OPINION: Chris Kelly Opinion: A thump in the trunk, a spark for the heart

Jan. 15—"It's a hard world for little things."

from "The Night of the

Hunter" (1955 film)

My head is full of squirrels. They scurry across my mind and scatter my thoughts like dropped acorns. Like the furry sentinels that patrol the path around Lake Scranton, my squirrels are aggressive, ornery and emboldened by fear.

Thursday was my anniversary of four years of sobriety. I was feeling satisfied with myself as I drove to work, about as calm, contented and carefree as I know how to be.

Then I saw the squirrel.

He was on his back in the right gutter of Cedar Avenue in Scranton, flailing desperately to drag himself closer to the curb. Alone. Afraid. Hurt. It broke my heart, but I was late for work. I said a quick prayer for the squirrel and turned left on yellow.

The next light was red. I was, too. The squirrels in my head were flying. When I don't know what to do, I ask God for directions. The light turned green. I turned right, around the block and back to the squirrel in the gutter. He was still struggling. I lifted him and laid him in a patch of clover beyond the sidewalk. It seemed like a kinder place for him to die.

But did he have to die? I'm not a veterinarian. None of his legs seemed broken. There was no blood. He was soaked and coated in road brine. If I left him, he would certainly die of hypothermia. If I could get him help, he might have a chance. My hero complex — a character defect grounded in grandiosity — kicked into high gear.

I found a sweater on the back seat and swaddled the squirrel the best I could. I tucked him in the trunk, which was empty and safer than bringing him within striking distance of me as I drove. You don't take chances with a wounded, wild animal on his first ride in a car.

I googled "animal hospital near me" and drove to the closest one. They were kind, but couldn't treat wild animals. They gave me a few phone numbers of places that might help. I called them all, but couldn't reach a live voice. I tried our family vet, which also can't treat wild animals. They gave me another bunch of numbers, but I got no answers.

I went back to Google and frantically searched for "wild animal rescue" while the squirrel thumped in the trunk. In my haste, I probably missed a local option, but someone finally picked up at a wild animal rescue. In Stroudsburg.

That's an hour away and I was low on gas. I imagined stopping to fill up with the squirrel thumping in the trunk.

"It's a squirrel," I'd tell the suspicious citizen at the next pump. "I'm driving him to Stroudsburg."

I was OK with that. I figured my boss would be, too, once I explained the situation. "I'm driving a hurt squirrel to Stroudsburg" is nowhere near the weirdest explanation I've given for missing work. It's not even the first one involving a squirrel.

But would the little guy survive an hour-long ride in the trunk? As I approached the exit for I-81, I took a leap of faith instead. I went to Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center in South Abington Twp. Chrissy and I made a few emergency trips there with sick cats when we lived in Dalton.

If the VREC vets said the squirrel could survive the drive to Stroudsburg, I would take him. They don't treat wild animals, either. I begged the emergency vet on duty to at least look at him. If he was doomed, I'd pay to have him put down.

Dr. Kaitlin Fletcher kindly joined me in the parking lot. She gently examined the squirrel, which I assumed was male. I didn't check and didn't ask the vet. Pronouns were not a priority.

The squirrel had no broken bones or obvious internal injuries. She explained that he likely suffered brain damage and would not survive even if he was still trunk-thumping when we got to Stroudsburg.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Euthanization is the best option."

My hero complex crumbled. The squirrel could not be saved. His fear and pain could be relieved.

"I'm sorry, little guy," I said, petting his head. "We tried."

Dr. Fletcher took good care of him. No charge. It was an act of kindness, grace and charity I will not forget. Still in the parking lot, sobbing in my car over a wild squirrel I'd "known" for about an hour, it occurred to me that I still hadn't called my boss. When I did, he didn't seem the least bit fazed by my story. He gets me.

So does my sponsor, who has nearly 30 years in recovery. He said my empathy for the squirrel and my action to help him are signs of growth.

"You're not the same person you were four years ago," he said.

Suddenly, the squirrels in my head hushed up. I had a moment of clarity similar to the one that washed over me when I was crushed enough to ask for help. I was on my back in a gutter I dug, flailing desperately to drag myself out. Alone. Afraid. Hurt. My heart was broken. All the lights were red.

By the grace of God, a 12-step program and the support of my wife, other alcoholics and family and friends who refused to give up on me and move on, I was lifted to a kinder place. I didn't die. I'm learning how to live. One day at a time.

I'm sorry I couldn't save the squirrel, but my heart is full from trying. The kindness I showed him is the kind that saved me.

CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, has a colorful history with squirrels. Woodchucks, too. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly. Contact the writer: kellysworld@timesshamrock.com;@cjkink on Twitter; Chris Kelly, The Times-Tribune on Facebook