I saw the sad thing when Mike and I were on the return leg of our customary morning walk along the Bugline trail, an old railroad right-of-way. It was only April 5 but it looked like May 5: the forest floor was carpeted with trout lilies nodding their white heads. Purple hepatica and yellow marsh marigolds were up.
Our dog, Maggie, ran to the edge of the Fox River where the water meandered along the side of the trail. I thought she was going for a drink and I called her back, afraid of parasites she might pick up in the stream. I wandered closer to the riverbank.
That’s when I saw it: a small raccoon at the river’s opposite bank. The creature swiped its rear leg repeatedly, as if trying to scratch an itch, but not making contact with anything. I called Mike over.
“He’s trying to wash himself,” Mike said.
“Well, he’s doing a bad job of it; he keeps missing his face,” I pointed out.
We watched for a while and finally figured out that the wee thing was simply stuck. He had apparently slid down the muddy riverbank and became lodged between a fallen limb and the earth. The limb was slim but long, and must have been stuck in the mud just enough that the raccoon couldn’t move it away. He was obviously too young and inexperienced to figure out that if he simply moved his body to the left, gravity would help him wiggle away from the limb. He kept swiping that rear leg in vain. Over and over and over.
“Aw, if I could get over there I could move that limb,” I said, looking down at the rippling water and then at my brand new glare-white tennies.
“He’ll figure out how to get out,” Mike said.
“I don’t think so.”
We walked away. The whole time, I kept checking for places where I could ford the stream. I spotted one limb slung across the river, but the wood was only about five inches in diameter and I could see myself tumbling off of it. I knew I could walk far beyond to a dry area and double back on the other side of the river. But it was Thursday. Every Thursday I have a date with my grandsons, and I didn’t want to make myself late; my daughter-in-law has appointments she must keep for her job.
So Mike and I went home and left the raccoon to his own designs.
That night when I returned home from my grandma day, I was in a no-energy funk. It was T-minus-10 days to the end of tax season for my CPA husband. I’ve seen four months of “practice widowhood” every year for forty years, during the bleakest season of the northern year. No-energy funk is how I get at the end of tax season, and I’m used to it. Mike would be working until 10 pm or so again this night.
It was Holy Thursday night and I knew there was a potluck meal at my church; I wasn’t interested. There was a raccoon in trouble on the Bugline; I didn’t even think of him. I climbed into my jammies and vegetated in my recliner chair, watching “American Idol.” I wasn’t sorry that DeAndre got eliminated. In my late tax season funk, that was as much emotion as I could muster.
Before I went to bed, I heard the weatherman predict a possible frost that night.
I woke and immediately remembered the little raccoon. I also remembered the frost warning for the night before. Oh man.
Mike decided to go to work early so he could take off during the afternoon for our annual pilgrimage to the life-size Stations of the Cross at Holy Hill, a national shrine not far from our home. I said good-bye to him and packed my heavy rubber “Wellington” boots into two tote bags, one boot in each bag, so I could walk evenly balanced with them. Then Maggie and I took off for the Bugline.
I had noted the raccoon’s spot on the river the day before, and easily found the familiar grey fur along the water’s edge. But the fur wasn’t moving. I stood there with my tote bags and my Wellies, useless. I looked down into the water. Why hadn’t I seen yesterday that it was only about four inches deep? I could have easily walked across. My new shoes would have dried just fine.
I looked at the raccoon. His chin lay on the limb, a death-trap pillow. His eyes were shut tight and his whiskers stuck straight out like a cat’s. His little arms encircled the limb in a perverse hug, the tiny hands touching each other as if in prayer. The hind feet lay still. The foot that had done so much fruitless work finally rested.
I felt terrible. Did the animal die of exposure? What does that mean? A heart attack? How long had he been stuck there before I noticed him? Had he died of starvation or thirst, the running water so tantalizingly close?
I’m not in love with raccoons. Countless fat raccoons have scaled the fence and killed my chickens during midnight marauding parties. If I had had the chance to shoot raccoons then, I would have. But I never want to see a creature suffer – human or animal.
I walked home, the rubber boots feeling heavier each step of the way.
From noon until 3 pm that Good Friday, I cooked for Easter Sunday, when our kids and grandkids would visit. I wore a brand-new bib apron, which made me feel happy. It’s home-made and full of bright, wild colors. I kept the radio off, which was a sacrifice. My mother used to tell us kids to keep silent during those three hours that Jesus hung on the cross. The silence still feels right for me. A couple of times the phone rang, and I answered it. But that was all the noise during those hours.
