Pepper's House

Ever so gently the summer is taking her leave from the Enchanted Forest. Already, she has packed away her most blistering hot days and humid nights. I can leave the windows open now without slumping into a soggy, overheated mess. A few trees are trying on some fall color. Nothing overdone, really, just a few splashy accessories. I remember the day, only a few short weeks back, when I told Carter, “This is it—the very first day I can feel autumn coming on.”

Carter replied, “It’s good to have some cooler nights again.”

I feel the shift of seasons acutely in my body. Autumn is the winsome, looking-back time for me. A season when I take stock of my summer’s accomplishments, or lack of them. Pepper’s death came on the very heels of the summer’s retreat, and so my reflections on my time with her coincide exactly with the sense of wistful melancholy that always touches me on the shoulders come autumn. (Who’s Pepper?? See previous several posts.)

So the first crisp mornings of summer’s end found me thinking deeply about Pepper—about who she was, and what she meant in the riddle of my own life. My blog is titled “Animals as Teachers and Healers” and that title also remains my personal credo. I want to show you how that credo is expressed in my own life—how I process my learning-healing experiences with animals—not to insinuate that “this is how it should be done,” but to show you how—at this moment in my life—I do this work and mine the gold glittering below the surface of all my animal encounters. I believe that by all of us sharing how we deepen our experiences with animals and nature into profound personal growth, we become teachers for each other. Teachers showing each other the way home. So let my share these past few weeks without Pepper, and what her living and dying has awakened within me.

As I said in my last post, I often refer to my animal symbol guidebooks for insight, and for a kind of spring-board into personal explorations. In Jamie Samms’ “Animal Medicine Cards,” two symbolic “gifts” of Opossum that struck me most at first reflection were “expect the unexpected,” and “sometimes the best defense is no defense at all.” I didn’t understand why those statements grabbed me, but they did, and so I kept them simmering on my brain’s back burner as I went about my business.

In reading more about opossums, I also have discovered that they are the poster children for early onset senescence, or aging. When I first found Pepper, I had thought of her as a youngster with her first litter of joeys. But her teeth revealed she was at least a year old, probably a bit more. In the wild, a possum usually survives only a year or three at best. And not just because of circumstances. A three-year-old possum looks as rickety as an ancient old crone: grey, stiff jointed, stained fur, missing or broken yellowed  teeth and claws. I’ve seen some that even seem to have the palsy of the very old. Biological aging in opossums seems to begin just as childhood is leaving.

I, too, suffer from my own brand of senescence. I am aging quickly—too quickly I believe—and struggling with medical issues faced mostly by those far older than I. By coincidence or providence, Pepper placed herself in my path. Pepper, a creature strongly identified by her unique relationship to aging. I ask myself, did I draw her to me to mirror my issues with growing old too quickly, or was she sent to bring a message about my relationship to aging that I need to ponder? Was Pepper a model, an example, a message, or all and none of these? I’m inclined to believe that she was all of these, plus—most importantly—she was herself, a creature with dignity making her way and doing her best in the few short years the universe grants to opossums.

There are ways to forestall “aging,” these days: supplements, botox, surgery, affirmations, stress reduction, diet, pills. I am out putting my hands in my pond to pull out the end-of-summer, yellowed pond plants when the thought strikes me: Age stalks us all like a coyote on a rabbit scent.  “Sometimes the best defense is no defense at all…” Suddenly, I think of Pepper and grin.

Is this a celestial choir kind of moment? Are the clouds parting to reveal the face of God? No. This is just me smiling with my hands in my cold pond, and my thoughts on a gentle, rickety possum and on the gentle, rickety softness of my own crone body. I have nothing to defend myself against in this moment.

I have lost many animals in my time. Too many. Let me be honest here and say that some of those losses did not hurt me much. It was what it was, and I moved on. Other losses decked me. Pepper was one of those. And so I began wondering just what it was about her that hurt so very much to lose. Had there been other losses of animals that had a similar tone of deep heartbreak for me?

Two creatures came instantly to mind. One was a rabbit—Sophia—whom I had given away earlier this past summer. The other was a miniature donkey named C.C. whom I had sold when I left Oregon for the Rocky Mountains in 1997.

