By John Hopkins
When you live in a rural area there’s no doubt that you develop a special connection with the animals around you. You become familiar with their routines and patterns, and grow to feel as if you know them on an individual and personal basis. For example, we can almost set our clocks by the passage of the beaver as he swims up the river to start his day and heads back down at the conclusion, much like a daily commuter. In a similar vein, the family of rabbits that live behind one of our sheds was so familiar with my schedule each morning last spring that they would squat serenely munching grass even as I locked the house and started my car.
With this familiarity comes an affection that makes these animals seem like family members or at least good friends with whom you have something in common with. The same way you make small talk with a co-worker by the water cooler, I would almost find myself commiserating with our beaver about the damp weather in May, or asking the rabbits how the grass tasted after a snowy winter.
Such was the case with Bob. Bob was a groundhog who I would see quite regularly on the bridge near our house late each afternoon as I returned home. Or more correctly, I would usually see just his rear end as he lumbered ahead of me to get out of the way of the car as I approached the bridge. After crossing the bridge he would scramble to safety in the underbrush at the side of the road and I would occasionally give a wave as he scurried from view.
But one morning early last June I got the shock of my life when, as I drove over the bridge in the other direction, Bob came barreling out of the bushes and made what I could only describe as a suicide run in front of my car. I put on the brakes, but there was no way I was going to stop in time and I felt the sickening thumps as first my front tires, and then the rear ran over Bob. I looked in my rear view mirror, hoping against hope that Bob had somehow made a miraculous escape, but instead I saw a groundhog lying very still on his back, his four paws rigidly pointing straight up in the air. “Oh no,” I thought to myself. “I’ve killed Bob.”
All through that day I felt sick, and a small part of me held onto the chance, however dim, that Bob had only been knocked out, had regained consciousness and was resting somewhere bruised but alive. But on my way home he was still there on the road, on his back, very much dead.
Now, animals get killed on roads every day, so what happened to Bob was not particularly unusual. I mean, if it hadn’t been me, somebody else probably would have clobbered him at some point. Groundhogs are not particularly swift of body or mind (sorry Bob) so the odds of him seeing out the summer were not that great to begin with, especially since he seemed to hang out on that bridge a lot. So why was his death eating me up inside? Because it was Bob. This wasn’t some random squirrel that I’d smushed on Highway 7 halfway between Tweed and Perth. Bob and I were buds. We’d hung out. We’d seen each other on a regular basis. It was as if we had bumped into each other in the coffee line each weekday on our way to work. And now he was gone. And it was my entire fault.
And then he started to haunt me. It didn’t begin right away. Maybe a month or so after the incident I was driving over that cursed bridge one afternoon and I saw a groundhog at about the same spot I had always seen Bob. Except this groundhog didn’t run off at the sound of my approaching car. This one stood on its hind legs and watched me as I drove slowly past. I had never seen another groundhog at that spot before. It was always just Bob. But if Bob was gone, who was this guy? And why did he not seem afraid of me? There was only one reasonable explanation. It was the ghost of Bob. He wasn’t going to let me forget what I had done that morning in June.
I didn’t see the ghost every day. Sometimes there would be long periods when I didn’t see it, and I would start to forget about the whole horrible experience, and then it would return. I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge, haunted by the transgressions of my past.
I had to find some way to make my peace with Bob. But how was I going to do it? I couldn’t undo what had happened, as much as I wanted to.
I finally realized that in all my shame and sadness in running over Bob that morning, I had never really apologized. I hadn’t actually made my peace with him and given him some indication that I had learned from the experience. Bob needed to know that I had changed, even a little.
So one bright morning late in the summer I drove out to the bridge, stopped my car, walked to the edge of the road and made my peace with Bob. I apologized for my carelessness, for not being more attentive, for running over Bob and depriving his family of one of its members. I said I would be more careful, more mindful of the four-legged friends I shared the road with. Then I got back in my car and drove home.
It has been almost four months since my apology on the bridge and I have not seen the ghost since. Perhaps my small act of contrition helped. It is hard to know for sure. But now my conscience is clear, and that leads me to believe I will not be troubled by spirits any more. And I drive over that bridge a little more slowly and look a little more carefully. And somewhere I think Bob is smiling.