Copyright 2005 by Amber Phousongphouang
They are writhing on the cold, solid, concrete floor in the garage. I am stunned to see them lying there. Their tiny pink bodies flail in all directions as if they don’t yet have control over themselves. The seven, miniscule and hairless bunnies are scattered across my garage, shivering violently from the shock of the cool spring air. Their mom, a large grey and white flop-eared bunny, is perched in her cage close by, looking forlorn. The fur she pulled out for nesting lying around her flies up in little white tufts as I pass by to look at the squirming kits. I am perplexed that my mother bunny has pushed her babies out of her cage and left them to survive on their own.
I contemplate picking up one of the babies. Though I had been suspicious that the mother rabbit was pregnant, I hadn’t expected to find her kits scattered about in such a ghastly array. Ignoring my own temptation to hesitate, I pick up a baby bunny and hold it in my hand. The kit’s skin is cold, wrinkled and translucent like the rubber of a helium-filled balloon that has been floating for several days. Upon picking up the kit and feeling how cold it is, I realize I have to do something quickly or the bunnies will freeze to death.
I gather all seven of the bunnies into my hands. Each kit is no bigger than the size of infinitesimal field mouse. Their ears, which will some day be long and floppy as their mother’s, are the size of my pinky fingernail. The bunnies are just tiny enough that I can balance all seven in one hand as I open their mother’s cage. I cover them in fur and set them close to their mother, hoping she will warm them. Closing the cage, I contemplate my options. I decide call a close friend who raises bunnies. Upon hearing my story, she offers to come over and take a look at the kits. I slump down in front of the cage, eyeing the baby bunnies and hopping my friend comes quickly.
It was taking her forever to get there. I didn’t know why it was taking so long for the paramedics to transfer my grandma to the hospital, and it was driving me crazy. I began to shake so violently that I had to sit on my hands to stop the tremors. A sour feeling crept into the pit of my stomach and though I tried to calm myself, I couldn’t shake the fear. The pungent smell of the emergency room permeated my nostrils as I waited impatiently for my grandma to arrive. I peered out of the rain-drizzled window, half-hoping to see the lights of the ambulance, half-hoping to wake up and find out that this was all a surreal nightmare. Instead, when I closed and then opened my eyes again, all I saw were two raindrops, pulling themselves slowly down the window pane.
I heaved a deep sigh, the weight of the passing time heavy in my chest. I focused on entertaining myself. As I waited, I began to watch the two raindrops race down the window pane. I silently cheered for one, and then the other, as they competed to be the first to the puddle on the sill. They left their trails, just big enough to see as they descended. As one of them, (who I had decided to call Annabelle) had almost reached the sill, I became distracted by my nerves, and gave up my childish game. Questions started to overtake my methods of distraction. Each question flew at me like a cold gust of wind on a winter’s day, sending a cold shiver of panic down my spine.
Where is she? Why isn’t the ambulance here yet? Where is my mom? What if my grandma is really hurt?
The questions kept coming, faster and faster. I tried to focus on the window pane.
Which of my raindrops has won? Which one is Annabelle, I got them confused now. Where is my mom? I tried to take command of my thoughts, unsuccessfully.
Just as I was on the verge of crying and showing outward signs of panic, my mom came rushing into the emergency room crying. I hated seeing my mom cry. Now, not only did I have to calm myself down as I waited for answers on my grandma’s condition, I also had to calm my mom as well. In the back of my mind I tried to focus on keeping her calm, knowing that the doctors wouldn’t allow her to see my grandma if she was hysterical.
“Take a deep breath,” I commanded.
I looked at her and tried to get her to sit down. I tried to
distract her by asking her questions.
“What do you know so far?” I asked, trying to keep my tone even and unemotional.
“She fell and hit her head, and she has
been laying there ever since her soap opera went off,” came the
I tried to calculate the time she had been laying there. My grandma was a creature of habit, and watched the same soap opera everyday. I figured that the soap opera had probably gone off at around 12:30, and glanced at my watch. It was 4:30.
“Is that all we know?” I asked, becoming frightened and frustrated.
“Right now. I can’t believe this is happening,” my mom ranted. “Why didn’t I call her today after lunch?” she panicked. “I always call her after lunch. She’s been lying there for hours, Amber, Why didn’t I call?” Her voice was becoming more and more shrill, and my nerves rose with each word. I took a deep breath and tried to be the adult, though I felt much younger than my 21 years.
