My daughter, the undertaker.
Pulling out of the driveway one recent morning, I noticed a lifeless squirrel on the side of the road. Whether it was tree branch acrobatics or my neighbor’s Nissan that did him in, I’ll never know. Either way, Mr. Squirrel was assuredly in dog heaven, running for his life all over again.
I drove off to work, leaving the squirrel and the task of his disposal for that evening. When I returned home, however, I discovered that my 8-year-old daughter had beaten me to it.
There she stood in the corner of the yard, her younger brothers by her side. Spades and shovels were strewn about, a mound of freshly dug dirt was at their feet, and a large rock marked the anonymous grave.
It seems I had missed the internment of Mr. Squirrel. I smiled at the children’s industriousness and independence, and a peculiar sense of pride overcame me. My fatherly role as Official Remover of All Things Grisly was coming to an end.
Just a few months earlier, a deer had wandered into our yard after an unfortunate encounter with a speeding vehicle and lain down in a pile of leaves, never to awake. The Pennsylvania Game Commission would schedule a pickup once the deer was on public land. So, under cover of darkness, I dragged the deer to the side of the road, hoping the state’s Remover of All Things Grisly and his pickup truck would arrive before my children caught a glimpse of the carcass.
No such luck. On discovering the deer, though, my children did not run in horror and disgust. Rather, they reacted as most children would – with curiosity, compassion, respect, and uncertainty.
The deer, the squirrel – they were simply part of the natural world, and their departures from it part of life. Such discoveries are opportunities to discuss questions both biological and eschatological as together we try to make sense of this world and the one beyond it. Given a little freedom, my children were exploring these lessons on their own terms.
Little did I realize it then, but my brothers and I explored the mysteries of life and death in much the same way. The side yard of our home was a veritable cemetery of critters who called it quits on our property: squirrels, birds, and bats, as well as salamanders and other amphibians and reptiles captured at the nearby creek and brought home as pets. Those that didn’t make it made their way to the side yard.
Holes were dug, miniature plywood coffins were occasionally fabricated, and impromptu services were held. The latter were equal parts Catholic funeral Mass and Native American tribal ceremony – or at least our boyhood take on those burial rites.
Excavating that side yard today would reveal the fossils of our childhood: a lost Matchbox car encased in dirt; the plastic egg never found in an Easter morning hunt; perhaps a Star Wars Stormtrooper or Han Solo action figure; and the relics of creatures laid to rest by a curious band of brothers.
Such enterprise is a natural part of childhood – not to be confused with inflicting harm on living beings, which is assumed to be a bad sign. I do confess to an unfortunate massacre of my older brother’s fish when I was 3, when it seems I inadvertently turned up the tank heater and boiled his collection of zebra danios, neon tetras, and red tail sharks. Forget the side yard – they were flushed into eternity down the American Standard.
My 4-year-old’s hermit crab also met a troubling end. Adopted from a boardwalk shop and complete with a Batman insignia painted on his shell, Henry John was a fine hermit crab indeed. Two weeks later the poor fellah grew listless and we laid him to rest, tears and all. It was only after the funeral that I learned about the molting life cycle of hermit crabs. One day, the kids may learn that poor Henry John may have been buried alive.
Until then, though, I will leave them to their investigations, for us learned adults know just as much about death and beyond as do our children. As they explore the natural world in their own way this summer, I’ll stand back and watch them grow, the words of Louis Armstrong singing in my head: “They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.”
Yes, I’ll think to myself, what a wonderful world . . . oh yeah.