It’s hard to write about any painful experience in life. This is especially true of breakups and failed relationships, which I’ve had my fair share of. Even though it took place almost four years ago, it continues to shape me as a person to this day.
And what’s true of the loss of a relationship is equally true of the loss of a loved one, even when that loved one is of another species — which is why I’ve avoided writing this story, which took place two years ago, for as long as I have. But there comes a time when carrying the weight of an untold story becomes more burdensome than sharing it with all the world.
So, without further ado, this is the story of how I tried and failed to save a baby squirrel named Henry.
As with most stories involving squirrels, this story starts with a tree — a willow oak tree (Quercus phellos) to be precise. This tree stands in the southeast corner of my front yard, across the street from the local tennis courts and around the corner from the First Baptist Church, which you can see in the distance.
And this was the tree Henry fell out of.
The day he fell out of the oak tree was August 17th, 2017. (I know this detail, and many others, because I wrote about the experience at length in my journal.) It was late in the afternoon, and I was headed to Hillsborough for my weekly hike. I didn’t have much time before dusk, so I wanted to leave as soon as possible.
When I reached the door to my car, I opened it and started to get in. Then, behind me, I heard something falling through the branches of the oak tree. My initial thought was that it was a branch. But that was quickly ruled out when the presumptive branch hit the ground and let out a blood-curdling scream of pain and terror.
With surprise and concern, I turned around and retraced my steps toward the house. About ten feet from the oak, I found the source of the noise and stooped down to get a closer look. When I did, I found a baby eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).
At the time, I didn’t name him, but since that time I’ve come to call him Henry.
After looking at Henry with fascination for several minutes, I decided I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. After all, being poor and gay in a bigoted small town, I know all too well what it’s like to be ignored and treated like I don’t exist. And if it’s wrong for a human being to be treated this way, it’s wrong for any being to be treated this way.
So I came up with a plan.
Quickly I went inside, took a small cardboard box, cut it in half, and lined it with paper towels. Then, as a precaution, I put on a pair of gloves and went back outside. Returning to the scene of the fall, I found Henry a second time, thankfully untrampled by people walking their dogs on a Sunday afternoon.
Reaching down with gloved hands, I picked Henry up as gently as possible and transferred him to the cardboard box. Lifting up the box with him in it, I was surprised by how mobile he was. Though he wasn’t strong enough to hold himself up on his own arms and legs, he nonetheless managed to pull himself around like a very small sack of potatoes. And he did so with surprising speed.
Rushing to get him to safety before he pulled himself out of yet another nest, I deposited him on the edge of my porch and pondered my next course of action. Quickly deciding, I went inside, scavenged the house for a dropper bottle, found one, filled it with heavy cream, and brought it outside.
Bending down to the porch, I filled up the dropper, pulled it out of the bottle, and held it to Henry’s lips. With surprising strength, he immediately pushed the dropper away from his mouth and scrunched his tiny face into the biggest grimace you’ve ever seen. Honestly, it was the rodent equivalent of, “Hell no, I won’t go.”
Not sure what else to do and still in need of my weekly hike, I decided to leave Henry on the side of the porch in his improvised nest. If nothing else, I figured, this would give his mom a chance to come and take him back to the nest. Nonetheless, I felt guilty as soon as a I left. And after I got to Hillsborough, I took my hike as quickly as possible, then rushed back to see how Henry was doing.
When I got back, I immediately checked on him and felt a brief surge of happiness when I found he wasn’t there. I just figured his mom had come and gotten him while I was gone.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement and heard a cry, eerily similar to that of any other infant, from the edge of the porch. Looking down, I was horrified to see that Henry had somehow wiggled out of the cardboard box, crawled to the edge of the porch, and fallen into the space between the porch and the ramp leading up to it.
After putting on my gloves, I reached down, pulled him out gently, and considered what to do. At the time, I had no experience with wildlife rescue and was overwhelmed by the idea of assuming responsibility for yet another living being when I already have a dog, a cat, and a garden to take care of — and this in addition to an undiagnosed chronic illness that makes taking care of myself difficult at times.
So, to my shame, I decided to leave Henry outside overnight. Since it was August, it was still fairly warm, with temperatures above 70° F. And I figured there was at least a small chance that one of his squirrel kin would come for him after the streets and sidewalks of town quieted down.
On the following morning, I went out, looked for Henry, and saw no trace of him. And, in my ignorance, I was happy for him.
Then, a day later, I was mowing my yard and came to spot in the front yard next to another oak tree — a different tree from Henry’s home but of the same species, size, and age. To a squirrel whose eyes had yet to open, it must’ve been indistinguishable from his home tree. And that was where I found Henry.
Stopping in my tracks and staring at his lifeless body, I felt completely numb. It was like every ounce of feeling had been sucked out of my body, and all that was left was an empty husk.
After pushing the mower out of the way, I reached down, gently cradled Henry in my hands, and carried him out of the front yard. Then, in a barely conscious daze, I finished mowing the yard and sat down next to Henry, deciding what to do next. Finally, I decided.
Feeling as empty as a deflated balloon, I brought Henry to my garden and looked at him one last time. Still numb, I thought I would be okay. But as I laid his small body in the ground and covered him with dirt, something gave way inside me, and I broke down.
The words I’m about to write may seem far-fetched, but the fact remains: he was the closest thing to a son I’ve ever had.
For the longest time, I had difficulty accepting that anything good could come from this experience. It was too raw, too painful for me to process rationally. But with time, my feelings have mellowed, and I’ve realized that if there’s any lesson to be learned from the experience of losing Henry, it’s this:
Love is not a given, but a gift. It can neither be anticipated, nor controlled, nor terminated by human hands. It can only be honored, cherished, and remembered when its time has passed. For at the end of the day, love is a force of nature that knows no species, no boundary, and no date of expiration.
And I have Henry to thank for teaching me that.