“It’s not your fault. It was just an accident, and even if you had called you wouldn’t have been able to do anything. Right now, all we can do is wait.”
I have waited and watched long enough. I have to do something drastic. After observing the cage for the past two days, it is apparent that the mother bunny isn’t taking care of the baby bunnies. My husband and I have gingerly picked a dead bunny out of the cage each morning upon waking. It is hard to tell that they are dead, the rest of the bunnies barely move. The mask of death is the only indication that they are gone, the open-mouthed silent scream that is never heard.
The rest of the kits are wrinkled, and look even smaller than when they were born. I feel helpless to do anything to keep them from starving to death. Their skin is even more transparent now than at their birth, despite the thin layer of help that is starting to grown on their bodies. I move them to a dark hutch with some special cotton from the pet store. The hutch is actually a very large, purple tub turned upside down with a whole cut in it for the mother bunny to enter and leave. The cotton form the store is spread on the floor of the container and looks like pinkish-purple drier lint. I’ve become used to its dusty residue as I sift through it every morning to dispose of the casualties.
I have decided to take the kits under my care, to feed and warm them. I am tired of the helpless feeling that plaques me in the morning as I sift through the dusty lint. Though I am determined to aide the dying creatures, I am frightened by the prospect that I could somehow further endanger their lives. Despite all of my doubts, I feel a certain amount of responsibility towards the baby bunnies. I buy replacement rabbit’s milk from the pet store and start feeding them with and eye-dropper, once every two hours. I find a round woven basket and place the remaining babies inside on a towel. I cover the kits with the cotton from their bed, a lightweight blanket and a heating pad for warmth. I hope that if I can keep them alive long enough for them to eat on their own they might live.
I’m unsure what convinced me to drive to the regional hospital thirty minutes away from my hometown. I suppose it was a mixture of fear and responsibility. Despite those feelings, I find myself apprehensive as I drive in the dark, my wind shield wipers scraping the raindrops to either side of my front window.
My mom’s words weren’t extremely comforting when she called my house to let me know that the doctors were transferring my grandma to another hospital.
“The doctors said that there is blood surrounding your grandma’s brain and that if they don’t do surgery soon, her brain will swell and she will die. The problem is that because of her asthma, the operation is risky in itself. I will call when we know something more.”
The words my mom said still ringing in my ears, I jumped into action. I was scared not to act. I was even more scared that I was going to lose my grandma. I felt lucky to have had her for the first 21 years of my life, but I was losing faith fast that she would make it another year. I merged on to the freeway and turned the radio on, trying to find some music that would calm my pulsing nerves. I couldn’t find anything appropriate. I was angry with the situation, but I didn’t feel like listening to anything loud. I wanted, needed, something calm. I found a gospel CD and put it in my CD player, hoping that it would calm my fears. Even though I didn’t consider myself religious to an extreme, I figured that if any one was going to be able to help my family now it would have to be someone with more power than I had. As the second song lilted through my speakers I started to cry. I was my grandma’s favorite song, “How Great Thou Art”.
The song brought back memories that had long since been forgotten. One Sunday flashed through my mind as the song played. I was thirteen and my grandparents were coming to visit us for Easter. I had practiced and practiced to sing the song perfectly, even transposing it into a lower key to match my alto voice. I remembered how my grandma and grandpa watched me as I sang it, glowing with the colored light of the stained glass windows and pride. I remembered my grandma crying as she hugged me and told me how pretty I sang the song. I glowed.
That song made me think of other times my grandma had taken care of me. I remembered how she let me stay up to watch cartoons when I was supposed to take a nap. I remembered how she would give my sisters and I a snack every day at two o’clock on the dot. I remembered how good her mashed potatoes were. I remembered how she always smelled like her special blend of perfume and food cooking, and how her purse always smelled like spearmint gum. It was the little things I remembered, all of the things I took for granted every day.
Little things like sitting with her in her cozy armchair when I was younger. At the time the chair seemed huge to me. The chair’s coffee-brownness enveloped my grandma’s short body and my toddler self with its large wooden arms and rough upholstery. We would sit in the chair coved up by my favorite ‘blankie’—a blanket I had owned since I was a baby. It was a home-made blanket, off white with little ducks and bunnies scattered across it. Each section had a tie, put there to keep the blanket together, fastening the batting inside to the fabric on the outside. Each tie was a little knot of yarn on the outside of the blanket, and it was my favorite part of the blanket. I would roll the little pieces of yarn between my chubby fingers over and over again as the two of us sat cuddled up in front of the television.
