us and can comfort and support us until our hand wringing has settled down, and we can begin—just begin—to right ourselves.
Faith could do nothing for herself. It was up to me, and I was feeling deeply inadequate to the task. In a last-ditch effort to help her, the idea came to me to take her to bed with me. My idea was that I could offer her rehydrating fluid throughout the night to keep her from losing more ground. But the universe had other ideas.
I prepared my bed for a pooping, fussing raccoon by putting down waterproof “incontinence” mats and toweling, When the lights went out, Faith snuggled under the covers against my bare skin and began suckling on my arm. She’s hungry! I told myself. Quickly, I offered her some sweet hydrating solution. She didn’t want that. She just wanted to suckle and suckle and suckle.
The room was utterly silent except for the sounds of her nursing, and I savored a magic moment when darkness is sweet and sacred and full of possibilities. It was an hour before she stopped suckling, finally drifting off into sleep. I never gave her the hydrating fluid. I gave her my skin and my heartbeat and my breath. The next morning, I found she had left small hickkies on my wrist and armpit. The poop she deposited on the mat was no longer water. It had turned—YES!—to pudding. Perhaps we were on our way.
A short time later, when offered a breakfast syringe full of formula and sweet potatoes, she licked at it inquisitively. I squirted a drop on her nose. She licked it off. Then, some little light bulb lit up in her small head. She put her tiny hands on the syringe, and held it as I dripped the life-giving fluid into her mouth. She lapped up a complete feeding, licking her lips and hands when she was finished.
Had I not been holding her, I would have jumped up and started leaping around the room in joy. Since that day—such a short time ago—Faith has gained back her lost weight and begun eating on her own, loudly, out of a small dish.
Her sickness seems to be behind her, but not her emotional trauma. She still needs time nursing on my arm (still turns her nose up at nipples), and whenever she is facing something new—a toy, a puddle, radio music—she will back up into a corner and begin to wring her hands. Sometimes, she is able to call on her own hopefully growing emotional reserves and will herself out of her carrier to explore. Sometimes, it takes someone who loves her—me—to pat her and tell her that it will be all right, that she is safe, before she will venture out. Sometimes, she just needs to be held.
Stress. How do we face it? Not alone. Never alone. Seek the comfort you need. Ask for it. Ask those who love you. That’s what parents are for. That’s what friends are for. That’s what spouses are for. There is healing in nurture, both the giving and receiving of it. Like Faith, we all need our clan.