A few months ago —
Heloise (7) and David (whom we call Chuchi, 4) and I are crossing the street on the way to an early dinner at Shalom Pizza.
“Ooh! Gross! It’s a dead squirrel!”
“Where?” demands Chuchi, a second before he sees the red, brown, and black remains of the fluffy-tailed rodent. One car killed the little guy, and judging by the state of things, dozens more have successively flattened him (her?) over what’s probably been at least three or four hours.
Heloise implores her brother to turn away. “We’re not supposed to look at dead things,” she reminds him.
It’s true that, in our community, there is a widespread superstition that to gaze upon dead things, even roadkill, is to expose oneself to the energy of death. It is better, some say, to avert one’s eyes. My kids have picked up that belief.
This is one superstition I will not indulge.
On the other side of the road, my son throws a small tantrum. “I want to see,” he cries. “Please let me see.” His sister is equally emotional. “You can’t, you can’t, it’s so bad, oh my God, it’s so bad.” They start shaking each other.
They are hot and tired and they want pizza and they’ve each had quite the day, so melodrama is on the menu at the corner of Whitworth and Wooster.
“Actually,” I say, “I think we should look. It’s just death, and death is part of life. If you want to, we can look together.”
The kids stare at each other, then each give tentative nods. We step out into the street, watching for cars.
Chuchi: (solemnly) “He’s really dead. He’s in pieces.”
Heloise: “I guess it’s not so bad. But we shouldn’t touch, right?”
Me: “No, just look.”
Cars come and we go back to the sidewalk, and then, when there’s a lull in traffic, back into the street.
Chuchi: “Is it a boy or a girl?”
Heloise: “I think it was a girl. I hope it wasn’t a mommy.”
Chuchi: “I think it was a boy. Maybe he was trying to get home to his mommy.”
And with that, Chuchi begins to weep. Cars come again. Back to the sidewalk.
My kids hold each other, mourning the squirrel. Heloise comforts her brother with a task.
Heloise: “Chuchi, what do you think his name was?”
Chuchi: (hesitant, mournful) “His name was Yosef. He had many brothers.”
Someone paid attention to something in school.
Heloise: (to me) “Abba, what will happen to Yosef’s body?”
Me: “I’m sorry, bunny. I think a lot more cars are going to run over him, and then the city will come and scrape him up. But you know, he’s dead. He’s not in any pain.”
A car runs over Yosef for emphasis. Chuchi gives a small yelp of empathy.
Chuchi: (to the corpse, offering encouragement) “It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt!”
Heloise: “Can we have a funeral for him?”
Me: “We can’t touch it. I’m sorry.”
Heloise: “Can we say a blessing then?”
Me: “Should I say kaddish?”
Chuchi and Heloise: “Yes! Kaddish for Yosef!”
(Kaddish is the Jewish mourner’s prayer. Some believe it may elevate the souls of the departed ones in whose name it is recited.)
I am a scandal unto the tribe. I begin. Then again, I haven’t read the tractate that says you can’t say kaddish for a squirrel.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei raba…
I continue, probably making a hash of it. The kids stand solemn, looking from my face to the squirrel and back again. Three more cars pass, making Yosef still less like anything that once had a face.
Heloise: “I want to say a prayer for Yosef. Chuchi, want to say it with me?”
They wait for a break in the traffic, and we walk back to the body.
Heloise: “Now, Chuchi.”
They begin the blessing they know by heart.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam…
Heloise: “Abba, how do you say squirrel in Hebrew?”
Me: “I’m sorry, baby, no idea.”
Heloise: “Okay, what is it in Spanish?”
We are Angelenos, after all.
Heloise: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, ardilla Yosef ben Avraham baruch Hashem.
Chuchi and Me: “Amen!”
(A rough translation: “Blessed are you, Lord, king of creation, Squirrel Joseph son of Abraham, thanks be to God.”)
Back to the curb again.
Me: “Can we go to pizza now?”
I’m worried that the site of all of Yosef’s viscera will have ruined their appetites, but I’m soon set to rights. The kids are hungry and demand to go.
Or not just yet.
Heloise looks back at the street.
Heloise: “We should give him something first. Chuchi, help me pick flowers.”
The area is well-stocked; we quickly rustle up a blue hydrangea, a yellow rose and several dandelions.
One last pilgrimage to the middle of the street. The offerings are scattered onto most of Yosef, who is slowly being spread ever wider over the intersection, pieces of himself pushing on like intrepid satellites, away from home.
A final benediction.
Heloise: “Yosef, you were a good squirrel, and even if you didn’t listen to mommy, she loved you very much and she still loves you. When she dies, she will come see you, so you don’t have to be afraid. Goodbye, Yosef.”
Chuchi: “Goodbye, Yosef.”
Me: “Goodbye, little squirrel.”
So help me, I am standing in the middle of the street, holding my children’s hands, crying over roadkill.
Heloise: (smiling) “We’re finished here.”