Fathers need to care up close
By Rod Van Mechelen
Many divorced fathers told me how much it hurt to be shut out of their children's lives, but nobody in the mainstream seemed to care. So I wrote this little sob story to try and reach them. The response as usual focused on the details of the story rather than the underlying theme. Yes I know I could have saved the squirrel if I had followed instructions, but I was poor and couldn't afford to. Yes I know it was only a rodent with a fuzzy tail. Ignore all that. The story isn't about the roof rat, but about men and fathers.
1994 Bellevue, WA - Although I spend a lot of time talking to fathers who, thanks to a legal system that often refuses to enforce visitation rights, have lost all contact with their children, being single, I never really understood how they feel.
Many have told me about their sense of loss, about the hurt of knowing their ex-wives are teaching their children to blame them, and that they may never again be allowed to see their own flesh and blood. Their own children.
Intellectually, I understood. But in the way that some feminists use the term, I just didn't "get it."
Then something happened. Not a big thing, but now, in a small way, maybe I do understand.
It was something I never would have expected to see. There, beneath a car in the parking lot, a neighbor's cat stalked a baby squirrel.
Earlier I had noticed the absence of the large gray squirrel in our yard, and assumed the coyotes from the nearby green belt got her. And here was the little one she had left behind, his eyes not even open yet, driven out of the nest by hunger.
Although he was scarcely able to walk, his will to survive was strong. Admirable, I thought. The kid's got pluck. So I shooed the cat away and took him in.
There were some fresh blackberries in the refrigerator. Squeezing their juice into a small dish, I set it before him. Leaning down, he promptly fell over and stuck his nose in the juice. Huffing and whistling with indignation, he got back up on his wobbly legs and went at it again.
His hunger abated, he curled up on some rags in a small box and went to sleep.
Knowing nothing about how to care for him, I called the Bellevue city office to get the number of the local wild animal shelter. But when I dialed the number the city clerk gave me, all I got was a recorded message with instructions to leave my number and the nature of my call. Which I did. (Later, they called back and said that for $48 they would "euthanize" him.)
Next, I called a wild animal shelter several miles to the north. The volunteer who answered told me to feed him puppy milk replacement formula, and call PAWS. Unfortunately, I was flat broke and wouldn't be able to buy any milk until the following Monday, and at PAWS all roads on their voice mail system led to an automatic hang-up. "Swell," I thought. Like I really have time for this.
The next day was Saturday and after sucking on some more blackberries he looked at me through barely open eyes and I swear I could almost hear him thinking, "mama?" For the rest of the day he wouldn't leave me alone, but squeaked a whistling plaint if I spent too much time at my computer.
Finally relenting to his constant scold, I took him outside where he crawled with his proud bushy tail held high. When he was done, he whistled and cried until I offered my hand for him to climb up onto. And when he tried to suckle again, I offered more blackberry juice. But he huffed and sneezed that "mama" should know that a growing boy needs his milk. Nonplused, I ground up some puppy chow in water, but he rejected that, too, pressing his nose to my fingers in an insistent demand for milk.
In rapid succession he rejected a strip of bacon, a spoonful of molasses-soaked oatmeal, and rice.
"What shall I do with you?" I grumbled, placing him in his nest of dried grass. He didn't answer, but only scrambled up the sides of the box, balancing precariously before jumping onto my arm, his little claws not even breaking my skin as he slid down onto my outstretched hand.
Frustrated, I cut a door in the box, placed him inside and covered it with a lid. Promptly, he wobbled out and started chewing on my shoe.
"Resistance is futile," I chuckled, scooping him up and putting him back in the box. Before he could escape, I opened the screen door and placed the box outside on the patio. This time, when he crawled out the little door, it wasn't my shoe he found, but the neighbor's cat. Back inside he went, and there he stayed.
The next morning I went out to see if he had eaten any of the berries, but he was all curled up and scarcely breathing.
"Hey there little fella," I coaxed, scratching the back of his neck. He didn't move. Alarmed, I brought him inside, filled an eyedropper with water and squirted some into his mouth. Swallowing, he promptly relieved himself in my hand. After washing, I found out he liked to have his chest scratched, so I spent the rest of the day alternating between writing and tickling his tummy. But something was wrong. He wasn't interested in eating, and if I didn't stay with him, he would curl up and sleep.
That night he slept inside.
Monday morning after going to the bank, I went to the local pet shop and got some puppy milk for him. "Here you go, little fella, drink this up." He pushed the eye dropper away. And when I managed to squirt some in his mouth, he spit it out.
All afternoon I fussed over him, but it was evident he wasn't going to make it. That evening as I held him on my chest where he could feel my heart beating, he curled close and whistled. After a while, he stretched and yawned, looked at me one last time, and died.
Maybe he died from too much of the wrong food. Maybe the cat scared him, or the Saturday night air was too cold. But I think what killed him was being alone. His pluck was no substitute for the comforting presence of another's warmth.
For the first time in many years I felt truly alone, and I cried.
After four days of grumbling about having a demanding, complaining, completely dependent rodent underfoot, I missed him. I missed how he would raise his arm so I could scratch his chest, and how when I pursed my lips and chirped at him, he would climb onto my hand. And most of all, I missed having a young one to care for, and being trusted so completely.
Now, when divorced fathers tell me about how much it hurts to be shut out of their children's lives, what I hear them saying is that, no less than mothers, they need to care up close. Take that away, and what's left?