Before I write my column for the newspaper, I give myself a “heads up” that I need an idea. Then, I start the laundry, clean the bathrooms, cook dinner and do yoga while I wait for the inspiration. I expect the idea to come barreling in — hitting me over the head with a ton of bricks. But it rarely does. Usually it’s a whisper; I whisper that I push aside. The idea grows, and it starts to integrate itself into the laundry, the bathroom, the dinner and the yoga; until it is those things. At this point, the idea is pounding in my head in complete sentences, and there is no other choice but to write about this whisper that now has a megaphone blasting through my mind.
So, this month, the story of Brownie, the school bunny that met her demise in our home, can creeping in like a whisper. I gave the story the wings it wanted, and sent the article off over a week ago. Only yesterday did it dawn on me that perhaps writing a story that shows up during the Holy Week about a bunny was probably quite brilliant. But writing about a bunny that dies? What was I thinking? My embarrassment overwhelmed me. Why didn’t I make the connection?
Thank you to all of you who are stopping me in the stores, the street and at the school to thank me for the story. Because, the truth is, giving kids the honor of telling them the truth about death makes them feel like the important people they really are. That’s a story for any season. Thank you to all those people out there who helped me see this.
Here’s the column:
We carried Brownie out of the elementary school building on a Friday, while she snuggled among the newspaper clippings in the bottom of her cage. The halls were filled with well-wishers, saying “Bye Brownie,” veteran hosts, who promised, “Brownie is lots of fun.” So many people knew Brownie, that I wondered if maybe the bunny had already visited at least half of the families in the school with children grades 3 and up.
Brownie’s care package included a scrapbook, including photos and notes from previous sleepovers; a care instruction book; and a supply of food. Bunnies like to chew everything from electrical wires to shoes, I learned, so it would be best to keep her contained when she’s not being held. She also arrived with her own portable outdoor fence, and when the kids pleaded to take Brownie outside, I had a panic vision of myself chasing the bunny up and down the streets. By Sunday morning, I feared, we’d be at Kinko’s making “Wanted” posters with Brownie’s face (scanned from the scrapbook) plastered on the top, and my phone number below.
Alas, a bunny chase was not to be my fate for the weekend. Things started out well – Brownie was rotated from lap to lap, in 15-minute increments during the Saturday morning cartoon ritual. Carrots were pulled from the refrigerator for “special snacks.” By Saturday night, Brownie, like me, seemed tired from all the excitement of living in a house full of boys.
When I tucked my 3rd grader into bed that night, a tear dropped out of his eye. He wasn’t ready for Sunday, he wasn’t ready for Monday, and certainly wasn’t ready to send Brownie back to school. “Lucky for you,” I said. “We’re on the schedule again in two more weeks.” I left him with a smile on his face, and eyes that were finally closing.
Alone in the living room, I heard a crash. Brownie was doing back flips, forcefully enough to make the cage jump a few inches across the floor. Her acrobatics lasted less than a minute before the silence came… the stillness… the missing breaths… the lost heartbeat. Betsy O’Brochta, Brownie’s “mom” drove over as soon as she hung up the phone. As hard as those moments were for her, she was thinking just as quickly as me about what we could tell the kids to “ease their pain.” “Maybe,” we said, “Brownie wasn’t feeling well. So we called the vet, and Brownie died there?” Maybe.
Now I finally had the exception to that cardinal rule at First Community Church Preschool, “always tell children the truth.” Could I tell this story with the conviction I needed? The idea of shielding him from the pain was as comforting as pulling the blankets around him to tuck him in. Yet, it left me feeling uneasy. I sent an email that night to Holly Cavallaro, a teacher at FCC, saying, “Just to spare my son’s feelings, I’m burying the truth.” Her response surprised me; yet made the entire event crystal clear. “You’ll be telling this story for years,” she explained. “If you don’t tell him the truth, you’ll always have to change the story when he’s around. Eventually, he’ll learn this from someone else. He’ll be hurt again.” Why not say, “Isn’t it nice that Brownie felt safe enough to spend his last day with people who really loved her?”