Dear Lily June,
When I was a kid, I had begged and begged for a pet. My sister had a cat, appropriately named for the eighties Madonna, and that cat couldn’t stand anybody but my sister. The family joke was that, when it heard my father driving toward home from a mile away, that cat would start working up a good hiss in order to perfect its pissiness by the time he set foot on the front stoop. I wanted a small animal that would be loyal to me in that way, who would snuggle into my arms and comfort my lonely sorrows.
What I got was a rabbit, who I promptly named Tommy, only learning later that he was a she. It didn’t matter to me. Tommy was meant to be my playmate, a not-so-imaginary friend to accompany me through my days and ways.
Only, there were problems with pet ownership right away. For one thing, Tommy liked to nibble. At everything. She would chew on carpet like it was carrot cake, nip at my hair like it was alfalfa, test her teeth on my fingertips like they were straw. For awhile there, I was missing every corner of the pages from my treasured Ann M. Martin and R.L. Stine collections. And Tommy would get sick from everything she ate, with her bowel movements collecting along her backside, so she required frequent baths to get the mess unstuck from her fur.
And Tommy would quiver in fear at everything (except for the cat who, when she once started hissing towards Tommy’s cage, caused the rabbit to bolt toward the metal bars, which made that cat back away slowly from the basement where we kept my pet bunny). And that fear hit a little too close to home for me. She had a leash I could walk her in the backyard with, but frightened of the birds in the air and the bugs beneath her paws, she’d always find a way to shake her tiny neck from the holster and would take off hopping for the nearest convenient hiding space.
I used to do the same–sitting in the confines of my own closet–after my sister had, moments before, pointed to the rabbit in her cage with one hand, a kitchen knife in the other, and claimed she was going to slice open my pet. I knew she didn’t mean it. She was threatening me like our father used to threaten our mother. We had both seen it.
And apparently, I was young and not very good with pets in the first place, because by nine years old, I’d pretty much abandoned her. And my mother, who didn’t have any more interest in her, took her down to the garage, where she dumped her cage on a table that hit freezing temperatures in winter, and there my bunny stayed, unplayed with, unloved, and alone.
On my lifetime list of regrets, add toward the top how I treated Tommy, Lily. She was a scared pet who needed care and understanding, but I was so used to being left alone myself, while being riddled with my own fears and anxiety, that I didn’t know how to love her. I was as scared of her as she was of me, because I was as scared of me as she was of me. (When we get you a pet someday, it’s my hope that you’ll love it like you’ve been loved yourself, responsibly, attentively, devotedly).
Of all people, it was my father I would find bonding with Tommy. He used to go down into the cold garage, even in the dead of night in winter, to pull his treasures from the brown bags he kept hidden down there. And it was his hands, so accustomed to inflicting hurt, that he’d let turn practically blue while he held Tommy, the both of them shivering. He would stroke her with a kindness and a patience that was beyond, to me, understanding. And she lit up, as much as a rabbit can, when he’d free her from the cage just to hold and pet her, sometimes for hours at a time. He’s always had that way with the wild, and animals have always seemed to have a connection with my father that is miraculous, otherworldly.
Tommy died shivering on a day I stayed home from school to be with her. I held her as her heart gave out, which we knew was coming because for days, she had stopped eating. It had been so long since I held her, I was shocked to discover how thin she’d become, how like a literally oversized coat her fur was as it hung loosely from her bones. I cried for all that I’d never done for her, and I stroked her pelt while over and over, but never enough, I apologized.
- “Rabbit in montana” by Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rabbit_in_montana.jpg#/media/File:Rabbit_in_montana.jpg