She is near six weeks old, I’m told. Six weeks, and just about two pounds on the postage meter I keep for weighing small, wild things. She came to me with her brothers last Thursday night, and in her first few hours with me, she became my lesson in humility.

I recently completed a wildlife rehabilitation training, which I figured had gotten me on the way to being “up to speed” with this work, which I had put behind me thirty years ago. Hah! The training program was, I’m discovering, simply a different kind of coming of age ritual.

When tribal boys are ceremoniously initiated into “manhood,” they are not men at the end of the ritual. Rather, through the ritual, they have gained the right to begin acting like men. My training weekend merely allowed me to begin “acting” like a wildlife rehabilitator.

Because of my own mental overwhelm at sudden raccoon motherhood, I didn’t really notice that Faith only drank half her allotment of formula when I put her to bed in her snuggle sack Thursday evening. I mean, I noticed it, but it set off no alarm bells.  But when she refused her morning bottle, my hackles went up. She would not even let me put the nipple in her mouth.

As I bundled her up in my hands to place her back in her carrier, she let loose what I thought was a stream of hot urine, until I saw that it was green. Thirty years ago, diarrhea—or scours—chilled me to the bone. For many wild babies in rehab in those days, it meant dehydration and death—a stream of green liquid carrying the small orphans out of life as we scrambled to stem that deadly flow.

These days, the profession has come a long, long way, but scours can still be a deadly visitor. Suddenly everything in my world went away but the sad, poopy creature in my hands. I was on the phone. I was on the Internet. I was nose-buried in books. For the next two days, nothing I tried worked, and Faith was fading in front of me.

Faith seeking a hand up

Faith seeking a hand up

While her two brothers, Frank and Ernest, glugged their bottles and did their best to settle into yet one more huge life change in my care, Faith seemed to be taking all the horrors of her young life into her body, and pouring them out in a bad-smelling flood. I was forced to drip fluids down her throat, with her protesting the entire time. Two diarrhea medications did nothing. By her second day with me, her weight dropped, and her eyes took on that terrible, slightly sunken look. In her carrier with her brothers, she sat with her back pressed into the corner while they wrestled and caroused with each other.

But the most heartbreaking thing was her hands. What she did with those hands. Staring off into space with a blank look, she wrung her tiny, delicate paws together in a ceaseless gesture of anxiety. “Oh dear…oh dear…oh dear” the black hands said. When I picked her up to console her and snuggle her, she put her hands out, tentatively, and patted me with the softest touch. It was as though she were touching me to see if I were real. In her short life, being thrown from trauma to trauma, perhaps nothing seemed real anymore.

When I was young, all my emotions lived in my body. I often did not “feel” emotion as I imagined my friends did, with tears of joy or fear, but my body felt it for me. Fevers, chills, stomachaches, headaches, energy coming in manic waves—this is how love, fear, worry, excitement “felt” in my world. I didn’t get mad, or sad, or filled with child-euphoria. I got sick.

I can’t remember all the times I missed fun outings, or even summer camp, because the anticipation flowing through my blood came to the surface as illness—usually fevers—and I ended up in bed with chicken soup and a thermometer stuck in my mouth.

There are many ways to face stress—and I don’t just mean “bad” stress. Good events can also cause a stress response: a new home, a new job, a new love, a new college.  I felt stress of all kinds in my body, and I felt it hard. Looking at Faith wringing her hands fitfully in the corner, it occurred to me that she did, too. And it was killing her.

What can one do in the face of overwhelming trauma and stress? I don’t believe we can do much of anything when caught in the whirlwind of awfulness. Our fate is in the hands of others—those who love us and can comfort and support us until our hand wringing has settled down, and we can begin—just begin—to right ourselves.

Faith could do nothing for herself. It was up to me, and I was feeling deeply inadequate to the task. In a last-ditch effort to help her, the idea came to me to take her to bed with me. My idea was that I could offer her rehydrating fluid throughout the night to keep her from losing more ground. But the universe had other ideas.

I prepared my bed for a pooping, fussing raccoon by putting down waterproof “incontinence” mats and toweling, When the lights went out, Faith snuggled under the covers against my bare skin and began suckling on my arm. She’s hungry! I told myself. Quickly, I offered her some sweet hydrating solution. She didn’t want that. She just wanted to suckle and suckle and suckle.

The room was utterly silent except for the sounds of her nursing, and I savored a magic moment when darkness is sweet and sacred and full of possibilities. It was an hour before she stopped suckling, finally drifting off into sleep. I never gave her the hydrating fluid. I gave her my skin and my heartbeat and my breath. The next morning, I found she had left small hickkies on my wrist and armpit. The poop she deposited on the mat was no longer water. It had turned—YES!—to pudding. Perhaps we were on our way.

A short time later, when offered a breakfast syringe full of formula and sweet potatoes, she licked at it inquisitively. I squirted a drop on her nose. She licked it off. Then, some little light bulb lit up in her small head. She put her tiny hands on the syringe, and held it as I dripped the life-giving fluid into her mouth. She lapped up a complete feeding, licking her lips and hands when she was finished.

Had I not been holding her, I would have jumped up and started leaping around the room in joy. Since that day—such a short time ago—Faith has gained back her lost weight and begun eating on her own, loudly, out of a small dish.