I snapped back in attention to my driving as a car passed by me, its horn blaring. I realize that in my reverie I have slowed significantly. Drying the last of the tears from my face, I pull on the exit for the hospital. Pulling in to the parking lot, I try to prepare myself for what I will see. I had seen my grandma in the emergency room only hours before. She didn’t smell like perfume or spearmint gum, she smelled like vomit and hospital. She had been awake and scared. I had promised her that she would be okay, not knowing if I was telling her a lie or not.
Keep it together, I told myself, keep it together. I took a deep breath and passed through the double doors of the hospital, the stench of antiseptic pinching my nasal passages immediately. Trying to calm myself, I tried to hum my grandma’s favorite hymn. The notes got stuck in my throat and the tears started to come, but I blinked them back resolutely, determined not to cry.
Four bunnies are still alive. Despite my constant vigilance, the dehydration and malnutrition are triumphing slowly but surely. Even though I wasn’t sure at first that I really wanted the responsibility of the animals, I am beginning to realize that a part of me really wants these bunnies to live. I feed them every two hours, nervously checking under the blanket every two seconds. My husband tells me to leave them alone, admonishing me for checking the movement of their lungs.
“They are going to get cold if you don’t leave them alone,” he says. I know that he is right, but I can’t stop myself from checking. I realize also, that I don’t have time to really care for these bunnies. I am in my final semester of college, with homework, work, classes, and community activities to which I have to attend. I don’t really have time to feed them, warm them, will them to live. Despite all of the time I don’t have, something tells me that it is important for me to do this. Every time I think about leaving the bunnies to their fate, I start to think about the other times I didn’t do what I knew in my heart was important.
I think about when I lived with my grandma my freshman year of college. My grandpa had just died and she had moved to Arkansas to be closer to my mom. I moved in so that I could take care of her, help her with the chores, and keep her company. I didn’t do a very good job. She spent most of her time alone because I was too busy to spend time with her. All of the times I put her off to go out with my friends or go to a party flash through my brain and I feel responsibility to make up for the past. It is irrelevant that I can’t change the past by making the bunnies live. I feel somehow as if I can be reconciled for my selfishness if I can show even the smallest amount of self-sacrifice. I decide my hectic schedule is less important and I continue playing mother bunny.
The holding room where they had my grandma was a tiny nook in the emergency room critical care area. Just like the rest of the hospital, it was white-walled, with white floors, and the smell of antiseptic permeating everything. Grandma looked even smaller than her usual 4’12” in the long hospital cot. Her short curly hair was matted to her forehead and she looked strange without her glasses. She still smelled like vomit. I could smell her from all the way across the room where I was standing. I came closer, trying to ignore the stench and the tears that kept welling up in my eyes. My parents were at her side, holding her hands and talking to her. The doctors had just told us that the blood surrounding her brain was extensive, and that the chances that she would make it were slim.
Upon hearing the doctor’s report, I was surprised by the coldness with which they talked about my grandma. Didn’t they know that she was my grandma? Didn’t they know that she had taken care of me as a little girl? I knew that they didn’t know how much she meant to me. It was unreasonable to expect that they would.
As I tried to control my unreasonable anger towards the doctor for not being personally involved in my grandma’s life, I thought about all of the things he didn’t, couldn’t know. The memories crashed over me like waves on a stony beach. I remembered sitting at grandma’s kitchen table, playing cribbage till long past midnight. I was barely old enough to understand what I was doing in the game, and grandma would patiently recount my score with me when I fumbled. I remembered sitting on the porch during the pleasant summer evenings in southern Wisconsin, enjoying the breeze that blew off of the tall oak that stood in the front yard. We would sit and watch the softball games as they continued across the street, running over to throw back a homerun ball occasionally.
As the memories washed over me, I felt my body being pulled over towards my grandma’s bed as if on imaginary strings. I left my perch from the far side of the room and came closer. The smell that surrounded my grandma didn’t matter anymore. I started talking to her.
“They just came in and told me what my chances are,” she said, “and they aren’t good.”
“You are going to be fine,” I answered, forcing mock certainty into my voice. “You are going to come home soon.”
The nurse entered the room, abruptly cutting me off, and told us that they would be moving my grandma up to the next floor. I said goodbye, making my grandma promise that she would be strong and make it. I walked out of the room, calling over my shoulder because I didn’t want my grandma to see me crying, “I love you.”
I barely heard her response, “I love you too,” as I ran out of the hospital to my car in tears.
