Our family adopted Nutty when I was just one year old so naturally I always considered him to be my brother through and through. The fact that Nutty was a squirrel never particularly mattered to us. He was my little brother who just happened to have a tail.
In the summers at the lake we’d all play in the water or hike along the trails together chewing sunflower seeds. In the fall, we’d all go into the woods and bury any extra nuts or snacks we had lying around — just to make Nutty feel that we were as concerned about stashing resources as he was. He’d come into the house with a look of satisfaction that never failed to warm our hearts after a chilly afternoon of subterranean investments.
I guess I must have been about six years old the summer that Nutty first water-skied. At first we thought he’d just hopped onto the back of the ski out of curiosity. However we soon realized that Nutty sincerely enjoyed being pulled behind the boat. “Hey! Isn’t that Nutty skiing?” the neighbors would exclaim as the boat swooshed along the shore. Before long, word spread that our tiniest family member did indeed water ski.
One day, a local TV news station happened to get some rather impressive footage of Nutty skiing in particularly photogenic conditions of blue skies and glassy calm water. That evening the station ran the story of our Nutty the water-skiing squirrel. In short time other stations in the tri-state area began regularly reporting on Nutty’s agility on water skis — especially at times when the affiliate had run its entire news content and was in the difficult situation of having to fill three to five minutes with anything other than dead air. Those were ideal television atmospheric conditions for water skiing as performed by rodents — although that term was best avoided when around Nutty.
Attention and money flowed as people seemed to be insatiable for the novelty of our Nutty and his water skiing talents. As for Nutty, he began to change in ways that happened slowly enough that we never fully appreciated what he was going through. His whole life began to revolve around water-skiing. His obsession at first seemed to us to be perfectly healthy. However, it became apparent that Nutty was now putting all his nuts in one hole.
Nutty had become a specialist.
Looking back, his pack-a-day cigarette habit should have alerted us to something lurking below the surface.
One day in the back yard I asked Nutty sitting on the woodpile if things had turned out as he had planned. Between puffs, he hoarsely and somberly stated, “ I can’t go back to just being a squirrel now even if I wanted to…”
I knew exactly what he was getting at. You see, during the same period of Nutty’s ascension to water-skiing fame, I had become an ESL teacher of some repute. My life had taken a turn to specialized work as well. Rather than water-skiing, I had become accomplished and well-paid as a teacher of English to Second Language learners. And like Nutty, I could either keep accepting the lucrative payment for my performance or I could walk away and go back to a life that I no longer recognized.