Helena Writes #16: On truth-telling and the love of animals
Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers (Writing for Children and Midwifing a Small-Scale Memoir), has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In a blog series called Helena Writes, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time. Learn more about Helena through the Center’s Teacher Feature, her reflection on teaching writing, and her artist’s website.
In her 16th post, Helena shares a moving experience with a young and injured animal, and how she wrote of it an ending that holds truth for her. Enjoy!
For the love of animals
One of the first stories I wrote to submit to the children’s book market, and therefore, first, to the writers group, the one I’ve written about here, in these blog posts, was called, “A Long Way For Tinker.”
“You can write,” one of the writers in the group told me after she’d read it. “But I don’t think this one will sell either.” Into the gut, yes. This was not a mothering, nor mentoring group of people. These women were dead serious, and I was there by cosmic error.
And she was right. “…Tinker” was the kind of piece that wasn’t a book, and not quite a short story. I would tell a student now: keep writing, you’ve got a gift. But when she’d said it, I’d seen a kind of respect on her face, and that’s what registered. She said I could write. Her third book had just been accepted for publication by Houghton Mifflin.
“A Long Way For Tinker” was about two stray cats. One had made it across a busy road, the other hadn’t. It was about how long a distance a road is for a cat to cross. It was about the cruelty of the road. Tinker’s brother sat at the curb. I’d illustrated it. Looking back, I could never write a piece like that now. It would break my heart. And, of course, it wasn’t for children.
My sister began a cat rescue shelter on the grounds of Queens College when she was a student there. Then she went on to become an animal rights lawyer. She founded two lawyers’ groups to fund animal protection cases. She was a pioneer.
She’s gone 25 years, but her presence is very strong among us, my children and me. Is that why my daughter runs a shelter for strays? My son loves animals with something of the passion of my sister. All my cats have been rescued. Still, I don’t have that thing to devote my life to easing animal suffering that my sister, Jolene, had, or that my daughter almost crosses the line into having.
So the following experience took me by surprise.
On the way home from teaching, driving a dark country road, I passed a fawn, white spots still bright. It had been hit, but was alive. How people speed, never considering that we share this wooded habitat that also belongs to the deer and all the wild creatures here.
It was struggling. The sight shocked me to my core—I know because I cried out. I could not have lived with the sight of that beautiful thing lit by my headlights, still in the road way struggling. I circled back. I parked near, on the shoulder, and put on my flashers.
I couldn’t see any injury. The fawn’s eyes were wide; it was stunned. I knelt and spoke to it, caressed its hide. I was surprised at how coarse the hairs felt to my hand. I’d never touched a deer before. My fingers were wet with its sweat. It tried to get up, and couldn’t. I took hold of its legs to pull it off the roadway into the tree cover. My touch must have been so foreign. In response, it kicked itself toward the trees, off the road’s shoulder. That alone was a relief. It wouldn’t be struck again.
I knelt again, stroked it gently, spoke to it. I don’t know what I said, but I know I prayed. I was so sorry. I thought about its mother. She would know. She must be there, somewhere close by, in her own agony. Deer herds are made up of families, the generations that outlive hunting season and the road.
I don’t know how long I stayed. I know a car horn blared. But I was in an altered state where the sound meant less than nothing. I offered all I could—prayer, love, my heart—never doubting the fawn could feel my care and knew it wasn’t alone. I was a witness to its life, and what had happened to it.
I got back into my car and drove on. Then I pulled over to take a phone call from my son, told him I’d call when I got home. I didn’t have the heart to tell him. But his call had returned me to the world, and I called the Ellenville police and told them where the fawn was.
When I got home I called my son back and I told him. He said that he knew I sounded sad, and that he had heard me screaming. This hardly surprised me, but it was a moment of solemn wonder at our connection.
When we hung up, I texted a close friend, told her what had happened. She texted back kind words, and a broken heart. Then I cried. I wept until my face hurt—tears I couldn’t cry for my dying cousin, and the rest of the spate of family cares that had descended so intensely the last several months. Crying. I couldn’t cry for the world, but I cried for that beautiful fawn, innocent and wild, and for its mother. Then I had to stop, rein myself in. It was too big.
There is a scene in the film Star Man when Jeff Bridges, who plays a being who has come to earth from some other place and inhabited the body of the husband of a grieving widow, sees a deer tied to the top of someone’s car. He is kind, and surprised by who he finds us humans to be. He, with some animating force, looks at the deer until it comes back to life, slips through the rope that secures it, and runs free into the woods.
I hadn’t driven on. I’d stopped to be with the fawn. I don’t know where the courage came from, to do what I could. But I am so grateful.
I’m a writer. For that I am grateful, too, because the next morning I made a decision to imagine the fawn had pulled itself up and run into the deeps of trees, free of the road, to the family that loved it. Animals love and animals mourn. I have read enough, and heard enough from my sister, to know about animal grief.
But I had written the ending of the story I could never know, and that saves me. I had written it inside of myself so that I could bear what had happened, so that I could live.
And the thing is, that ending holds truth for me. What is that truth? It’s a truth about meaning, about life, about death, about love transcending death. The love of deer and the love of one person, to transform a great sadness into a hope.
I tell the reader, this is not a blind hope, but one that doesn’t accept tragedy, until tragedy’s unbearable pain forces, like a bud, a blooming, into life. That’s what a writer has the power to do.
When I passed that spot on the road the next day, it was clear. Just the concrete of the shoulder, the gully I’d knelt in. Scattered leaves. And the trees, just beginning to turn color.
Has writing an ending to a real-life story where the ending was previously feared or unknown ever been a comfort to you? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts
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