Hey, Robin, have you got bats in your belfry?
When I arrived at home between teaching a yoga class and driving Thirteen to Wednesday night dance, I had about thirty-five minutes to scramble dinner together, serve and eat, and head back out the door. My mother, Ninety-one, sat across the kitchen island from me brimming with a story. “We had a small incident,” she started, “you can see the cats are still riled up over it.” I looked where she was looking and welled up with concern—had there been a really bad cat fight? The peace among them is tenuous. But that worry didn’t wash with the reality that all three cats were sitting sentry near the hearth.
“There was a squirrel around the fireplace; it sounded like it was underneath. It’s gone now, but it made a terrible racket.” Our smallest kitty, Katie, was sitting with her shoulder pressed against the hearth, Leo was peeking out from under the philodendrons, and Starling was at attention on her watching perch, the corner of the sofa. “You see?” Ninety-one indicated, “they think it’s still there.”
For the past year or so I’ve been hearing squirrels too close to my head in my office, a four-season room that juts out from the side of the house. Understandably, Ninety-one and Sixteen had concluded that the squirrel near the fireplace had somehow worked its way from that discrete roof through the walls to the fireplace. I walked over to investigate.
All it took was a touch to the handle of the fireplace door for the frightened squirrel to kick up a ruckus. I jumped back, “The squirrel isn’t gone, Mom, it’s very much still there.” She came closer to listen and we both heard the squirrel, thoroughly distressed, skittering around within. “He’s on top of the fireplace. He must have fallen down the chimney.”
Our fireplace is in fact a wood-burning stove with a two-story metal tube chimney that ascends with two bends around Thirteen’s closet. You’d never know from the outside where it looks like we have a large, rectangular chimney. From the inside what you see is a solid glass door.
The squirrel’s renewed chattering sent the cats scampering in every direction, so I did the only thing I could think of at that moment, shut off the light, finished dinner, and took Thirteen to dance. Driving away I just kept shaking my head, “how is there a squirrel in my chimney?”
Tired, scared, maybe dazed, the squirrel made no more noise until morning. In the meantime, I left two increasingly panicked messages on the machine of the company that installed the fireplace and woke from a dream in which the squirrel had morphed into a rabbit that I somehow managed to catch and then tame. In my waking mind, there was no scenario that I could imagine in which the story had a happy ending.
The next morning connected me with Wade of Critter Control. Wade arrived with nets and gloves, a tarp and a long pole. He told me he retrieves five or six squirrels a year from fireplaces. Sometimes he even lowers a special rope down the chimney, a rope he’s knotted every foot, and, he reported, most of the squirrels find their way out.
But the set up of my stove and chimney gave Wade pause. A series of baffles direct the smoke into the chimney; there is no flue. Usually, he explained to me, he’d hold the net in place, open the flue, and out would drop the squirrel. But in my fireplace we ran a distinct risk that the squirrel would bolt. Into my house. He shook his head, giving himself a less than fifty percent chance of catching the squirrel, maybe.
“I hate to say it, but we may just have to let him die in there.” Wade was managing my expectations, but he must have seen how distressed I looked, because then he presented his idea. “What I’m thinking is that maybe we can help him save himself. I’m going to drop this part of the baffle. I don’t know as I’ll be able to put it back right after. I’m going to drop this down and put a trap in. Maybe he’ll come down on his own.”
It seemed as good a plan as any. I must have looked hopeful when I said, “Oh, can we try that, please?”
So Wade set the trap, showing me precisely how it worked and how much food he was loading it with. Then we surveyed the squirrel issues on the outside of my house and he set some traps there as well and outlined a plan to seal the vents where they’ve been getting in. It was at this point that my neighbor, seeing the Critter Control van in my driveway, came over to inquire about bats. He, too, was nonplussed to learn that a squirrel could end up in the chimney.
Giving me his card and writing out a handsome bill for the visit, Wade said: “If you see the trap is sprung, you just call me. I’ll come get him.”
The squirrel was quiet and I alternately worried off and on all though another night that he was dead or barely living. On Friday I waited until the morning bustle was over and then I went to investigate. The trap was sprung. I peered in with a flashlight—all I could see was my squirrel’s tail—he was curled so deep in the trap. I danced to my phone to call Wade. Less than forty-eight hours after Cooper—the squirrel I only allowed myself to name once he was freed—had his fall down my chimney, he was released to live happily in the country north of Bondurant, and Wade was my new hero.
Stories from real life aren’t always so neat and even this happy ending has two tags. The first is why I named him Cooper—no, not because he was cooped up. I wanted to name him Alice, because the line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland kept playing in my head: Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, because she had plenty of time to look about her as she went down and wonder what was going to happen next. But everyone had been saying “he,” about our squirrel and while we have no confirmation, a gender change didn’t seem in order. Then I thought of Alice Cooper, certainly a boy, and made a little mental leap so that Cooper the squirrel had a fitting name.
The last piece is a different tangent, but in some ways the most important part. Shortly after Wade came to collect Cooper, Sixteen and I picked up a few items at our local HyVee grocery store. In the express lane we were behind an elderly lady with a wispy cloud of white hair. She was paying for her groceries when I set our grapes on the counter. The sight of them made her stop and reach for my grapes: “Don’t those look nice,” she said, her fingers lightly touching the bag. “I didn’t see those.” She returned to her transaction and after stood watching the grapes go on the scale and into a bag.
“Would you like me to get you some of those grapes after I finish this order?” The cashier inquired kindly. I sent my son, “Sixteen, can you pick out some grapes for this lady?” He was around the corner in a flash and back just as quickly, “These okay?” The lady looked pleased. “Put them on my order,” I told the cashier. “Oh, no, you don’t have to do that,” the elderly lady said. “It’s my pleasure,” I told her, “my treat today.” The cashier put the grapes in her cart and smiled at me. Sixteen said to me, as we walked out, “That was nice.” I leaned toward him, my heart open and full, “I am happy I was able to do something in honor of Cooper and Wade and all the people and critters who have done the right thing today.”
This month … this month has been a roiling challenge from the beginning. Mechanical things have failed, members of my family have been ill, my house hasn’t been a fortress (there were even ants, ANTS, in my basement last night), and of course my heart is still sad about Bugsy (The Bugsy Blues) … I am ever grateful for the gifts of kindness, compassion, and safe squirrel removal, for the connection this blog gives me to you, and so much more. A special tip of my chapeau to SGW who celebrated her birthday recently. A shout-out to each of you who so lovingly read my words and extra gratitude when you let me know how they touch you. Thank you for sharing my journey and inviting me to be a part of yours, Rxo