Exactly when my father developed his ardent love of rabbits I’ll never know. It was in full flower by the time my sister and I were born, in the early 70s. Rabbit-themed artwork, statuary, and above all terminology were hallmarks of our childhoods: We were “pink bunnies,” our mischief was “rabbitry,” and our ears were targets for gentle flipping, whether we cared for it or not.
Sadly for me, his interest in lagomorphs didn’t extend so far as to actual ownership. It would not be until age 42 that I became a rabbit owner, and then only on my daughter’s behalf. Though the siblings we adopted from her preschool—Fruitcake and Nutcake—were theoretically hers, it quickly became apparent that I had the greatest emotional stake in their well-being. I became endlessly fascinated by their activities: Lolling in the grass, exploding into pointless sprints around the yard, and devising ever-cuter shapes and letters to form with their bodies (personal favorite: The “X”). One day it dawned on me: I had found my spirit animal.
At the same time, I was troubled by the rabbits’ fragility. Living in an outdoor hutch, they were vulnerable to (and often oblivious of) neighborhood predators: Cats, raccoons, and raptors, all of whom took notice of my somewhat plus-sized wards. Add to this their voracious and indescriminate appetite for potentially harmful plants, plus rabbits’ tendency toward self-injury and early death. At times their very existence seemed catastrophically fraught, yet their vulnerability and beauty made them impossible not to love.
Though it was now clear that my father had instilled his love of rabbits in me, it wasn’t till Fruitcake—the somewhat blobular, impossibly silly male sibling—became sick that I began to identify my father with the rabbits. In retrospect, the parallels were there for the taking: My father and Fruitcake both projected a portly, not entirely believable dignity. Born in 1920s Hungary to rigid, undemonstrative parents, my father could be both funny and self-deprecating, but his humor never descended into silliness. And like the rabbit, my father was stalked by a aura of fragility and imminent threat, stemming (in his telling at least) from a case of septicimia at age three. There was not a time in my life when my father appeared safe or fully protected; his daughter from his first marriage—18 years my senior—confided that she had grown up with this same sense of low-level dread.
In retrospect, this wasn’t surprising. If near-fatal childhood illness weren’t enough, my father had the misfortune to be born a Jew in Hungary in the decade before the start of the Second World War. Though the Holocaust in its full, horrific flowering didn’t reach that nation until relatively late in the war, anti-Semitism had already been a powerful, and institutionally entrenched force for many years. My father made little mention of those years, and I can still recall my deep discomfort upon realizing that for most of his childhood, he and other Jewish children endured bullying and physical violence not only from their peers, but from their teachers.
Incredibly, my father, his sister and their parents all survived the war, but they were all indelibly altered. My grandparents were probably always distant, rigid people, but to me they seemed to be figures locked in polar ice. My aunt disavowed Judaism entirely, and adopted—or perhaps merely refined—a racist, hard-right worldview. My father didn’t bow to hatred or depression, but he went into a sort of hiding, moving to the United States, honing a geographically neutral linguistic idiom, and—at least for his first years here—avoiding public urinals so as not to expose the most shameful proof of his Jewishness. Eventually, he came to a sort of non-aggression pact with his heritage, never explicitly labeling himself a Jew, but marrying three of them over the course of his life.
His end, when it did come, revealed itself in slow-motion. The last seven months of my father’s life—he died in 1997, when I was 26—were a slow and impossibly painful dream, the days dripping by with no real purpose but to forestall the inevitable surrender. Though my father, his time marked by many real and imagined threats and losses, would remain a somewhat distant figure throughout my life, his love was never in doubt, and by the time I moved in to care for him no real issues remained to be worked out between us. Caring for him—something I had never been called upon or expected to embrace—was uncomplicated and powerfully rewarding, sparking an impulse I’ve felt ever since, even if it’s one I don’t always act upon.
The rabbit’s passing wasn’t dissimilar, if on a different scale; there were hopeful days dashed by the bitter recognition of his body’s failure. A long series of distractions—historical novels for my father, grape leaves and arugula from the garden for Fruitcake—and the bleached-out, empty recognition that the final goodbye was close. And for both my father and the rabbit, the last night of their lives was a jangled, sleepless storm spent alternately soothing and confining the patients—both of whom should have been weakened past all caring—to their beds. Why was it so pressing that my father, his bladder emptied forever, suddenly wrestle his way out of bed to careen back to the bathroom? What did Fruitcake so desperately seek under the bed at 1:24am? That familiar tension between the needs of the dying and the lives of the living; I love you so much it hurts, but it’s time to say goodbye.
