Growing up, I was always saving animals. Birds, fish, cats, dogs, snakes, turtles – it didn’t matter what it was; if it was injured, I tried to mend it, make it whole again. I didn’t always succeed, which was a good lesson to learn about the tenuousness of life at a young age. My tendency toward rescuing things was probably even part of why I later became a nurse.

I still try to save them. Every year, as the weather warms up, I start watching for turtles to escort safely across the road. Wild animals show up on the farm all the time, including a baby woodchuck and one wild turkey that I attempted, not too smartly, to rehabilitate. Most of my dogs and cats have been adopted. I try, albeit mindfully, to avoid the frogs and toads littering the nighttime pavement after a summer storm. And don’t even get me started on baby birds falling out of their nests…

Today I was reminded again that not every life can be saved. First thing this morning, I was drinking my coffee and walking through the yard, following the progress of all my plants. I came across a tiny sparrow that must have struck a window or the greenhouse glass. He was dead, of course; it looked to have been quick with minimal suffering. I felt crushed a little myself, too, but grateful he hadn’t lingered.

Then coming home tonight, I drove past a brown snake dying in the road. I managed not to strike him. But in the rearview mirror, when I looked back to check, he was curling up on himself, writhing, I imagined, in agony. I turned my car around, resigned not necessarily to save his life, but hopefully, at least, to rescue him from a slow and cruel end.

I imagined being that snake, sunning himself on the warm asphalt, thankful for the heat of spring’s arrival at last. Then wham, a car runs over him (hopefully unintentionally), leaving him there in the road to die an ignoble death, as so many other poor animals do.

I brought the snake home with me. I know that might sound a bit gross, and really, it was. His tail had been smashed, and probably part of his spine, but he was still alive enough to move a bit. I knew what needed to be done. One strike from a rock in my garden ended his suffering. Then I remembered the little sparrow I had placed beneath some daffodils, waiting to be buried.

Seeing them lying together in the grass made me terribly sad. I know that nature can be cruel, that people and other animals suffer and die every day, often in horrible ways, and that I should mourn and cry over them all. And honestly, sometimes, I do. But experiencing death on such an intimate level, in both its kind and meaner incarnations, felt incredibly poignant and humbling.

Today, with the bird and the unfortunate reptile, I remembered that death, really, has only two faces: One comes swiftly, neatly, and with little fuss; the other messy, slow, and full of suffering. That’s it, that’s all, and nothing gets to choose which one it will be. The animals don’t, and neither will we.

So in an attempt to help their little lives mean something, I wrote a poem about them.

Two Lives Now

I found a fallen sparrow,
Among the green grass,
The unfortunate victim
Of a mirage in some glass;
Still and so small,
He lay in a tumble
Of soft brown feathers,
His plumage quite humble;
He seemed not to suffer,
I hoped and I prayed,
And promised to find him
A suitable grave.

Then a snake I encountered,
Lame and so stricken;
Seeing him writhe,
My stomach grew sickened;
Crushed near to death,
Still unkindly alive,
Biting into his own flesh
Through some primitive drive;
So I found a stone,
And took careful aim;
Bringing it down,
I ended his pain.

Retrieving my sparrow,
I brought them together,
Smooth scales and light feathers,
To mingle forever;
Two lives now to bury,
Weighed on my heart –
Once separate, now equal,
Both fragile and short;
One lived high in the trees,
The other along the ground;
No more sunning or sliding,
No more sweet, cheerful sounds.

So I laid them to rest
Beneath a young maple tree,
At peace side by side;
Now silent and free.

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