Photograph by guest arts editor, Colin Grubel.
Read about the art selection process for this piece here.
My kids have a pair of bunny rabbits. The pair used to be a trio, but we lost one after it suffered an anal prolapse. If you’re wondering what an anal prolapse is, imagine what you have to do to a sock to make it an inside-out sock. That’s what happened to the business end of my kids’ third and now expired bunny rabbit.
An “anal prolapse” is an accurate metaphor for how I have generally felt about these pets. I have resented these bunny rabbits, at times even hated them. To be more specific, these bunny rabbits are Holland Lops, and we keep them in a bunny hutch. I don’t call it a bunny hutch, though. I call it a house of ill repute since house-of-ill-repute-like activities are mostly what goes on inside. Well, that and a lot of eating. Holland Lops are essentially stuffed animals that must be fed. But there’s something about them – a vacant, passive-aggressive quality – that has always made them seem like they’re holding me in judgment.
I’ve recently gone to therapy for depression, details of which I won’t get into here except to say that I’ve learned something I should have realized, being a screenwriter and all, but for whatever reason didn’t, and it’s this – what I’m feeling ain’t always what I’m feeling. Ergo my anal prolaptic feelings toward my kids’ bunnies weren’t really about the bunnies.
Having talk-therapied my way into this realization, I brainstormed likely causes for my pathological bunny rabbit angst. I ran down the list of familiar rabbits. Bugs Bunny? I never connected with him; I was more of a Foghorn Leghorn man. Harvey? That movie often played at my grandma’s house, usually before or after The Sound of Music. I found the prospect of being holed up with a nun and forced to sing about brown paper packages and copper kettles way more unsettling than a six-foot invisible rabbit.
I continued rounding up the usual suspects: Thumper? Peter Rabbit? Ralphie from A Christmas Story in his pink nightmare bunny getup? The Velveteen Rabbit? The Easter Bunny? No, these were all benevolent, even joyful associations. I went further. Bunnicula, the Howe and Howe children’s book series about a vampire rabbit who sucks the juice out of vegetables? Too innocuous. Night of the Lepus, the 1972 horror thriller about giant mutant rabbits that terrorize the southwest? Too campy. No, these feelings had teeth. They were based in reality, and I knew I’d need to dig deeper.
It was that thought – digging deeper – that unearthed the memory of a shovel and brought everything to the surface. I was seventeen and still living with my parents in Lake Elsinore. Desert hills and fields of foxtails surrounded our home on all sides. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, barn owls, and other bloodthirsty wildlife were not uncommon. Which made our dogs a necessity.
We had a Chocolate Lab named Red Dog and a St. Bernard named Nanna. They were not good dogs. Sweet? Sure. But obedient? There ought to be stories about these dogs in the Old Testament.
It is possible, though, that our commands were too complicated, too wordy for canine savvy:
“Quit shoving your noses into Grandma Doe Doe’s bajingo!”
“Fetch me the funny papers but only if it excludes The Family Circus and/or Includes Calvin and Hobbes!”
“Stop pursuing that bunny rabbit between the Maytag washer and dryer!”
It was this last command that brings us to my ordeal. After chasing Red Dog and Nanna out of our outdoor laundry room, which they had effectively destroyed, yanking the dryer from its connections and trampling a load of clean whites, my mother and I settled our eyes on a bunny rabbit – dirty white, covered in slobber, and barely able to compete with a grapefruit in the size department. It cowered against the wall. A closer look revealed that he was missing his tail and most of his driver’s side rear leg. I remember thinking, So much for the bit about the lucky rabbit’s foot. And then thinking, There’s really no such thing as a lucky rabbit’s foot if you’re the rabbit.
I wasn’t a vet. I had neither the education nor the vocabulary to diagnose or treat anal prolapses let alone gaping lacerations or limbs nearly cleaved from bodies. Still, I could tell that the prognosis was grim, the kind you should expect if you’ve been smoking since your first sock hop or if your last name is Kennedy. My mom said we’d need to put it out of its misery, and by we she meant me. This was a woman who I had personally seen rush into the melee of a gang fight to help break it up. And, yes, the same woman who could debone a twenty-five pound turkey barehanded in five minutes flat. Yet she was too queasy to, in her words, “do the humane thing.”
I scooped the bunny rabbit up with a piece of cardboard and walked it out to a field across from our house. On that walk, I entertained optimism. The rabbit could be okay. After all, it wasn’t squealing. In fact, it seemed stoic, as if it had been coached by John Wooden.
I gently set the bunny rabbit down in the ankle-high weeds and glanced at my watch. 10 minutes, I thought. If he hops away, I’ll reconsider my position on lucky rabbit feet. If he doesn’t, well, I’ll have a better understanding of Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction.
Those ten minutes were a paradox – long and agonizing and jackrabbit quick all at once. He didn’t move. Not one bunny hop. I thought I might give him a little more time, but my mom insisted that would be cruel. She gave me a shovel and no direction. The insinuation seemed to be that I should use said shovel to do the humane thing. I stood over the bunny rabbit, feet squared, a little more than shoulder length apart, and raised the shovel overhead. The rabbit looked up at me, nose wiggling, stoic, yes, but also alive, eyes a-glimmer.
My mom brought me a white dishtowel, which I laid over the bunny. I told myself it was the move of a benevolent executioner. My breathing was labored. I felt my eyes water. Again, I raised the shovel overhead.
