There came a day near the end of May when I grabbed up my raccoon kits—Earnest, Faith, and Frank—and set off to make a memory. They fit easily into my small backpack, and rode there with their faces out and their eyes big.
All were in robust health, with fat tummies and glossy fur. They had come such a long way in only two weeks. So far, in fact, that they had no more need for me. It was time to take them back to Wildcare, the rehab sanctuary, where they would be joined by another litter to make up their “clan.” In the large outside cages with pools, stumps, and makeshift dens, this clan would have their time of “wilding up.”
Then, Susan Davis would select the place for their release—somewhere with woods, water, and privacy. Together, the little clan would explore the glory of a wild life, as they were born to.
But not yet. Not before I took them off in search of one last, grand memory. Spring had done her job of filling in the bare winter canopy. Now the forest out my back door had returned to the mysterious, compelling world of deep, deep shade and leaf-bottomed, meandering streams.
At the bottom of a favorite hollow, I took the pack off my back and set it on the forest floor. Three raccoons tumbled out to scuffle in the leaf litter. Earnest quickly found a stink bug, and spent an intense five minutes mooshing it under his paws while Frank and Faith cautiously crept head-first down a tiny bank to a place where a trickle of water emptied into a small pool.
All of them stayed within five feet of me—their instinctive safety zone when out with “Mom.” I sat down in the midst of them, making my brain a camera, clicking off images of wonder I intended to keep for a lifetime: Frank tangled in a pile of tree roots, grabbing at his tail, which I’m sure he thought belonged to someone else; Faith with her hands exploring the sandy bottom of the pool, her eyes looking faraway and dreamy. And Earnest, growling and posturing at a small pile of dirt.
Sunlight filters down in Jacob’s ladders in such forests. Every now and then, one of the coon kits would wander into the middle of a shaft of honey-colored sunlight, and I watched as—for an instant— the tips of their fur sparkled like stars.
Who was I, I asked myself. Who was I that heaven would allow me such moments? I had thought to bring my camera, and decided against it. I did not want a lens between me and those moments. All too soon, our memory-making in the forest drew to a close, and later that afternoon, I drove Earnest, Faith, and Frank to Susan’s house. I have not seen them since, except in my beautiful memories.
By the time I’d cleaned up after the raccoons, washed all their towels, cleaned all their dishes, swept under their caging, and vacuumed their night room, the phone started ringing and didn’t stop. It was the skunks, come at last, and all at once. “I have orphan baby skunks in the barn,” “Our cat brought in a baby skunk,” “There’s these two little skunks in our yard. They’ve been wandering there for the past two days…,” “I found a baby skunk by the side of the road. It’s got maggots all over it.”
Somehow, nature arranges these events in floods, not trickles. By the end of the day, I had nine stinkers in my garage, all with different health issues. Some were infested with fly eggs. One had pneumonia. One had maggots. Several were dehydrated and starving. One—just like Earnest the raccoon—was a screamer, bellowing out his outrage at having been born into a confusing, motherless world.
I named him Pavarotti for the strength of his lungs. The rest I named for their markings and their personalities: Snow, Cleopatra, Beauty, Ink, Flora, Eve, Doe, Joey. The gods have not made any cuter babies than skunks. There are some as cute, of course, but certainly none cuter. They looked like animated dominos, or tiny killer whales. Or little zebras with funny tails. And those faces! Oh, goodness, those little faces!
Many of you have written me, “Susan, I’m so envious of you and your little wild babies!” Yes, I must say, they are as wonderous as you can imagine. Their company is an education, a revelation at each moment. To be in their presence takes me out of space and time into wild realms where life is good, honest, trusting, and genuine. They and Wildcare are my dream come true. That’s the good news.
I am aging quicker than most. I’ve written before that my stamina is poor. Let me be, then, the clarion of what it is to be disabled before “your time.” I sit here on the coast, after too many doctor consults, needing to come to terms with what I do NOT want to ever come to terms with: I can’t do the work I love anymore. At least, not in the ways I imagined doing it. At least not for now. Maybe ever.
There is a right time for everything, and then there comes a time when certain things are done and past. This is the wisdom of the crone, and I’m embodying her quicker than I would have liked. Perhaps it is—no matter what age this truth comes upon you—always quicker than we would like.
I am wrestling with becoming less, not more. I am wrestling with truly becoming a human being rather than a human doing (as our sister Cindy so often reminds us!). When I return to my Indiana woods, I will have to recraft my life in a much smaller version. For now, I fight this truth. There is a time for disbelief and denial, and this is my time. I will grapple with these reactions willingly, however, as they are such a natural part of any big adjustment.
And as I wage a small war with what is right now (hope springs eternal—I met yet regain my lost strength), I am also making lists of what I will NOT give up. There is a power to the truth of living small. I have espoused its virtues for a long, long time. And in many ways, lived them. Now is the time to pare away yet again. Devastating. Fascinating. Challenging. Yet one more gift.