Yesterday a chipmunk died.
I was driving down the narrow, twisty road into town and the chipmunk was deciding whether or not to dash from one side of the road to the other. I saw it and slowed down as much as I could (there were cars behind me), hoping it would either stay put or turn around and scamper to safety.
Instead, it ran into the road, then back to the edge. And then its little brain told it to try again. I felt a slight bump under my front tire, and when I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw a tiny body on the road behind me.
At the time, I was driving Smallest Dog to her weekly appointment for laser therapy on her arthritis. Lillie is bigger than a chipmunk, but not by a huge amount, and as we continued down the road I thought about the differences between her life and that of the many wild animals with whom we share our world.
The chipmunk was just trying to survive. Probably it had spent its night in a nest, waking at dawn to begin the daily search for food. I wondered did it dream? Did it, like Lillie does, snuggle into a warm nest of whatever passes for blankets in a chipmunk’s world? Did it have any concept of love, and safety, and contentment? Were there kits somewhere, waiting for their parent to return?
The road on which the chipmunk died is littered with corpses. Possums. Skunks. Raccoons. Squirrels. Snakes. Occasionally a deer. Once, a hawk. It is not alone in failing to survive a crossing from one side to the other. And like those other deaths, its death is a small one, possibly unacknowledged by any but the buzzards and other scavengers who clean up the remains. On the return trip home, the chipmunk was gone. Had I not been the one to hit it, its life would likely have passed without notice.
But I did notice it, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. First, I’m interested in the seeming randomness of the encounter. Had I left my house even half a minute earlier or later, I would not have crossed paths with the chipmunk. Had it woken up half a minute earlier or later, it would not have been trying to cross the road as I passed by. Had no cars been behind me, I likely would have stopped, as I often have before, to make sure the chipmunk was safely away. A few small decisions made differently, and we would never have encountered one another.
It’s easy to expand from those thoughts to larger ones: the recent shooting deaths of 18 people in Maine, the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Israel. The tragedy of a chipmunk’s death magnified a millionfold. The tragedy of people just trying to survive encountering forces more powerful than themselves.
The photos of the dead show their faces, perhaps their damaged bodies. Sometimes we’re given a little information—this one was a popular teacher, that one just wanted to attend a concert, another leaves behind three children. Always, each one was special and treasured and will be missed. Almost always, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They went out for pizza and encountered a gunman. They were mistaken for someone else. They had something someone else wanted.
There’s a woman I follow on Instagram named Dr. Amanda Stronza (@amandastronza). Dr. Stronza is an environmental anthropologist who studies the relationships between animals and humans. She is also a wonderful photographer who creates beautiful death portraits of animals she finds that have been killed, usually by accidental interaction with humans. Her portraits are lovely, sometimes brutal, and always thought-provoking. Her intent is to ensure these animals and their passings are not forgotten. What she achieves in a larger sense is reminding us that every life is a story, even when all we know of that story is its ending.
Twenty-nine years ago, my closest cousin took the lives of his two children before taking his own. If that’s all you know of the story, you know only the ending. There’s so much more to it than the horror of the final sentence. I try to remember this when I hear about yet another killing, yet another war, yet another tragedy. Whenever possible, I want to know about what happened before. What brought the people involved into contact with one another? What decisions led to this result? What forces came into conflict to create this ending?
Yesterday a chipmunk died. Or perhaps I killed it. It depends on the story I tell, or that you hear. It depends on perspective. In other parts of the world thousands of people’s stories have ended—are ending—because they intersected with stories bigger and more powerful than their own. In most cases, the full stories will never be known to us. We’ll hear only what others know or want us to know. We’ll know only what we see (or think we see) in a few photos, read in brief articles, hear in soundbites. In most cases we will never know the whole stories.
Stories are funny things. Often, the endings seem to be all that matters. Are they happy or are they sad? But it’s important that we ask what came before. It’s important that we ask what might have been changed, what might still be changed. It’s important that we don’t look away. That’s the only way to get a different ending the next time around. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com.