By Carter Merenstein
“Do you think it’s hard to be a bunny?” my son asked, hiding behind my leg as we watched a large brown rabbit aggressively cleaning itself. My son was more afraid of small critters than I thought someone his age ought to be. I hoped that some level of exposure might lead to the understanding that they were not out to get him, but I hadn’t quite expected this level of empathy right away.
I hesitated before replying, “It doesn’t seem so tough to me.” Six years into fatherhood and I still, sometimes, felt unsure about how to talk to kids. I kept carrying, in the back of my mind, some pop-psych ideas that if I said the wrong thing I might scar them forever—as though I remembered anything my own father ever said to me.
I asked why he wanted to know, but he didn’t reply. I lit a cigarette, and we just stood in silence, watching the bunny as it twitched its nose and rotated its ears, scanning the wind for foxes, hawks, and then twisted around to continue cleaning its other side. It really didn’t seem that hard.
Eventually, my son looked up and asked, “Do you think it’s hard to be any animal?” I looked at the rabbit; I looked at my son. I thought about it, taking care in trying to understand where his six-year-old mind was going, trying to see what it was he saw in this harmless fluffy creature that seemed to frighten and enchant him at the same time. I told him that I thought animals had it pretty OK. It was my honest opinion, but I also expected it was the answer he was looking for. To my surprise, he seemed disappointed.
He looked at the ground and said, “So do we just make it hard for ourselves?”
Twelve years later, on our way home from seeing my wife in the hospital, we ran over a young deer. It was dark, and my mind was elsewhere, trying to remember a long list of tests and medications—things I would need to look up when we got home. I always meant to take notes, but it never felt right once we sat down in the hospital room, not when there were hands aching to be held.
I hit the brakes as I heard my son gasp. We slowed fast enough to miss the mother, but not quite fast enough to miss her fawn that jumped out after. It rolled under the car and was dragged twenty feet before we came to a halt. We got out and found it lodged beneath the rear wheel, still breathing.
One of its hind legs was mangled, shattered, and a small trail of blood damped the white fur of its underbelly. Its eyes were wide but glazed over, unfocused. And it didn’t move, either from injury or from shock; only its chest rose and fell through ragged breaths. I called animal control, and they said they’d send someone soon.
I motioned that we should wait on the other side of the car, but my son shook his head. He sat down in the road and slowly, deliberately reached out his hand to touch the back of the fawn’s neck. His hand was shaking, overwhelmed by some combination of emotions that I knew I didn’t fully understand. We both thought about death a lot those days, but I think we felt it in very different ways.
I put the hazard lights on, sat down next to him, and put my hand on his shoulder. We sat in silence for a while, until I asked, “Do you think it’s hard to be a deer?”
“Yeah,” my son replied, as if he knew it was the right answer. I wasn’t sure if he remembered the rabbit or not.
Fifteen years after my wife died, they found a tumor in my left lung. It was seven centimeters across and had already made an extensive tour of my vital organs. My options were limited, and what we did try didn’t work.
Everyone told me it wasn’t my fault, that there was no reason to blame myself. Not for smoking a pack a day for twenty years, not for avoiding the doctor for ten months. I did those things. What they really meant was that blaming myself now won’t help.
Coming from my son though, it meant something else. From him it meant he blamed himself: for missing the signs, for not pushing me harder, not living up to his role as a doctor or a son. I never wanted to hear it, but we got into it once; I remember screaming at him; I remember crying. I remember having nothing left to say, sat there in the checkered hospital gown that barely stayed on my shoulders anymore, listening to the orchestra of hospital machines click and beep out of time and out of sight. I told him to leave.
I didn’t see him again for ten days. He came in and sat next to my bed. Putting my trembling hand in his, we settled into the comfortable silence we were so familiar with, and the day passed. We were content not to push it, to just sit together while we could.
When it was time to leave, he hesitated. I thought he was going to speak, but instead he opened his bag and took out two stuffed animals—one a plush, brown bunny, the other a baby deer. He placed them next to me on the narrow hospital bed, put his hand on my shoulder, kissed me on the forehead, and left.
Alone again, I picked up the rabbit and looked into its big, dark eyes. The buzz of my hospital room faded as it looked back at me, and I thought maybe I could hear the breeze. I gave it a little pat on the head and smiled.