"Dammit, I'm going to cry." Tom said. "I hate that."
I do have one of the sweetest husbands in the world, and today he was willing to drop his Sunday chores to accompany me to a 24-hour veterinary clinic for an animal lover's hardest job: flipping the switch on a life, playing god because God's asking you to, making it real and bringing one creature's song to an end.
One morning, I came out to the Rabbit Towers to find our oldest buck jovial, demanding breakfast, but with body parts hanging out of his abdomen. No sign of trauma, no blood, not a breath of anything painful around him, but there you had it: a new one to we humans. An animal offering to the ongoing parental rite of passage, the "yep, this is a trip to the ER" response. Animals, like kids, schedule such incidents on weekends. Our usual vet was post-surgery himself and not on call, so here we were, tucked into the crowded waiting room of a suburban vet clinic we didn't know, waiting to explain to a stranger that one of our "breeding animals/pets"—I circled both those labels on the intake paperwork—needed a diagnosis, but we were ready to pull the plug. What a necessary and awful thing.
When they took my call the day before in the midst of a booked-solid Saturday morning, they asked that Tabasco be dropped off immediately, and guaranteed that he'd get a full exam before we met the vet ourselves come Sunday. The vet was wonderful: understanding, patient, and after brief introductions got right to the point. "His scrotum," she explained, "is outside his body." She didn't have an explanation, but neither did we. Sometimes you have to believe in the mystery. In her years of practice, she hadn't seem such a thing before, but there you have it. "I have heard of this happening: it's an old man's disease," she said. I glanced over at Tom; it was all I could do to not blurt out: "No! Not that!" He winced as we both tried to find the steady hand of humour in this rocking boat we all had found ourselves in. She explained that Tabasco was showing the signs of other older animal issues too: his excessive thirst pointed to kidney problems; he had mites, which I thought I'd successfully treated months earlier. She went on to explain that there was a $300 surgical procedure that could be done, along with the expected warnings about putting an elderly animal under general anesthetic, and all the associated pre-testing, there, but that wasn't an investment we were going to make on this particular four-legged. Was circling "Breeding Animal" on the intake form my out, tacit permission to make this call without being questioned? I don't know the vet's story, but we were "breeding animals" too. I was still feeling seasick.
She suggested the one-two approach of anesthetizing, then administering the barbiturate. "When he goes," she said, "he won't feel a thing; he'll already be on the anesthesia plane." "I understand," I told her. "I've been on a few anesthesia planes myself." My husband grinned, having been my date to a number of surgical procedures, not a one of those under-the-influence pre- or post-anesthesia conversations forgotten.
I'm recounting this afternoon for you part in jest because it's the human way: there's humour in what we don't understand. Yes, humour can be cruel, if you're that kind of person, but that's not us. We've walked through our own judgements on how we handled the duties of this afternoon, but instead of asking ourselves those questions again, or leaning entirely on how you, Gentle Reader, will experience this, Tabasco, I'll ask you: how did we do? Since we're not bunnies, we're just trying to understand.
I didn't mean to do you wrong. I am hoping we gave you a good last year-plus as new senior bunny owners. I remember the last time April, breeding time, rolled around; the junior buck was tentative; the ladies lost patience with him. You came in sight, and they practically invited you into their cage. The young'un wouldn't do; they were waiting for an experienced man.
Yes, I refilled your Lixit bottle 2, maybe 3 times more than everyone else's; I just figured you were thirsty. You didn't mind the hairbrushings; I didn't know you still had mites.
Life always brings us opportunities to learn new skills. I didn't know, that Sunday afternoon, that I'd learn new things about bunnies and their world, and have to revisit that hardest one of all for an animal lover: when it's best to give the word, while your friend sits underneath your hand, perhaps even understanding all that's being said, but still enjoying the snuggle, quivering under your hand, expectant. Trusting.
The first anesthetic took awhile; many minutes passed before the disorientation started. It wasn't a timetable I expected. For some moments, touching seemed to hurt, I tried to time the "I'm here's" and holding his head upright, trying to second-guess where the over-sensitivity was, when it would stop. Tabasco started chewing—he didn't stop until it was over—then laid down; the kind of relaxed that is outside any other definition. I kept petting that softest space between his ears. Several minutes passed before the shoulders softened, and I knew the next time the vet came in, it would be time; the second injection would finish this.
You know that animals aren't people, she said; when they die, they keep their eyes open. Tom and I both answered that one; yes, we'd learned that before. Many times. You know about burying animals, she asked. Yes, we have done that, many times. They were quiet and respectful; even had plastic and towel-lined cardboard coffin boxes at the ready, if we wanted one; no charge. No charge for the preceding overnight either, she said; they enjoyed his company. His water bottle efforts were a welcome percussion throughout that evening, she said. "I told them last night, that you could just look at his face, and see what a gorgeous young bunny he was."
Her parents raised bunnies on their farm, she said. When I asked her what breed they were, she didn't know, she said; "They were all bunnies," she said, "and I loved them all." Later on, she said, she would buy "cold ones" from the Amish up the road, and cook them up as protein for a dog she had then. Like that irritating and true lyric goes, both sides now.
It takes a special kind of animal lover to talk from both sides of that fence. At this point in my life, I know a lot of those people. I feel fortunate in that. Animal lovers are different; we know deeper things than many people. It's good to get new knowledge. It's good to find a backup vet. It is hard to be reminded that it's crucial to say goodbye at the right time. It's an honor to pet another animal friend through the long steps of goodbye. Like we'd tell one of our own: we didn't mean to do you wrong in our not knowing. You had an energy others didn't. When it came time for the daily handful of black sunflower seeds, for the handouts of green beans, you enjoyed your treats more than anyone else. Hopefully when I'm older than those around me, I'll remember that I deserve that joy myself. And, had we known your last days were in sight, we would have lined it up so that for that last week, you'd have gotten some. :) You deserved such sweetness, your favorite things, in your last days. Bye, Tabasco.
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