I have many great memories of my father. I remember him singing and playing banjo, dancing with my mom and telling stories with a twinkle in his eye. I remember his voice and his laughter. One of my strongest and most powerful memories, though, is from a day he made me miserable and angry.
I grew up in the country on the far side of a lake, deep in the woods. It was a 3.5 mile walk to the school bus, though I often shaved some off that by taking deer paths through the woods. That day it was raining and dad offered to give me a ride to the school bus stop. We had gone about a mile when a squirrel ran in front of the car and we could hear a slight thud as it was struck by the car. Dad pulled over to make sure it was dead, but it had run off into the woods.
Did I mention it was pouring rain? Worried about missing the bus, I said he must be okay if he could run off like that, but Dad noticed a few drops of blood on the gravel, so he was clearly hurt. He said if he’s hurt, we have to find him so he doesn’t suffer. And so began the day my dad and I spent looking for one squirrel in a forest in the rain. The thing is, in order to find a drop of squirrel blood here, there and over there, you need to look close to the ground and in the trees, so one of us would crawl on the ground and the other would scan the tree branches and leaves looking for drops of blood.
The rain came down harder and it began to really storm. I was soaked to my skin and dressed for school, not for trekking in the woods. I was miserable and whining, but dad just kept looking. I said, “You know I will get an unexcused absence. And just for a stupid squirrel.” Then Dad said, “What right do you have to say he was just a squirrel? There’s no just when it comes to suffering. We are not going leave him in pain if we can help it.”
And so we searched. Every fifteen minutes or so, we would find some signs that the squirrel had passed, though by now we were a mess since squirrels don’t follow deer paths and this was no manicured forest. We were scratched up by tamarack and sumac and covered with mud and squelching with every step.
About one o’clock in the afternoon we found the squirrel, barely alive, dragging one leg that had been mangled by the car. My dad killed it quickly. We didn’t talk as we found our way back to the road. Back home in dry clothes and warming up, we were sitting at the table with some hot soup Mom heated up for us. Dad said “You know, as much effort as it took to find that squirrel, I would do ten thousand times, if you were hurt. But you cannot think that just because he’s small, and cannot speak and is just an animal that his pain does not matter. A good person acts with kindness when no one is looking and when there’s no one to tell.”
It was a hard lesson. I hated that I had disappointed my father by being callous about the squirrel. Though when we found the squirrel, I was relieved that we had spent all that time looking and glad that we didn’t leave him to die slowly and painfully. I suppose a storybook ending would have ended with us taking him to the vet. With the nearest small animal vet 75 miles away, the idea didn’t even occur to us. My dad taught me a lot of things, how to weld, fix cars and chop wood. He taught me how to lay bricks and build a fence and shoe a horse. The list of things he taught me is long and useful, but the best thing he taught me were his values, persistences, kindness, determination and justice. I learned them all that day and I learned that if you try hard enough you can find a needle in a haystack or a squirrel in a forest.
p.s. I did get an unexcused absence.
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