Her sickness seems to be behind her, but not her emotional trauma. She still needs time nursing on my arm (still turns her nose up at nipples), and whenever she is facing something new—a toy, a puddle, radio music—she will back up into a corner and begin to wring her hands. Sometimes, she is able to call on her own hopefully growing emotional reserves and will herself out of her carrier to explore. Sometimes, it takes someone who loves her—me—to pat her and tell her that it will be all right, that she is safe, before she will venture out. Sometimes, she just needs to be held.

Stress. How do we face it? Not alone. Never alone. Seek the comfort you need. Ask for it. Ask those who love you. That’s what parents are for. That’s what friends are for. That’s what spouses are for. There is healing in nurture, both the giving and receiving of it. Like Faith, we all need our clan.

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16 Responses to FAITH

  1. Stacie says:

    Wow! What a great story!

    How heart-wrenching that she was really wringing her hands.

    I feel things too deeply too, and my emotions often get the best of me. I can sympathize with Faith.

    How lucky she is to have you to take such good care of her! Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. Cindy says:


    What a beautiful testament to the power of love! Little Faith is so blessed to have you. I finished reading her story with tears in my eyes. Everything you wrote resonated with me on so many levels. I, too, internalized everything as a child, and sometimes I still do. I’ve been known to be a hand wringer and a worrier, and I’ve backed myself into far too many corners in the past so I could look out and see what was coming to hurt me next. We have many little critters that pass through our property most everyday, sometimes they need rescuing, doctoring or simply loving touch and kindness. I consider myself one of the fortunate ones, not only for the beautiful surroundings I live in that attract these beautiful creatures, but for the fact that I feel things so deeply. The upside to that is you get x-ray vision into the heart and soul of another, whether a human being or an animal……and you instinctively know what they need, if you listen quietly and pay attention.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us. I am eager to hear more about Faith as she grows and finds her way in this world….with your care. You are a wise and gentle sage woman Susan, protector of all things great and small, especially the small, the little hand wringers that steal your heart and take over your life for awhile, until the next one comes along!


  3. Erin says:

    I sit here with tears in my eyes, but with the feeling that the power of love and compassion is such a magical thing.
    I,too, am an emotional person and feel and have empathy for all living things. I do believe that you,Susan, were put on this earth to be the protector and caregiver of those that have no voice.

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Erin, I believe that all we human beings were put here as protector/caregivers to those who have no voice, especially now.

  4. Elayne Tingey says:

    You reminded me of a scene in the Movie “Babe” when the farmer was concerned that his beloved Babe was not going to survive, so he danced and sang to her, I still to this day remember that scene and him dancing and singing and jumping in the air, at the end Babe was through with the bottle and in her room, eating, how I can respond to that blessed moment, I raise sheep, ducks, dogs and horses and each time I watch a birth or deathe or a remarkable recovery I’m humbled. elayne

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Oh, yes, that was my favorite scene in Babe! I memorized the song and would sing it to myself in the forest. I have loved farmer Hoggit ever since…

  5. Elayne Tingey says:

    You reminded me of a scene in the Movie “Babe” when the farmer was concerned that his beloved Babe was not going to survive, so he danced and sang to her, I still to this day remember that scene and him dancing and singing and jumping in the air, at the end Babe was through with the bottle and in her room, eating, how I can respond to that blessed moment, I raise sheep, ducks, dogs and horses and each time I watch a birth or deathe or a remarkable recovery I’m humbled. elayne

  6. Linda says:

    I CRIED….<3

  7. Denise says:

    When we allow ourselves to be open, this universe of ours has a pretty nifty way of connecting us to each other. As this story unfolds we will no doubt see how Faith has nurtured Susan as well as the rest of us!

    Little Sweet-Baby Faith! You go girl!!! 🙂


  8. kerry says:

    I cried too. What a group we are! 🙂

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Yes, she had me crying, too! Thank heavens she seems to be thriving now. I’ll be writing about Earnest next. He is still having challenges…

  9. Sharon says:

    Hi Susan…I’m new to your blog and love your writing. As I was reading about Faith I was so afraid she wasn’t going to make it. I can only imagine what you were going through, afraid of losing her. Whew! What a relief when I realized that precious little creature was going to pull through. Amazing what a little TLC can do!

  10. Sandra says:


    You are an amazing woman! I have been in awe of you since I first heard about you…but now, I am feeling so blessed to be a part of your followers, your world, your kindness to all animals. Faith is so blessed to have found you. You are a protector, a nurturing beautiful woman. You are truly a child of God by any name or faith, Mother Earth, The Universe!
    You are blessed with a spirit that all mankind should wish to have!

  11. Deb says:

    I really needed this beautiful story right now. I am going through a very difficult time in my life and sometimes things don’t seem so bad when other people (animals) have problems worse than me. You are a healer…I have FAITH in you!

  12. kathey says:

    Susan, Such a beautiful story of human ability to create a safe place for a wild creature. I am amazed that little Faith trusts you to be her healing mother and bring her around to better health. Bravo! to both of you creatures of love. How remarkable that you completed your training JUST IN TIME, too. How are Frank and Earnest? Thanks for such an inspiring experience.

  13. Michele says:

    I needed to read this. Thank you.

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