I had never expected to mourn the loss of those two creatures so deeply, yet I miss them both to this day. What about them reminded me of Pepper? Again, the thought came suddenly and with no effort on my part. These two animals—like Pepper—had become friends to me. Of course all my animals are friends and family, but Sophia, C.C, and Pepper were like girlfriend confidants. We hung out together. They were like I imagine the best of older sisters might be like, if I’d ever had a sister.

Also, Sophia and C.C.—like Pepper—had been mothers. I had held their wet, squirming newborns in my hands, feeling the intimacy of new life, as I had held Pepper’s dying infants in my palm, feeling the sadness of fresh promise never realized.

If I were the Susan I knew before the Enchanted Forest had had her way with me, I would be asking myself, what had these three mothers given me that I needed so badly. What, I would have asked myself, did these mother animals give me that my own mother did not supply?

I’m not asking myself that. Post Enchanted Forest and Post Pepper, I am asking myself, what quality of mothering am I not giving myself? What did these three precious mothers share with me that I am not sharing with myself? Again, my patient readers, no skies are parting with shafts of gold beaming down upon me. But this question shakes my world from the inside out, sparking a healing not yet born in me but—thanks to Pepper—on its way.

As I’ve told you often, I suffer with depression. I’ve taken anti-depressants for almost 20 years straight. As I was struggling to care for Pepper, I was in the beginning process of reviewing the drugs I’d been taking with a new and gifted psychiatrist. We both believed my medication could/should be doing much better for me.

As I mourned the loss of Pepper, I could not help but notice—acutely—the flatness of that mourning. I had long since lost the ability to feel deeply (typical side affects of anitidepressants), but this time, I felt the loss of my own feelings as near large a loss as that of my friend and confidant, Pepper.

I began looking back at why I’d begun taking anti-depressants in the first place. A combination of family heritage, thyroid problems, and early menopause seemed to tip me over the edge into a state of blackness from which I could not extricate myself. But that was twenty years ago. My thyroid was stable now. Menopause was LONG over. I’d been doing a lot of self-reflection, meditating, and inner work in those intervening years.

What if I could wean myself from the anti-depressants? Who would I be now with my feeling world unshackled by the merciless heaviness of drug sedation? How might it feel to feel again? Tentatively, I have begun the process. The sleeping pills are gone now. The anti-depressants sit by my bedside should I begin a slide back into the black hole and need them. I tell myself, even if I can feel myself for only a week or two before I need to go back on the meds, how amazing would that be to feel myself—to feel who I am twenty years since I last remember being un-numbed?”

“Expect the Unexpected…” I pass by the chicken coop that was Pepper’s last home and put a vase of fading flowers at the door. I decide to rename the chicken coop “Pepper’s House.” And suddenly my throat chokes up and the pain of her loss feels to me like paradise: My heart awakening to the wrenching exquisiteness of a real, unencombered, un-blanketed feeling.

Wednesday before last, I began again my winter season shift at WildCare. Megan, one of the summer college interns who is staying on to work the winter season, brought in a litter of tiny opossum joeys she has been fostering for a few weeks. One was much smaller and scragglier than the rest. I asked Megan if I could take her and her other smallest baby home to see if some intensive care might bring them up to speed. It worked for “Muffin,” the second smallest baby. She is back with her littermates now, fat as the rest of the little butterballs.


“Cookie,” the tiniest is still with me. She wobbles when she walks and shakes a bit, but she has gained considerable weight in the last week. She’s able to lap formula from a dish on her own now, and is learning about the wonders of mashed bananas and Gerber Zuchinni and Squash. At night, she watches TV with us, and nibbles on Carter’s beard. She cleans her oversized ears with her back “thumb”—a long appendage that seems just made for the task. This morning, she rubbed her chin and cheeks across my fingers like a little kitten.

Last spring, before the tulips were even up, I was entertaining the thought of fostering possums for the summer. I even had the idea of a small book come fluttering my way, resting on my shoulder like a dragonfly: “Possum Summer.” It certainly was that, wasn’t it? And so much more.

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