I was about to get into my car to leave for a meeting, when I noticed our aging retriever Tasha lying in the grass. Usually, when she sees that someone is going in the car, she bounds over, eager to be taken along. This time, she just looked up at me. Then Judith shouted at her from the window.
"Tasha, what have you got?!!"
The dog immediately got up, came over to me and dropped something at my feet. Judith appeared at the door at the same moment. "Sheís got a rat!"
The small, still animal, with gray fur and a while belly, was small for a rat, too big to be a mouse. It lay on its back, all four legs pulled up against itself. Its eyes were closed. Then one tiny claw moved.
"Itís not quite dead," I said.
Judith stayed behind the screen door. Tasha looked at her, and then at me, apprehensively. I watched as the little animal stirred slowly, and rolled over onto its side. I couldnít see any obvious wounds on it. Its head was thrust upward, and long ears lay back against its shoulders.
"Itís a rabbit. A baby rabbit." I wondered what to do with it. By this time, Tasha knew she had done something wrong, and she ducked her head and tail and curled her body, her submissive posture.
"Itís still alive," Judith said. "What should we do with it?"
"I donít know." I felt a little sick. I remembered the time a friend of mine had accidentally struck a bird with a golf ball. Several players stood helplessly around the injured bird, until someone simply stepped up and crushed it with his heel. It seemed a humane thing to do, putting the creature out of its pain, but I had felt the same lurch in my stomach.
The rabbit stirred more, but didnít attempt to get to its feet.
"Itís still alive," Judith observed. "We ought to take it back to its nest."
"Itíll probably die."
"What else can we do?" She came out on the deck to look closer. "It doesnít seem to be injured."
Tasha didnít look at it. She was more concerned with our reactions.
I wanted to escape. Thatís my standard response to feeling helpless, even when I know I have to do something. "Well," I suggested, "we can just slip a piece of cardboard under it and carry it back to the bushes where she found it. That way our scent wonít be on it."
"But Tashaís scent is. The mother wonít have anything to do with it."
We stood there for a moment, and then I said, "I have to go."
Judith disappeared inside, apparently to get something to carry the creature back to its home. I got into the car and left.
As I drove, I felt guilty, leaving like that. I should have stayed, at least to give Judith moral support as she carried the dying animal to its lair. Itís as close as I get to hysteria inside, when I canít bring myself to face such sudden and brutal reality. I decided that Iíd call her later and apologize. She was just as upset as I. But I kept putting it off, and finally didnít call.
When I returned home that evening, Judith told me that she had carried the animal in a file folder, and it had become more active, and even trying to escape. "It was really strong," she said.
"Maybe it was just in shock at first. Where did you put it?"
"Back right by the fence. I looked for a nest, but couldnít find any."
"Iím sorry. I shouldnít have left it for you. I couldnít deal with it."
"Thatís okay." Her voice was matter-of-fact.
"I donít handle emergencies very well. I just wanted to escape."
" I did find a kind of straw nest, back in the old garden, but all that was there were a couple of snake skins, you know, shedded skins, kind of transparent?"
"Probably lives on baby rabbits. But maybe Tasha will go back out there and get it again."
"I donít think so. She knew she had done something wrong. I trust her."
I felt guilty again, this time about abandoning a wounded creature, allowing it to die alone under a pile of brush. I told myself that it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. Death is part of life.
While I had been out that afternoon, I met a friend whose father had recently died. I expressed condolences, and he thanked me. Civilized behavior. I would have preferred to avoid that situation, too, but there was no way out of it. At least I knew the words one speaks on such occasions. Simple, direct, "Iím sorry to hear about your father." Pause, allow the person to say more, if they want to. Donít change the subject too soon. Allow that space of respectful silence. Just listen and nod occasionally if they tell you more. Iím not good at small talk, but sometimes just listening is better, anyway.
Later that evening Judith and I watched a television documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some people live with death every dayósudden, violent and hate-driven. I live in such a safe place, where the suffering of a young rabbit grabs me, and my own helplessness haunts me. How could I deal with war?
I lay awake that night, thinking about the little rabbit as I first saw it, lying there on the deck, probably expecting to die in the next moment. Maybe not. Animals probably donít anticipate things like that. Only people fear death, I think. So-called educational television is full of wild animals eating and being eaten. I recoil from those scenes of brutality, but Iím aware of a morbid fascination, as well. Death is certain for all of us. One only hopes that ours will be quick and painless. Reminders that it isnít always, leave me unnerved.
Lying there in the dark, I try to count the number of people I have known who are no more. A lot of them. I lose count, and eventually drop off to sleep.
Death at a young age always seems more tragic. The loss of potential, I suppose. At my age, one is presumed to have lived oneís potential, or at least had the opportunity. Itís as though everyone is entitled to a full life. I wonder why that is. Certainly nature doesnít seem to promise it. Is the death of a young rabbit more tragic than that of an old one? Out of the nest at five or six weeks, reproducing in another couple of weeks, life expectancy about a year. Itís hard to be abstract about the life span of a bunny. Itís hard to care, unless one is watching a small creature slowly fading away, its side barely moving as it breathes the same air that I do, its heart pumping blood the same color as mine. That could be me, but for a few genes that we donít happen to share. Weíre more alike than different. Weíre both, as Bob Dylan sings, busy dying. A year from now, I wonít remember him or her. Sixty years from now, no one will remember me.
It seems that all I can do is stop, in this moment, and acknowledge one awfully short life.
Donald Skiff, August 30, 2002