“Sterling, what are you holding in your hand?!”
“It’s a squirrel, Grampy! I have it by its tail. I found it by Dinosaur Rock.” The young boy stood proudly on the path, having found his very own treasure.
“Sterling, put that down! It’s dead. It’s covered with disease and filth!”
“No, it’s not, Grampy. It looks clean and its fur feels soft. Look, you can hold it by its tail! It must be sleeping.”
“Sterling, it’s not sleeping. It’s dead. Put it down before Grammy sees you and has a fit. I want you to go inside the Nature Center and wash your hands. Right now.”
Sterling was surprised by his grandfather’s quick words, even as a dragonfly distracted him momentarily. “What if it isn’t dead, though, Grampy? I could take it to school or keep it in a box as a pet.”
“Sterling, when animals die, they get stiff like that. It’s called rigor mortis. We have to bury him.”
“Rigor mortis? Grampy. What is that? I’ve never heard those words.” Sterling laughed at the silly sound the words made.
“It means ‘stiffness of death,’ I think,” his grandfather replied. “It’s Latin. When someone dies, medical examiners try to determine when rigor mortis sets in so that they know approximately when the person died.”
“People get stiff, too, Grampy? Not just animals? Why would we have to know the time? Isn’t it enough to know that someone died?” Suddenly there were so many questions.
“People are animals, too, Sterling,” his grandfather said simply, wending his way through a flock of geese.
“Gross, Grampy! We can’t be. We don’t live outside and eat berries and worms. We have houses with beds and tvs and microwaves and showers.” The birds chattered noisily now, the summer sun now peeking through the trees.
“Well, animals have houses, too, Sterling, and they may not have the same conveniences as we do, but they bathe and sleep and eat pretty much like people.”
“Grampy, if animals are like people, why don’t they talk like us?”
“I think they do talk to us, Sterling, but their language is different and we don’t always know what they’re saying. Sometimes I think they just talk among themselves. Birds are like that. And chipmunks and squirrels. They almost seem to be laughing at us.”
“Why, Grampy? What’s so funny about us?”
“I’m not saying they really are laughing, Sterling, but if they were it might be because we don’t have our priorities straight, at least in their minds.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Grampy. What are ‘priorities’?” His grandfather used such big words.
“The things we care about the most, Sterling. Animals must think all we care about is running off to work or school, driving to malls and supermarkets, talking into funny looking cell phones or plugging strange boxes into our eyes and ears. They must wonder at the endless line of people who stop off at our homes to cut our lawns or fix our pools or install appliances or even cook for us. They might wonder whose home it is!”
“Well, I think animals are the ones who are silly, Grampy. They don’t do anything but eat or sing or jump from tree to tree. All they seem to do is play.”
“I think that’s why they laugh at us, Sterling. We don’t play, at least enough. We work, just like they do, to eat or to find shelter, but for them it’s play. For us, it’s a job. We complain about having to do it.”
“Do you think animals don’t complain, Grampy?”
“I don’t know, Sterling, but it looks as though they don’t. They seem to have a gift for enjoying the present moment. It’s the one thing that most people seek, but can’t seem to find in their lives.”
Sterling thought about that for a moment and then said, “Do you think I work too much, Grampy. Mommy tells me I have to stop playing sometimes and to come in to do my work. Can I tell her you said I don’t have to?”
“No, Sterling, sometimes you do have to come in to do your work, but what the animals seem to know is that there’s really no difference. Both are required to live. Both bring us joy and satisfaction. That’s their secret. That’s what they sing to themselves each day.”
“But I complain sometimes, Grampy. I don’t always want to go to school or help with the chores or clean my room.”
“Especially clean your room, from what I can see, Sterling!” His grandfather laughed.
“Does that mean I don’t have the gift of the moment, Grampy? I love presents.”
“I know you do. No, you have the gift. You’re curious. You ask questions. You’ll talk to anyone who wants to listen. You’re never bored. You’ll call me at night to go outside to see the moon. I think the animals could take a lesson from you!” His grandfather’s eyes glistened slightly now. The ducks frolicked wildly, perhaps in response to their early morning spectators.
“I wish I could teach this squirrel how to come back to life, Grampy. His stiffness scares me. It makes me think there’s never enough time for play, or the work we have to do.”
“You haven’t put that animal down yet? Sterling, we need to get a shovel. There should be a proper burial. I think your squirrel friend has taught you an important lesson today. We ought to be thankful for that.”