An unexpected interlude occurred a couple of days before the rabbit’s death: A friend of my wife’s came by, a woman gifted with a perception and empathy mysterious even to herself. I happened to be away during most of her visit, but she spent a little time sitting with the rabbit, and her perception of his communication was that there was a long thread of connection between he and I. He was saddened by the fragility and brevity of his bodily container, but he was aware of my love and reverence for him.
But then the rabbit mentioned another presence: A man with a forelock. “Do you mean a combover?” asked my wife. (Whenever my father’s infamous combover came in contact with water it would, in fact, break ranks into an unruly sort of forelock.) “Ha! Maybe…” she replied after a moment’s consideration. “It’s like he was there for a moment in the rabbit’s body, just passing through.” I’m more or less neutral on the subject of channelling, tarot, and other such portals, but her translation both startled and deeply touched me, and it was more than enough to rekindle what I had only recently started to suspect: Years after leaving this world, my father had perhaps found the only possible way for him to reenter it.
Now several weeks—and in the case of my father, nearly 20 years—after the fact, it’s difficult to reenter the dreamscape that comes with observing the end of life; the flood of daily quotidia and stimulus quickly rushes in to rebuild the protective layer around the mind, a supple but nearly impenetrable membrane that ensures painful emotions are kept at bay. I imagine it’s a rubbery mucous, not unlike the nauseating gunk I clean, cursing and gagging, from the drain every year or so.
Who can stand to live without it? I recall visits back home or to larger cities during the time my father was dying, and the sense that “normal” life was hollow by comparison. Some friends were kind and supportive, but others were clearly troubled by the implications of death and the discomfort of accessing their own emotions. Who can blame them?
At the time and for a time afterwards, I sought out these experiences again: Working in hospice, shelters, anywhere this electric current of emotion might be found. In retrospect, though I took pride in helping others during their difficult times, I was seeking a shortcut to my own growth, as if merely by being present for powerful emotions—mine, anyone’s—I would cleanse myself and be rid of the depressive weight that had haunted me for much of my life. As though my emotional life was merely an infection left untended, and expressing the wound—perhaps some epsom salts and hydrogen peroxide?—would make me whole.
I’m still not sure how to feel. That is, I have wired myself to think rather than feel and sometimes I fear I’ll never learn how. Does that explain the years of drinking and drugs, any kind of oblivion to turn off consciousness? Or is it the opposite: Numbing the body to squelch out any chance of actually feeling? In retrospect, I’m going to play it safe and say they both won.
I have learned something though; these wrenching experiences can be a lantern flash into the crevasse, a hopeful reminder that there is indeed life on the Mars of my emotional core. And if regular doses of death and loss are too much, as they are for most, they can at least guide me towards a fuller expression of that core, a more fully realized life with the people in my life and, ultimately, with the closed-off and segregated sides of myself.
Admitting the depths of my love for those around me is a gamble, but with my life half-over and then some, it’s one I can no longer afford not to take. My father was a wise and gentle soul, my rabbit a somewhat gluttonous goofball and all-around garden nuisance, but I loved them both, and serving them as they passed from this world was a gift not from me, but to me.
Postscript: After we buried Fruitcake, my family and I drove to Sauvie Island to walk around a quiet lake and leave bits of his fur by the wild rabbit runs. On our return, traffic was abruptly stopped by a rather overstuffed, cheerful-looking Chihuahua walking down the middle of North Denver Ave. I pulled over, already dreading the return to the Humane Society so soon after our tearful errand earlier that day. The dog ran over and cavorted joyfully around me as I shepherded him out of the road. I picked him up; he lacked a collar, but sported intact testicles (complete with a fully functional, and rather alarming erection). Though I was certain the dog was homeless, I waited while my wife knocked on nearby doors and my daughter made a long list of new names for the beast, who appeared perfectly happy to be shut in a strange family’s car.
Fortunately for everyone involved, he lived in a nearby house. As we left him to his grateful owners (and no doubt another meal of potato chips), my wife remarked that from now on, we’d have to be on the lookout for “Fruitcake mischief.” I knew exactly what she meant; after all, I’m no stranger to Rabbitry of one sort or another.