my friend from the down the alley, the muddiest garden girl i know, came rapping at my kitchen door just the other day. the look on her face–wan, wide-eyed–told me something surely must be wrong.
i was running late that morn, and still in jammies.
can you come, she asked? there’s a bunny who needs a nurse.
thank the lord bunnies in distress do not check for valid nursing licenses. mine, alas, went kerpluey a few years back, the occupational hazard of being distracted by the news.
she explained that she’d just found the little thing; he was tucked up against the house, not moving so very much.
despite her love of all things of the earth, she was not so keen, it seemed, on nursing little bunnies. and besides, she had two cats. two often hungry cats.
we decided that since i’d be fired if i was late–a fear that might run ironic any hour now, should the telephone ring-a-ling-a-ling–she would take first shift.
i’d be back by 2:15, i said. i’d be there soon as i could be.
indeed, i kept my word, worried all morning long about the bunn in some distress.
figured i’d cook up my wonder potion, the one i’ve used on baby bunns and birds and squirrels, all fallen from the nest. it’s part carnation milk-in-can, part molasses, two parts prayer. you dispense in little drops, lose sleep a night or two.
and any rescue, far as i have known, involves a cardboard box. always. never have i partaken of any garden triage without corrugated cardboard serving as the ICU.
as i loped down the walk, decked out in bunny nursing garb–muddy shoes, holey jeans, a pair of muddy gloves–i saw my muddy friend near-galloping toward me.
come quick, she said, spinning on her garden clogs.
and thus we tiptoed toward the little bunny’s side, the rescue box nested on the way with the softest driest grasses, thrown in in clumps as we passed her rusty wheelbarrow.
as we rounded the bend, we saw the one thing we did not wish to see: the hungry cat, standing much too close, a look of caught-me on its hungry face.
SHOO! we shouted, both at once.
and then dove in to do our mercy work.
the little bunn was there, all right. all fur and ears and just about the size of a golden goose’s egg. still breathing, too, though the up and down of belly fur and diaphragm came rather slow and not-quite-steady, pausing long enough to make you think each breath might have been his last.
and then his little jumping leg, the left one, wiggled just a bit.
so, right away, i dropped all thoughts of dripping droppers through the night. i knew at once, this was hospice care, i was being called to.
and somehow, suddenly, that felt all right. felt sanctified.
every hour of every day, in woods and garden shadows, there are little wisps of life extinguished. and no one’s there to watch, to whisper final benediction.
that’s just how the cycle flows. life to death. death to life again. no usher needed for these trips, it happens all alone, in silent solitude.
and what a holy sacred thing, then, that i, decked out in muddy shoes, would get to tend this dying thing.
isn’t that a blessing, on a chilly sunny april day? to be the caretaker at this precipice where life gives way to death.
my friend reached down and tried to lift the little ball of barely-breathing bunny. she lurched, and stopped, and looked to me. can you do this, she asked?
i gulped. then i dipped deep down, into that place reserved for times like this, when we need to put aside our wobbly selves and reach instead for fibers sure and steady.
we reach across the gulch from i-can’t-do to i-am-needed, and we do the thing we fear. we hold the hand that’s dying. we sop the blood. we wipe the throw-up off the bathroom rug.
we lift the dying bunny.
we pray and hold him up, feel the weightlessness of weeks’-old fur and bones and flesh, now limp and barely pulsing.
i felt the sun beat down, cool sun, april sun. i lay him on the bed of grass. i whispered holy words.
his care belonged to me now, this sacred time was mine to oversee. i knew at once i would lay him thick with flowers from the woods. sprigs of cobalt blue, and washed-out periwinkle. a daffodil or two, the tiny ones, with throats the size of hummingbirds’.
i brought him home, to my summer porch. laid him in a patch of sunlight, where his dying breaths would at least be warmed.
i sat beside him then. watched the breathing slow to almost none. i would not leave his side; wouldn’t let him die unwatched. i’d not want that; why would he?
and then at last, it came. the breath that was his final one.
i sat in utter stillness. and then in time i gathered up more stems and blooms from all around the yard.
my boys came home from school; each paid respects.
i went to grab the shovel.
this is indeed a holy task, the digging of a grave beneath our old tall trees, the laying to rest of woodland creatures, fallen to our care.
it makes a garden more than just a growing place, which it never really solely is, though that truth is sometimes overlooked with all the nodding blossoms and the buzzing bees.
when a bird or bunny’s buried there, it is indeed a plot of holy earth, blessed earth. it’s a sign to those who toil there that all of life is but a circle turning ’round.
and so i dug a hole, sliced blade into the earth, turned out a mound of piney dirt. i laid a nest of soft dried grass. dropped in petals pale, pink and blue and linen white. then, with tender gloves, i laid the bunny down. covered him in daffodils, added softer grasses still. then put back the shovelfuls of dirt, of earth, until it was a mound.
my boys chose not to watch this work, i did it all alone. and that’s all right. i’d taken on this bunny’s care, and i needn’t share its weight.
i rather cherished my long slow minutes under all the pine boughs, the dappled light of nearly-dinner time playing on the spruce’s fallen needles.
one more small bouquet i laid, just to consecrate the spot.
i tiptoed off, left the bunny all alone.
but now my garden’s richer than it was. my holy charge is there, not far away, where i can always keep my eye, and always murmur prayer.
it’s not everyday we’re called upon to tuck a life to everlasting sleep. but in these april days, when all around life is budding, bursting, chirping, it’s a holy thing to know: life, too, must end.
and in the end, we can bury it with grace and holy whispered wings, wafting heaven’s way.
as i type this i await word about big changes at the newspaper. already i’ve heard of heartaches that leave me stunned here in my chair. it’s only just begun, and like a grownup game of musical chairs, i’ve no idea if i’ll be left without a place to sit. i’ve no idea if i arrived at where i set out to write today, but it’s an odd day for storytelling when you have no clue if they’ll let you tell another–at least in the pages you’ve called home for 27 years. alas, we wait…