Two bunnies left. The other two died at the same time, as if they were dependent on each other, like Siamese twins. I try to evaluate if I did something wrong or if the bunnies were simply too weak to make it. I can’t decide, but I take extra care with the two remaining bunnies. I don’t want them to die, no matter what it takes.
It’s Monday, and I have to go to work. Since my boss is a pet-lover, I decide that she might not mind if I bring my new-found responsibilities with me. I wrap the bunnies up in their basket and carefully put them in my car. I grab their milk and put it in the basked along with a cup to warm the milk up in.
I spend my lunch hour grabbing a quick bite to eat and hurrying to feed the baby bunnies. I am hopeful, as it is noon and I haven’t lost another bunny yet today. They are still pulling through, and for the first time, I think that maybe these last two are stronger than the rest.
My day progresses and I check the bunnies as often as I can get a way. My boss offers to feed the kits while I am busy. Sooner than I realize possible, the day is over and it is time for me to go home. I go to get the bunnies from my boss, who has been caring for them gently for the last three hours.
I wasn’t ready for what I was about to do. I stepped up to the altar and took a deep breath. The organ started and I was already crying, already about to back out of one of the most important things I had ever done. I felt all of the eyes watching me, and I remembered my grandma’s words from the hospital.
“I am not going to make it, so promise me that you will sing at my funeral.”
I had promised, and now there I was. I trembled as I felt all of the eyes taking me in, and I knew what I had to do.
“Oh Lord, my God,” I sang, as clearly and as proudly as I could through my tears. “When I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hands hath made, I see the stars; I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed…”
I continued through the hymn, hoping that somehow my grandma was somewhere being very proud of me. I hoped that in some way she knew I was trying to make up for all of the times I was too busy to help her. As I sang, I realized that I couldn’t ever go back and take back all of the things I didn’t do. I could only keep on trying to help and succeed in situations in the future. I realized that I had done what she would have wanted. I wasn’t perfect, but I did what I could. I was there when she was in the hospital. I was there when my grandma heaved her last heavy breath that cold day in October.
I was there singing one of her favorite hymns at her funeral.
The song finished and I walked over to my seat in the first row, whispering quietly over my shoulder, “I love you, Gramma.”
I pull the heating pad back from the front of the basket, and one of the kits is lying there, his face frozen in the death scream that I have become so familiar. His mouth hangs open aghast; its eyes are tightly closed. I try to feel his chest to see if I can feel even the faintest heartbeat. I put my third finger on his tiny chest and I feel nothing. I try again, unable to believe that it is possible. I did everything right! I fed them every two hours, I kept them warm! What did I do wrong? I cry to myself silently.
I realize that my eyes are beginning to fill with tears. I don’t want my boss to see me cry so I quickly excuse myself and clock out, getting into my car. I try to calm myself with the thought of the remaining bunny, but somehow I get the feeling that even the final bunny is doomed to the same fate.
I set the basket securely on the seat next to me, and drive to the gas station. I pump my gas, and out of pure habit, I check the basket. The last baby bunny lies there, its chest barely moving. I sit there for a moment, watching. I am scared to sit there helplessly, but even more scared to touch the bunny. I am still pulling for the bunny, hoping that he will make it through. My hopes are dashed in one quarter of a second. I am witness to the long, shallow breath, the last of the kit’s life, escaping its dehydrated, weakened body.
I am crying hard as I pull out of the gas station’s driveway and on to the freeway. I feel the guilt of my busy schedule weighing on my shoulders. Could I have changed things if I hadn’t gotten so busy today? Could I have done a better job? This is all my fault. I feel the same way I did driving to see my grandma in the emergency room only a few months earlier. I challenge myself again and again. Why do I always neglect the things that are most important to deal with things that can be put on hold?
I heave a sigh and look through my CDs to find some comforting music, something that will take my mind off of what has just happened. I select a CD and my heart is a little lighter as I drive. As the song plays I remember another time I sang the song that reverberates through my speakers. I begin to remember that death is a part of life, not just for baby bunnies but for everything. I realize that I can’t be superwoman every time something goes wrong. I did what I could do by taking care of some babies that couldn’t take care of themselves. I did what I could do at the time, with what resources I was given, and that was all I could have done.
“When through the woods and forest glades I
wander,” I sing at the top of my lungs, “and hear the
birds sing sweetly in the trees, when I look down from rocky mountain
grandeur, and feel the gentle breeze. Then sings my soul my savior
God to Thee, How Great Thou Art, how Great Thou Art…”
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