One day, when I was but a wisp of a child, I noticed something weird. So weird, in fact, I decided it needed some explaining from the nearest adult on hand, who happened to be my mother. Now my mother had a sense of humor. She was smart. She didn’t go to college, but she certainly could have and she would have done well there. What my mother didn’t have was time for nonsense. At that moment, she had 5 children between the ages of 5 and 11. We were a hungry, dirty, wandering-off band of attention grabbers. As I began to stake my little claim within the family, I figured quiet and barely noticeable suited me just fine. Talking wasn’t my strong suit. And when I did talk, there was maybe a 50/50 chance what came tumbling out of my mouth had a passing resemblance to the thoughts in my head. Thus was the situation, when I approached my mother, looked up at her, and asked, Where do dead squirrels go?
I think I must have shocked her a bit, as I was fairly well known within the family for keeping my own counsel. She replied, as she often did when one of her children asked a question, with a question of her own, What are you on about? I naturally answered by asking the same question again.
Now what I meant and what she thought I was asking were two completely different things. What I had noticed in my backyard and neighborhood explorations was that I had never seen a wild animal that died of natural causes. Really, I could have asked about any animal, birds or rabbits for instance, but squirrels were an obvious and abundant rodent around there. I had seen plenty of dead squirrels in my short lifetime, but every single one of them had been obviously run over by a car. I had never seen a squirrel fall from a tree felled by old age or a heart attack. None laying peacefully dead without a mark on it. So where did those squirrels go? Was there a squirrel boneyard, where the old and the sick went to live out their last days and quietly die out of sight of a curious boy. A hollow tree perhaps or an underground cave filled to the brim with dead animals.
My mother, however, thought I was asking where dead squirrels go after they die, rather than where do they go to die. In other words, are there squirrels in heaven? I didn’t know at the time this is what she thought I meant, but it became clear as the day went on. And it is by such misunderstandings I became known as a rather thoughtful, but decidedly odd, boy. I suppose they go to Heaven, she said. They’ve committed no sins, have they? You’d probably find rattle snakes in Hell though. Now get outside and play. Unbeknownst to me, I had stoked her own curiosity and a few hours later I was driven down to St. Theresa’s RC Church, where I was brought in to see Father Paul.
Several months before I had made my first confession to Father Paul so I could make my first communion. In the darkness of the confessional with wood latticework separating us, I was supposed to be anonymous to all save God, but Father Paul knew me and I knew him. When asked to recount my sins, I panicked and lied to him. I had to come up with something, but I was 5 years old, what kind of sinning had I done by then? It didn’t occur to me to confess I was lying at that very moment. I couldn’t even confess my sins without sinning. I left with a list of penitential prayers and the admonition to sin no more.
My mother marched me into Father Paul’s office, sat us down in chairs before his desk, and prodded me to ask the priest my question, but I clammed up. After all, this was all a great misunderstanding. I imagined Father Paul had more important things to do, like keep tabs on the children of the parish for Santa Claus. How else was that naughty and nice list getting done? Santa had spies everywhere.
He wants to know if animals go to Heaven, Father, my mother finally said for me as my silence grew annoying.
Does he now? We have a deep thinker here, Mrs. McLaughlin, Father Paul replied, as he pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and took a satisfying drag. I sat still and stared at the laces on my sneakers, wondering how one had come untied. Father Paul then commenced a rather long soliloquy on the subject as I teetered between anxiety and utter boredom. The gist of it though seemed to be he did not know. God created them…St. Francis loved them…Heaven was such a joyous place, he thought surely animals would be found there. Maybe you wouldn’t see your particular dog, because it was soulless, but newly created animals just for Heaven. He ended by saying we wouldn’t know for sure until we got there. I was disappointed. I believe my mother was too, but she thanked him profusely nonetheless. And I was left none the wiser about where the dead squirrels go.
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