Death and Chipmunks

April 28, 2014

There once lived a chipmunk beneath our porch, and his name was Alvin. He had a little hole next to the landing. It was from this portal that he’d sometimes emerge, plump, striped and neurotic.  He’d hop onto our porch, nose wriggling, and there, he'd often clean his whiskers. Whenever one of us would spot him, we would shout for the rest of the family, and everyone else would come running. I don’t know what it was about that chipmunk, but we would always drop whatever we happened to be doing to gather at the window.


Four faces, smiling.


Alvin brought us joy, so we left him little gifts. The kids would squat beside Alvin’s hole, to tip handfuls of peanuts, raisins, and M&Ms into little piles, on his doorstep. I’m not sure that Alvin was ever aware of our presence, or of any connection between his human observers and those random treats that sometimes appeared like heavenly manna.  But that was one of Alvin's better qualities. He was not the sort of chipmunk to dwell on how or why things happened, nor did he brood much over the past, or worry about the future. He just lived by the minute, being a perfect chipmunk. Sure, he was probably one of a billion, but he was ours, and he was a good one.


On the day that tragedy struck, I’d left for work before sunrise. My wife was home with the kids, 9-year-old Ms. Jillybean and 5-year-old Mr. Sunshine. Midmorning, I received a voicemail. Even-toned, my wife reported the grim facts of a fatal accident. I could hear a child's wailing in the background. I could hear Jillybean shouting accusations. I heard the word “murderer.” I heard the word “squished.”


I adjusted my focus away from the ululations of the angry mob and back to my wife’s report. “Your son is very upset,” she continued. “He just started sobbing. I’ve never seen him so upset about anything before. He wants to hold a funeral for it, but I told him not to touch it until you got home. So, anyway, if you’re coming home for lunch, I’d like you to take care of it.”


Believe it or not, it wouldn’t be my first chipmunk funeral. There had been another, long ago, back when I was somewhere between the ages of my two children. We were on a family vacation in South Dakota. We’d rented a cabin, up in the Black Hills. We were kind of isolated, up there.  No other families or kids around.  Just us.  Left with little else to do but bother the local wildlife, I began to notice that all of the little creatures around the cabin seemed to stick to a unique and oftentimes predictable behavioral pattern.


Wasn’t long before the latent little hunter inside me reckoned that if these animal behavioral patterns could be predicted, then they could probably be somehow exploited--if one were so inclined. So, I invented my very first hunting weapon.  It was a pointed stick.


I positioned myself above the rockslide where chipmunks disappeared after foraging pine nuts until their cheeks were stuffed like saddlebags, and where they eventually reappeared. Chipmunk spear clenched in my sweaty hands, I waited, until at last, it finally happened. A chipmunk’s head popped out of a hole like a deadly game of Whack-a-Mole. I struck, and man, I was dead-on.


I vividly remember the way it shivered, the way its bright eyes slowly dimmed and closed as it folded and died, right there, on a dusty plate of shale. Man, how I cried.  It was the most awful feeling.


Sobbing, I rushed the broken creature up to the cabin like some mindless supplicant seeking absolution from his terrible sin. I banged on the cabin door until my mother answered. She looked down at the lifeless chipmunk in my hands, sighed, and delivered me one of those fatalistic Volga-German stares, then advised me to go bury it and think about what I’d done. I guess she figured my anguish was punishment enough.


So, that's just what I did.  I walked off to a quiet spot in the forest, and I buried it. I commemorated the grave with a miniature headstone, said a few words, then topped the mound of earth with an obligatory handful of wildflowers. It was done.  Finished, hardened, stripped of a thick layer of innocence, I wiped my eyes and trudged on.


Those old memories were refreshed as I pulled into our cul-de-sac at lunchtime, and stepped out of my truck. There he was.  I strode up the driveway to the scene of the crime. Alvin’s body was undisturbed, but for a wavering blowfly that I shooed away with the toe of my boot.


