Two years ago, I rescued an earthworm from immediate and certain death. It was wiggling around on the hot, dry pavement in front of our house, and I picked it up and placed it on the moist dirt beside the walkway and under the sheltering shade of the hosta leaves. “I saved that worm’s life,” I said to my daughter who was only three at the time. I was teaching her about compassion or so I believed.
Unimpressed, she said, “And now some bird is going to go hungry.”
Cue The Lion King music. At that moment, I was keenly aware that when it came to the circle of life, my child was light-years ahead of me. Both of my children continue to surprise me with how well they understand and accept death as a part of life. They are like farm-kids. Raise a pig. Slaughter it. Cook it. Eat it. Ask for seconds because we all love bacon.
Just this past week, I took my son to an exhibition farm that we frequent. He has a special, albeit very one-sided, relationship with the animals there. He knows the names of his favorites and every now and then, he musters the courage to pet them or feed them. Tippy and Ladybug are the horses. Annie is a calf. The male goat is Dakota, and then, there is Hutch.
Or should I say, there was Hutch, a large, gray, uber-friendly rabbit whose out-going personality made him the life of the ho-down. Hand-raised since early bunny-hood, he really loved people. The farmers routinely took him to schools and fairs and other events because he enjoyed being the center of attention.
Yep, I am writing about Hutch in past-tense because he died—suddenly—the way rabbits just do. So, there we were—just hanging out by the bunny enclosure–when we noticed a small, spotted, timid rabbit in Hutch’s apartment. To the credit of the farmers, they did not run out and buy a large, gray rabbit to pass off as Hutch. Parents, not farmers, do that sort of thing, and it’s usually with goldfish, not rabbits.
Instead, one of the farmers caught my attention and silently mouthed, “Hutch died.” Oh. I asked her how and when—I don’t know why—I guess those are the questions I would ask if she had said a person had died and so, they seemed appropriate for a rabbit, too. She whispered that he was a very old rabbit and that he died at some point in the night. He had recently developed some digestive issues, but then, it could have been a heart-attack. Lots of rabbits die from heart-attacks. They weren’t planning an autopsy, and we should all be content in knowing that Hutch died the kind of death we all claim to want—he went quietly and in his sleep. Good for him!
“Mom, where is Hutch?”
“Hutch died. He was a very old rabbit and he died in his sleep.”
“Oh. Is he with Grandpa in Heaven?”
Until that moment, I had not contemplated the theological possibilities of rabbits in the afterlife, but sure, why not? “Maybe. Do you think Grandpa would like to play with Hutch?”
“Yes!” was a rather emphatic reply.
Well, that “yes” is good enough for me, and while I find it hard to imagine my father-in-law holding a rabbit while floating on a cloud and talking with Jesus, we’ll go with it.
When he met his sister at the bus stop that afternoon, my boy broke the bad news, “Sissy, Hutch died.”
Gasp! “How did that happen? When did he go?” Clearly, she takes after me because these details matter. Perhaps we should send flowers to the funeral or take food to the bereaved farmers or maybe to the other rabbits in Hutch’s hutch.
“Sissy, Hutch was a very old rabbit and he died in his sleep. I miss him, but he is with Grandpa, now.”
She seemed satisfied with that answer.
Recently, someone asked me why I thought my children were seemingly so comfortable with death, and sadly, I think the answer is pretty obvious—they lost a beloved grandparent just last year and daily, they live with an awareness that they will likely lose another one before too long. They associate death with being old and sickly, and so it’s easy for them to accept that the person—or rabbit–who died is in a better place, a place where they are strong, young and healthy again and in no pain. So far, we’ve been blessed not to lose any of the young people in their lives. That is a completely different matter.
Right now, I believe that Hutch’s death is somehow a comfort to my son. He was only 2 and a half when he lost his grandfather and they were very close. I see and hear him struggling to remember. Sometimes, quite out of the blue, he will remind me “Grandpa had a big belly and he was very strong” or he will play with a toy that Grandpa gave him and say, “THIS is Grandpa’s truck. Grandpa gave me this truck.” Now, he can imagine Grandpa and his favorite rabbit as friends in Heaven. It’s one more image that will stay with him at least for a little while.
In life, Hutch’s purpose was to make people smile. He lived for it. In death, his purpose—at least for one little boy—is to help him remember Grandpa.
Yep, all living things will eventually die. All living things serve a purpose and some continue to serve a purpose in death, too. A dead earthworm in a bird’s stomach or the dried remains of a dead earthworm being picked apart by some other creature serve as much purpose as a living one tilling the soil beneath us. Perhaps rabbits are like that, too.