There she stood in the corner of the yard, her younger brothers by her side. Shovels were strewn about, a mound of freshly dug dirt was at their feet, and a large rock marked the anonymous grave.
It seems I had missed the interment of Mr. Squirrel. I smiled at the children's industriousness and independence, and a peculiar sense of pride overcame me. My fatherly role as official Remover of All Things Grisly was coming to an end.
Just a few months earlier, a deer had wandered into our yard after an unfortunate encounter with a speeding vehicle and lain down in a pile of leaves, never to awake. The Pennsylvania Game Commission would schedule a pickup once the deer was on public land. So, under cover of darkness, I dragged the deer to the side of the road, hoping the state's Remover of All Things Grisly and his pickup truck would arrive before my children caught a glimpse of the carcass.
No such luck. On discovering the deer, though, my children didn't run away in horror. They reacted with curiosity, compassion, respect, and uncertainty.
The deer, the squirrel - they were part of the natural world, as were their departures from it. Such discoveries are opportunities to discuss questions biological and eschatological. Given a little freedom, my children were doing so on their terms.
Little did I realize it then, but my brothers and I explored the mysteries of life and death the same way. The side yard of our home was a veritable cemetery of critters that had called it quits on our property: squirrels, birds, bats, as well as the salamanders and other amphibians and reptiles captured at a nearby creek and brought home as pets. Those that didn't make it made their way to the side yard.
Holes were dug, miniature plywood coffins were occasionally fabricated, and impromptu services were held. The latter were equal parts Catholic Mass and Native American ceremony - or at least our boyhood take on those burial rites.
Excavating that yard would reveal the fossils of our childhood: a lost Matchbox car encased in dirt; a plastic egg not found in an Easter morning hunt; perhaps a Star Wars Stormtrooper or Han Solo action figure; and, finally, the relics of creatures laid to rest by a curious band of brothers.
Such burials are a natural part of childhood - not to be confused with inflicting harm on living beings, which is assumed to be a bad sign. I do confess to an unfortunate massacre of my older brother's fish when I was 3, when it seems I inadvertently turned up the tank heater and boiled his collection of zebra danios and neon tetras. Forget the side yard - they were flushed into eternity via the American Standard.
My 4-year-old's hermit crab also met a troubling end. Adopted from a boardwalk shop complete with a Batman insignia painted on his shell, Henry John was a fine crab indeed. Two weeks later, however, the poor fellow grew listless, and we finally laid him to rest, tears and all. It was only after the funeral that I learned about the molting life cycle of hermit crabs. One day, the kids could learn that poor Henry John may have been buried alive.
Until then, though, I'll leave them to their investigations. We learned adults know about as much about death and beyond as our children. As they explore the world in their way this summer, I'll stand back and watch, the words of Louis Armstrong singing in my head: "They'll learn much more than I'll ever know."
Michael T. Dolan is a writer from West Chester. His website is www.conversari.com.