Posted 11-24-2004 at 04:55:37
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When you're a ten year old girl, being a mama is the furthest thing from your mind. Oh sure, you might have a well-behaved raggedy doll that has been force fed a variety of imaginary foods, had its bottom paddled for being "bad" and knows your innermost secrets. But to be a real mother to something is an awesome and frightening responsibility. Especially ten little baby possums who don't even have their eyes open yet.
I found them on one of my frequent forays down to the creek. It was a beautiful winter afternoon, mere weeks before Christmas. The sun was shining and there was just a whisper of a cool breeze blowing. Any moment now, a norther would come whistling in and put an end to leisurely walks to the creek, but for the time being, it was the kind of day that made being alive a joy.
There was always something new to look at on these walks. The occasional cat track in the mud, a new flower of some kind, and more often than not, roadkill. So finding the possum, rigid in death, it's lifeless eyes staring at some distant point off to the west, was no real surprise. The joy of being alive for this marsupial...had ended abruptly.
It had been hit by a car and thrown casually to the side of the road. For almost every kid, there is a morbid fascination with death. Especially the type of brutal death that this possum had suffered. I squatted beside it, my hair tickling the sides of my face, and studied every aspect of it from the rows of sharp teeth, to the soft gray fur and the naked tail. Along with the saturnine allure of the process of death, was a natural wholesome curiosity regarding a nocturnal animal with a mysterious reputation. An animal known to "play dead". Of course I had to ask myself if it could be doing that even now. Faking it's own demise until such time as I moved on, so that it could jump up and scurry away. Further inspection revealed that, no, this was no fake death. It was real...and final.
But, move on I did. You can only look at a dead possum for so long before it starts to lose its attraction, morbid or otherwise. I was more interested in life at the moment, and what might be waiting for me at the creek. It was when I was on my way home, later on in the afternoon, that a movement from the area of the possum caught my eye.
I had no intention of stopping by the "scene of the accident" again. I had had my fill of this possum and it's untimely end. I had garnished from it what I could; death comes in an instant...a reminder to watch out for cars and stay out of the road. I had no idea that there was more to learn until I found the babies.
Apparently, they had crawled from the protection of the mother's pouch seeking nourishment. How they survived the mother being hit by a car was only the beginning of the mystery regarding the ugly, hairless, sightless little rat-like creatures. Initially, I was repulsed by them, but as I watched them crawl helplessly about, an instinct older than time welled up inside me. The maternal instinct.
There was nothing to do but gather them up, and stack them in the tail of my sweatshirt like kindling; instinctively providing them with a 'new' pouch, and take them home and try to save them. My mother's reaction was both predictable and animated. In her defense, I realize now that the picture I presented must have been startling. Dirty clothing, hair all a-tangle, clutching a writhing mass of mewling baby "rats".
"Get those nasty things out of my house!" She demanded.
"But mama! They're all alone! Their mother was hit by a car! They'll die if we don't help them!"
"Cynthia! You get those things out of my house! You should have left them where they were!"
My jaw dropped and I stared at her, aghast. How could she say such a heartless thing? My amazement at her lack of concern was quickly replaced by a steely determination. Like the old Chinese tradition, now that I had found these babies, I was duty bound to save their lives. Never mind the fact that I had no idea how.
I found a cardboard box, carried it to the garage, and lined it with an old towel, and gently placed the babies inside.
"Do we have an eyedropper?" I asked my mother.
"Even if we do, we have a need for it, and you're not going to filthy it by using it on those rats!" She replied firmly.
Her cold-heartedness continued to baffle and anger me, but did nothing to sway my resolve. I filled a small cup with ice cold milk from the refrigerator and using a small rag I proceeded to force feed the little possums as I had done so many times in the past with dolls, only this time it was much more rewarding as I felt in my heart that I was a savior of the highest order and this time...the force feeding might actually do some good.
Of course what I didn't know at the time was that the milk should have been warmed, and that the odds of the baby possums being able to get by on cow's milk was a gamble at best. I also didn't know that the reason they stayed in the mother's pouch was that being hairless, they had no protection against the winter temperatures that dipped down into the thirties overnight. I lost half my brood the first night.
I was devastated. I knew that I was doing something wrong, but I did not know what it was. I also suspected that my mother probably knew what I was doing wrong, but wouldn't tell me. I can only assume that her days were full and hectic. That the thought of these little possums actually surviving and going on to become 'members of the family' filled her with a dread that she couldn't begin to express to a ten year-old hopeful surrogate mother to a passle of some of the creepiest critters known to mankind. Not to mention the disease factor. Based on her constant reminders to me to "wash your hands!" I can only speculate that the thought of disease was a real concern.
It was clear that she was determined that these babies not make it, and I suspect that even back then I was every bit as hardheaded and stubborn as I am now, so explaining to me about the process of natural elimination would have been a waste of breath.
The hardiest of the little possums lived for a full three days before succumbing to my misdirected and rudimentary care. I buried it alongside the others in daddy's now slumbering tomato garden. I carried with me a seething, bitter resentment toward my mother for not only allowing, but encouraging me to fail in what I considered to be my duty to those fragile little infant possums, and it took my grandmother's intervention to keep me from carrying this resentment with me on into adulthood.
"Now, honey," she said in her grandmother's voice that just oozed wisdom and strength, "you know grandma loves you, and wouldn't lie to you."
Her sharp green eyes gazed at me out of a wrinkled face, a face that defied any thought of responding with anything less than honesty.
"God has a plan for every living thing, and it was not his plan for those babies to live, otherwise he wouldn't have taken their mama, now would he?"
"I guess not." I admitted.
"You can't blame your mama, and you can't even blame the driver of the car, but most important of all, you can't blame yourself, because when you do that darlin', you question God and that's just not right."
In her own methodical way, my grandmother had skipped over all the unimportant parts in this miserable experience and honed in on exactly what it was that was the source of my misery. My own failure.
In her infinite love and understanding she had shown me that my failure, which was the real root of the problem, while devastating, had been instigated by love and concern for other living things, but that she believed that there was a higher order, and that sometimes no matter how hard you try...some things are just meant to be.