You know that scene in The Princess Bride when shrieking eels are thrashing toward Princess Buttercup, and Peter Falk stops the story to reassure Fred Savage that the shrieking eels don’t, in fact, eat Buttercup? It’s this sweet, protective grandfatherly moment, and I feel like the tension of this bunny rabbit execution could use a similar gimmick. Like, I break in here to tell you that the bunny rabbit turned out okay. His severed leg was merely a trick leg that snapped back into place just before he hopped away and went on to father 357 offspring and make a killing in the stock market. I should definitely do that. And I would – if I were a liar. The truth is there was no such luck.
I stood over that towel-covered bunny, and I swung the shovel. Unfortunately, though, something interfered with my ability to put all two hundred pounds of my body into the swing. Perhaps it was the guilt or the shame or my naïveté as it pertained to certain cruel truths of the world, but I pulled my punch, and instead of putting the rabbit out of its misery, I seemed to have activated the razor’s edge of its fight-or-flight response. The poor thing began hopping, one-legged, beneath the white dish towel, a little hippity-hoppity drunken ghost, its shrieks eerily similar to a horrified child.
My mom witnessed all of this and offered direction from the sidelines: “Oh, Norm, get it! Get it! Don’t let it suffer! Oh, god love it!” As she spoke, she seesawed between hysterical laughter and sincere weeping. Her laughs might seem horrible, but you have to remember she was witnessing the most macabre and dissatisfying game of whack-a-mole ever played.
This I believed to be the reason I held such contempt for my kids’ bunny rabbits – my residual shame and guilt projected onto their floppy little faces. But if that were true, the realization would have resolved those feelings, wouldn’t they? Yet I still hated the bunny rabbits and descended yet even further into depression.
If you’ve never experienced depression, it feels a little like this: a gloomy film washes over everything, and you cease to operate in a reality that agrees with everyone else’s. Basically, your mind and your heart interpret things in a fashion not unlike Corey Feldman’s Spanish-speaking character “Mouth” in The Goonies. They lie, they exaggerate, they delude. Someone might say, “I love you, Norm,” and they might very well mean it, but neither my brain nor my heart can hear it. Instead, the pair of them harden and pass judgment. “Of course, you love me. You’re too inept to know better. You probably like Ayn Rand novels and listen to Coldplay.” Of course, I should concede that every depressed person’s experience is likely different than mine, but I am relatively sure that, unchecked, it can lead to the darkest of places.
Mine certainly did. I always thought of myself as a duck, sailing smoothly across the water, never allowing anyone to see past the surface where my feet were paddling like mad, trying to manage a lifetime of guilt, trying to hide feelings of worthlessness and phoniness, trying to keep people from loving me because they might learn what I felt in my heart and mind to be true – that I was unlovable.
This depression bottomed out at a Mexican restaurant called Avila’s. My wife, Becky, and I used to take the kids there every Sunday night, and one Sunday night I could no longer pretend I was a duck. Becky saw as much when she looked at me. “Are you okay?” she said. The next minute or so is a little funny in my memory, but I vaguely remember hearing in my periphery a kindergarten-aged girl telling her mom at full volume, “Mommy, that large man with the beard is crying.”
I’ve heard that rabbits only make one sound, a sort of shriek when they’re about to become prey. This is partially true. They make many sounds, cheerful ones even, but they do scream under extreme duress, and when they scream, it’s never a false alarm. Well, I was a rabbit in that moment, and I felt the world raising its shovel over my head. The last thing I needed was a busybody five-year-old.
But just before I could scream, “Shut up, kindergartener and eat your guacamole! Don’t you know I’m a killer of bunny rabbits!” my wife said an incredibly loving thing to me: “Oh, my god,” she said. “You’re not okay.”
All right, so you probably won’t come across those words in a Shakespearean sonnet, but they were the kind of words that looked beyond the surface and recognized the emotional and psychological wounds that were akin to a one-legged rabbit with its haunches in the jaws of a disobedient hellhound. They brought focus to that gloomy film that had washed over me. Soon after those words, I had an epiphany: my longstanding resentment and hatred for the bunny rabbits was nothing but a mirror. Like them, I was emotionless, caged up, pushing things down, deep, deep down, without a white towel to cover me, and my real emotions only spilled out once I heard the chaos of life and how it sounds eerily like a whack-a-mole arcade.
My wife moves much quicker than I do emotionally, and after I shared this epiphany with her, she swelled up with hope and fired off a question: “Does this mean you love the bunnies now?”
The depression had lifted, but in terms of vulnerability, I was still living in a bunny hutch made of cards, and this question put that architectural integrity to the test. I recalled that the bunnies were a mirror, and if I hated them, it would mean I hated myself. It took a little time, but I can now say, as I write these words that I am a six-foot-two, 220-pound, beard-faced, bunny-loving man.
Now I’m not so naive as to believe that the depression can’t return. Certainly, there’s a shovel looming overhead, waiting to play whack-a-mole with my hobbled ego at any time. And there’s little guarantee that making peace with a couple of dispassionate, promiscuous Holland Lops will help any of this. If nothing else, the rabbits will remind me to be a lot less hard on myself and a little more loving. Like I said, I’m no vet, but if that isn’t the cure for an anal prolapse, then there isn’t one.