He’d not been run over. That much was clear. He was not flattened, not squished. Just dead. I rolled him over, and frowned.  It just looked as though Alvin had simply collapsed, right there in the middle of our driveway, right where his little ticker had given out.


I heard the front door swing open with a squeal. I looked up to see two hostile-looking kids stumbling down the steps, already shouting accusations at me, because I was evidently the primary suspect in their kangaroo court. They were convinced that I was the killer, that I’d accidentally backed over Alvin on my way to work. I settled them down and we examined the evidence until we all agreed on one point of conclusion. “No one ran over Alvin."


“What happened to him, then?” Jillybean asked.


“Well,” I squinted up at the sky, “looks to me like Alvin decided to go skydiving, and his little parachute just never opened.”


“Daddy!” Mr. Sunshine stuck out his jaw. “No joking!”


Jillybean giggled. She seemed to find the whole situation somewhat amusing, which didn't make sense.  She was supposed to be the animal lover of the family. She should’ve been the one crying. Not Mr. Sunshine, who is aware that animals exist, but who generally regards them with the bemused disinterest worthy of cartoonish extras in his world. His exaggerated anguish over Alvin’s passing was a little perplexing.


I supposed that for Sunshine, it was less about losing a half-pet chipmunk than it was the stark realization that the gift of life can be revoked. He’d never experienced death before, this boy who forever finds the silver lining.  A glimmering beacon of optimism, he always looks right past the negative with a shrug and a smile, and embraces the positive aspects of just about every situation. Terrific quality.


But death was a new one, for him. There was no silver lining. No positive aspect to embrace.  Alvin was just gone. He’d been taken away. This was Sunshine’s first encounter with that hollowing enigma that gapes right into your soul and leaves you feeling so thin, so temporary.


I wished I could assure him that it gets easier, that the constantly encroaching inevitability of life’s end becomes less foreboding with age. I guess that by some measure, it becomes less frightening. We come to terms with our own finality. Yet the weight of every tragedy we’re called to witness seems to increase with every life lost around us. Death becomes more personal, a forced reckoning with our own window of time and where we’ve been, who we’ve been, and who and what remains ahead for us by this tick of the clock. Are we at peace with the balance of our lives? Have we done enough? Could we ever?


“You guys want to have a funeral?” I asked.


The kids nodded somberly.


They followed me into the garage, where I took a shovel down off the wall. Jillybean, of course, had some really big ideas at the last minute. She suggested we dress up, and that we design an extravagant coffin, given what a special chipmunk Alvin he’d been. There was no denying that, but I explained that only humans use coffins, and that we should do our best to respect the traditional burial customs of chipmunks.  I said this, as I rolled Alvin up in a paper towel.


“They prefer a white, tubular burial shroud, like this,” I assured the children, “because it reminds them of the tunnels where they used to live.”


The kids scowled down at my toiling hands. They looked up, occasionally, eyeing me uncertainly, but I just kept rolling Alvin respectfully into what looked like a rodent burrito.  His furry nose was poked out of one end, and his tail protruded from the other.


“Well, are we ready?” I asked.


The kids nodded.


They followed me into the backyard. Somewhat like his own father, 32 years ago, Sunshine placed a tiny headstone over the grave of a fallen chipmunk, and both kids scattered wildflowers. I said a few words on Alvin’s behalf, recognizing all of the joy he’d brought to our family. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”


The proceedings seemed to satisfy the both of them. Something lifted. Sunshine was begging to carry my shovel back to the house. Jillybean was smiling, almost imperceptibly, just contemplating it all, while shredding flower petals between her fingertips. Together, we rambled back around the side of the house. We felt good, because we’d made some sense of a senseless part of life. We’d organized a bit of chaos and our day could go on.


“Hey Daddy, guess what?” Sunshine turned to me, while dragging the shovel behind him. “You know what’s the good part about dyin’?”


“What’s that, Buddy?”


“Well, if you got a whole bunch of problems while you’re alive,” Mr. Sunshine clicked his tongue, smiled and shrugged his shoulders, "once you're dead, no more of that crap!”  

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