Late that afternoon, Mike came home from work and we went to Holy Hill. There have been many years that we walked through snow and ice among the statues depicting the last day of the life of Christ. This time there were daffodils. No cold came out of the earth. We walked the long path up the kame, the extravagant glacial kettles and moraines all around us decorated with towering trees like so much hair. I looked at each Station in its own grotto and then beyond, at the steep hills. If a bear came down that hill, I thought, he would lose his footing. Like the raccoon.
It was late in the day, but the sun still shone warmly. I knew that between noon and 3 pm there had been hordes of pilgrims, led by a priest through the Stations; it’s that way every year. Too noisy for me. I liked it now. Small groups of people walked ahead of us or behind us – some white, some Hispanic, some Indian-from-India, an old black man with a cane, a bunch of teens and little kids, and a dog. In a mélange of languages, they prayed out loud or sang (well, not the dog). Some threw coins or flowers over the wrought iron fences in front of the Stations.
Mike and I stood silently at each Station, the way we used to do with our kids. We didn’t carry any devotional books. We didn’t recite prayers or sing songs. We just looked at the figures. The one that got me was “Jesus meets his mother.” How must His mother have felt! Tears burned my eyes and I got a knot in my stomach.
I think the reason I have always liked the life-sized Stations is that I can feel the pain of the last hours of the life of Jesus.
When we returned from Holy Hill, I asked Mike if he wanted to go see the raccoon, and he said yes. We parked the car at the side of the road near the Bugline, and walked in. When we got to the raccoon, we stood there looking at him. We were quiet. It was like we were paying our respects.
I walked Maggie in the morning and again paid my respects to the raccoon. He looked exactly the same as he had on Good Friday. I didn’t like the thought of him decomposing there. I could have made the effort to move his corpse into the woods. But I didn’t. I was still feeling pretty low-energy.
During the morning, I spent a couple of hours with my sister-in-law, Marilyn, going through books, papers and mementoes in my mother-in-law’s house. We’re sorting through more than 50 years of her life there, since Grandma has moved to a “memory care” unit in a nursing home. As usual, our work produced a combination of laughter and melancholy.
“This would feel completely different if she were dead,” Marilyn said.
I agreed with her.
During the afternoon, I spent a couple of hours doing laundry and vacuuming, sweeping, scrubbing and dusting for Easter Sunday. It became a kind of fevered spring cleaning. What a great feeling it was to put stuff where it belongs and to get rid of cobwebs and dust bunnies I had come to know by name. Out with winter, in with spring.
I had a date with my neighbors to go to the Holy Saturday evening Easter Vigil at their church, our tradition for years. A half-hour before they were to pick me up, I realized that my feet and calves ached so badly that I’d never make it through the two-hour vigil, even if I sat the whole time, like an old granny. I called to tell them I was bowing out. I felt bad about it, but I knew I’d never make it until the service was over at 10 pm. Mike had planned to join us at church, but when he found out I couldn’t handle it, he opted to stay at work.
I sat in my recliner chair and read. Mike came home. I told him, “The old grey mare just ain’t what she used to be.” He laughed. I went to bed at 9:30.
I remember many Easters with snow on the ground. This morning, Mike mowed the grass and I set up the picnic table and chairs.
At 11 am Mass, Father Jose spoke to the verse “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” He said that the meaning of Easter is that we are not to return to the tomb again and again. The tomb can be many things: addictions, idolatries, worries, fill in the blank. Father Jose said because of Easter, we can live in the land of the living.
During the last song of the Mass, I got tears. Lots of tears. The song included the verse “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” I remembered how Father Roger Boesch had used that phrase at the burial site for my parents and my brother. He added, “If you have tears, cry them now." And did we cry.
I have many friends and relatives who choose to not have “church” as a part of their lives, and I respect that. I believe in freedom of religion, and in freedom of no religion. But me, I need “church.” I need to surround myself with people who recognize that life and death are mysteries, and who keep trying to find meaning in them. I need the comfort of others who believe there is something beyond our little bodies on this orb in space. Our words are clumsy and our explanations like those of a kindergartner. That’s why I love the ritual of the Catholic church and our traditions like the Stations of the Cross. They say the unsayable in actions that reach beyond words. They speak to the heart of me.
Monday after Easter
This morning, Mike and I walked on the Bugline. I looked for the raccoon, but it was gone. Or maybe I just didn’t see it. Perhaps I’ve stopped going to that particular tomb.
Now, to stop going to my assorted other tombs. That is the journey.