He has many names, but “The Screamer” was his first. “He is NOT happy if I don’t give him a bottle,” said Susan, my wildlife rehab friend. “And he’s not good with a bottle. He takes light years to eat, and I don’t have light years these days.” The whole time she was talking, I was trying to make out her words over a piercing racket coming from one particular pen of many in her garage (translation: Raccoon Palace).
The raccoons in that pen would be coming home with me, and I had no idea a small coon could make that kind of a sound. It was deafening, agitated, insistent, and unending.
Faith, my little, fretful Victorian princess raccoon has two brothers. One of them is The Screamer. While Faith’s traumatic beginnings lodged in her body, The Screamer’s lodged in his mouth. Having these three impish and intense teachers in my home these past two weeks has given me much pause to ponder the nature of trauma and the many ways animals (including us) deal with it.
Tiny Faith’s response to her early horrors was to collapse from the inside out. Her brother, on the other hand, did not pull inside of himself. He put his trauma into his voice, and made darn sure we heard all about it.
On the drive home, I decided to name this little boy Earnest, because it was a word that was both respectful and descriptive. Yet, to this day, when I am talking to Susan about them over the phone, I always find myself referring to Earnest as “The Screamer,” because Susan easily remembers that. How could she not?
Earnest was bellowing when I brought them all into the house and introduced them to Carter. This is not going well, I told myself as the sound bounced of the cathedral ceilings in the living room. We will be deaf in a week… Quickly, I mixed him a bottle of formula. When I pulled him from his pen, he grabbed at my hands with the strength of a gorilla. His face was a mask of shock, his mouth open wide, screaming between bouts of sucking motions. Even the bottle did not instantly relieve the noise. He managed to holler between sips for the first five minutes.
And it was, indeed, light years before he managed to drink that meager ounce of formula. By then, we were all exhausted. By morning, Faith was squirting liquid from her behind. Earnest was screaming the instant I opened the door to “the coon room.” Only Frank, the third brother—whose name suited him beautifully—was managing his circumstances with aplomb.
He ate, he pooped, he purred. He endured beautifully. He would become the health standard against which his brother and sister would be measured in the coming days. Somehow, it seemed, he had been born with gigantic emotional reserves. Darwin would have called him “the fittest.”
Meanwhile, Earnest was proving true the old adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” He was the very squeakiest of wheels and his decibel level got him attention and got it fast. He was the first to be fed, be washed, be held, and be snuggled. He made sure of that. While Faith was too broken to have asked for anything, Earnest’s way of addressing his brokenness was to ask for everything, and ask loudly.
I have never been an Earnest. My nature tends more to the drizzly gut and quiet hand wringing of Faith. Asking for what I need has always made me feel—and I know there is no sense in this—guilty. Behind the mouth that would speak up and ask for help or nurture dwells this “other Susan,” who believes that getting my needs met would somehow—by some totally irrational means—deny the needs of others. This is, I know, absolute bunk, but human emotions are often founded on bunk—old bunk from many, many years past, its origins lost in the black hole of time and questionable memory.
Faith’s situation was medically critical. But Earnest’s was emotionally critical, and he was not going to wait quietly until someone—maybe—gave him the time he so desperately needed. He took matters into his own…uh…mouth, and by the sheer force and volume of his need, he was attended to.
Earnest needed exactly what Faith needed: comfort and safety. As I gave him these precious things, he began quieting down. Screaming gave way to a strong belligerence that said “NO!” to the food bowls and dog chow, and “Yes” only to the bottle that was attached to my hands or Carter’s. If I tried to force him to the food bowl, he simply would not eat.
I watch Earnest with awe. Here is a fellow who knows what he needs and will use any thing at his disposal to get it. Mouth, hands, strength, intensity, persistence. He is a testament to the power of will. What’s more, I see that Earnest is beyond assertive in his demands. He is aggressive. I’ve always believed that aggression is a bad thing. After all, I’m a child of the sixties. Peace, man! But perhaps sometimes, Earnest tells me, aggression is called for. It is needed.
Earnest remains the smallest of the three banditos. Faith is next in line. Frank believes he is a grizzly bear, and is determined to eat his way to that size. He is well on his way! Earnest is also the most intense of the group, still willing to get in my face when he feels he needs to. But he is needing to much less these days.
Curiously, as his needs are met, those needs begin to fade. Yesterday, he turned away from the bottle and headed for the bowl. It was an overnight shift, and it was total. No more bottles for the little scrapper. Now, he is the bravest of the three raccoons, willing to walk across strange territory while his siblings hunker back, heads swaying in concern. He is willing to cross anything to reach me, and yet, when he finally does reach me these days, he does not scale my legs and whimper to be held. It is enough for him to be close to me, yet no longer attached at the hip. He plays near me, patting my leg now and again for assurance.
In a long-term study that followed a group of men over their lifetime, researchers said that adversity truly can be a powerful force for good. Those men who had suffered in their younger lives were happier and more successful in their mature years.
Frank is young, strong, and ready for life. He is a magnificent specimen of raccoon perfection. Yet who knows? Perhaps little Earnest will prove to be the fittest.
Bless those who suffer. May they become strengthened in their trials. May they find joy.