Hillside Grievers

This is an epilogue to a previous Saturday Essay, published in 2018.

Poppy the Mini-Rex rabbit doe never had babies. She pulled out her fur and made nests for nothing. It wasn’t her fault: the buck we tried to breed her with was past his prime. His owner called to apologize.

“I am sorry I didn’t notice that Frodo’s man-parts shriveled up. But good news: he has a son!”

Whenever I thought about calling the number on the sticky note labeled “Buck,” I remembered we had something to do in thirty days when the kits would be born. Then came winter and another summer. Now it’s too late.

In the middle months, that time people in other places call “Spring,” we adopted a puppy.

Lola showed us that the rabbits were just a warm-up. So were our own babies, for that matter. Once again, Jeremy and I took turns waking through the night and keeping track of bowel movements. Soon we found ourselves having those ridiculous, sleep-deprived “I’m doing all I can!” arguments of yore.

Lola was worth it, though. She knew how to press her fuzzy muzzle into the crook of a neck, put her enormous paws around shoulders, and hold on. She greeted us by wagging her whole body while her bottle-brush white-tipped tail percussed the wall. Her eyes gazed into ours as if to say, “I love you now and forever.” We returned the gaze.

Needless to say, her amber glow made our other pets seem unbearably dull. The girls started to neglect their rabbit chores, which included feeding, watering, petting, exercising, nail trimming, and cage cleaning. The rabbits didn’t seem to mind, though. Poppy wanted to be left alone, and her brother Pinky loved playing with Lola on the other side of his chicken-wire run. She would lunge and he would gallop back and forth, back and forth. He kicked up his haunches like a bucking bronco. Then they sniffed noses through the wire and sat side by side in the sun.

Nonetheless, we decided that the rabbits deserved better owners. I put them on Craigslist for a modest re-homing fee. A sweet family from Carlton claimed Poppy. Our youngest daughter seemed more relieved than sad when they drove away.

We kept Pinky because the oldest daughter, who got him for her 10th birthday, wasn’t ready to say goodbye. She promised to take better care of him.

Then one weekday afternoon I heard Jeremy shout at Lola with a strange despair in his voice. I ran out onto the porch to see him shoo the dog away and lift the rabbit off the ground like a limp rag. I put Lola inside so we could examine Pinky. He could breathe but not hold up his neck. His fur was covered in slobber and mud. I fetched a washcloth so Jeremy could look for wounds. He found nothing. We couldn’t tell if Pinky was dying, or just stunned. I worried we’d have to dispatch him ourselves, or worse, spend the afternoon at the vet. Jeremy held him and wept. He blamed himself for not latching the cage.

I put my hand on Jeremy’s back for about 50 seconds. Then I went back inside to grade papers. What else was I to do?

A half hour later Jeremy quietly entered the room and sat down. Over my shoulder I asked, “What are we going to do about Pinky?”

“What do you mean? He’s dead.”

I felt sick. What kind of a person leaves a man alone with a dying bunny?

Our youngest daughter would come home in an hour. We discussed whether or not we should tell her before we told her older sister. Then we discussed whether or not we should tell them Lola did it. We decided to tell them at the same time, and to tell the truth. Jeremy was supposed to go to work, but he called in late so I would not have to break the news by myself.

Our youngest entered the house happily chatting to herself like a vireo. Then she saw us.

“What’s wrong with you guys?”

“Nothing,” we lied.

“Why do you sound like robots? Isn’t Dad supposed to be at work?”

Nothing gets by the second child.

When our first child came home we called a family meeting.

“We have some sad news.”

“I knew it!”

“What happened?”

“Well, um, Pinky is, uh, no longer with us.”

“What? Where is he? What happened?”

Our youngest sobbed while our oldest stood silent. She followed her father outside to the hutch and lifted the washcloth that covered Pinky’s body that had already grown stiff. She picked him up like her baby and wept. She really did love that bunny.

Jeremy dug a grave by the woods in the back alley. His shovel lifted a flat rock with the letters “R.I.P. Chippy” written in black Sharpie: the gravestone from the youngest’s first funeral.

The wild chipmunk who lived under our porch was our youngest’s first pet, though we did not allow her to pet “Chippy.” Instead she fed him Cheerios and cheered for him as he raced to and fro. Then one day she found him lifeless on the lawn. A green cherry tomato, with a single bite taken out, rolled from his claw like a poisoned apple. That’s when our youngest formed her first complete sentence: “Chippy died!” Subject and predicate. She repeated it for days, then weeks. Months later, just when we thought she had gotten over it, she’d blurt “Chippy died!” to a bewildered stranger in the grocery store.

So here we were, years later, gathered around the same patch of earth. The girls laid Pinky on a bed of wood shavings and tossed in apple slices and raspberry leaves — his favorite treats. The eldest released a handful of dirt. It landed on his face.

“Oh, no, his eyes are open! Cover them up, PLEASE!”

While they buried Pinky I felt his three pounds five ounces push down on my chest.

For me, grief has a mass and a weight— the kind that cannot not hold itself up, like any other dead thing. At the same time it lifts the illusion of renewal that routine gives to each day: we nourish, groom, and mend. There is comfort in this, of course, but then Death draws the boundary between what-we-can-fix and what-can-never-be-repaired. Holding this truth exhausts me. I wonder if we give our children pets as a warm-up for the heavier griefs to come.

For days our youngest was furious at Lola.

“Get off my bed, Murderer!”

Our oldest held no grudge. She imagined that Lola was just playing and then things got a little too rough.

The incident also gave us a new respect for the cats, who, since the day we brought Lola home from Animal Allies, have not let down their guard for one second. We called them crabby old biddies for not letting Lola play with them. Now we understand that their hisses and swipes have a purpose: they need to use whatever means necessary to defend themselves. They know her wide Shepherd-mutt jaws are strong enough to break their necks, too.

Last month we sold the hutch, gave away the leftover timothy hay, filled in the burrows that threatened to create a sinkhole, and thus, tried to erase all traces of our rabbit-raising days from the yard.

But not from Lola, now fully-grown. She sniffs the ground and looks glum. She might miss Pinky more than anyone else.


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