My family and I were driving around Des Moines today, and I saw a dead squirrel in the road. It might surprise you to hear that my first thought on seeing that dead squirrel was about my Uncle Laverne. This always happens when I see that particular brand of roadkill.
Uncle Laverne was one of my dad's closest buddies in the 1960s--so close that Dad served as Laverne's best man when he (Laverne) married Sheila Fisher. Sheila's sister, Cindy, was a bridesmaid, and the best man fell in love with her and married her a year and a half thereafter. So, given the dual connection, I grew up with frequent visits to Sheila and Laverne's house, and they to ours. Their sons and my brother and I were buddies, too.
One of our traditions was July 4. When my generation were all kids (I was the youngest), they came to Sioux City to light illegal fireworks. After we moved to Creston, it was pretty much just Sheila, Laverne and my parents. I would still hang out occasionally when I wasn't with friends. In July 2004, my parents had moved to Ankeny. I had just got back from backpacking Europe and was living at home till I moved to Iowa City to go to grad school in the fall. On July 5, Sheila and Laverne came down for the traditional holiday together a day late.
After lunch that day, Mom, Sheila and I went shopping. As we went around the corner from my parents' street, there was a dead squirrel on the road. Sheila, exasperated, said, "Laverne killed that squirrel. He swerved toward it to be funny but then he ended up actually killing it." We all three kind of laughed but kind of tsked tsked him for it, too. End of story.
That was July 5, 2004. Less than two weeks later, we got an early morning phone call with the dreadful news that Laverne had passed away very unexpectedly. We truly lost one of our most valued family members that day, and we all still reel from the loss. I spent that morning in shock while Mom went to be with my aunts at the hospital. My brother came over and we went to lunch together to process the impossible-to-process news. On our way to the restaurant, I saw that squirrel. No one from the city had come to get it, so it was just flatter and grosser than ever.
As I saw it, I thought of that July 5 and Sheila's story. And that dumb dead squirrel made me cry. It was a reminder that someone who had just been to my house, who had just had dinner with us, who had just told stories with us...who had always been in my life, in this world with me....was no longer going to do or be any of those things. The world still existed. The real, tangible, physical presence of him existed there on the road, in a very weird connection. But Laverne did not. It was too much to take in.
And so, six-and-a-half years later, I think of Laverne's absence from the world every time I see a dead squirrel. It's not your typical memory trigger, but I think it's one that would amuse him. And I'm always happy to think of him, so I guess we all win. Except the squirrels.