In the Target checkout line, I had a long, hard think.
This does not often happen to me in Target, where my inner monologue tends to run like this: “Meow, meow, meow … holy-God-someone-shut-that-kid-up-no-you-shut-up-judgey-mcjudger-you-don’t-know-their-story-meow, meow, meow…”
But as I watched the laundry detergent I had come for roll down the conveyer belt along with the $40 worth of crap I didn’t mean to buy, I thought things over.
My biggest resistance to allowing our rabbit, Buttercup, to have babies was the fear that something bad would happen to the babies.
I mean, it’s all well and great in theory, cute baby bunnies hopping around the house, amusing the children. But so many things could go wrong. Stillbirths. Infection. Malnutrition. Our adorable-if-predatory-cat. (Family member? Afternoon snack? — Lines are blurry.)
In spite of it all, we let Buttercup try again, and as the 29th day neared, watched for impending labor, which the farmer had told us involved the rabbit going insane.
Last night, she kind of had: she ripped fur from her chest and stuffed her mouth with straw. I wanted to check on her, boil water or chant or something, but was paralyzed into inaction by the farmer’s parting words to us, “Don’t startle her or she might eat the babies.”
In humans, the desire to eat our young sets in in their teen years, but I guess rabbits are just advanced in this way.
Whatever, I did the only sensible thing and went to bed.
In the morning I darted down to the cage before the kids. Buttercup was passed out asleep, the fur she had piled in the corner empty.
So I went to Target.
As I paid for the detergent and super-hip copper mugs I’d be returning later, I thought … you know, the mornings after I gave birth, I was pretty tired, too.
Put off doing a thing twice and the third time you go to do it, something will come up that is an infinitely better reason to postpone than the other two reasons were.
Not that there is ever a great time to line up three kids for flu shots.
Mary, having recently watched a c-section in its entirety on YouTube without barfing, has decided to be a doctor. So she’s got lots of questions for the flu clinic nurse.
“Does the vaccine contain a bit of the virus?” Mary asks.
“No,” the nurse answers. “Live vaccines do. This one is attenuated — it contains DNA for the flu virus, but not the virus itself. So it doesn’t make you sick, it just gives your body the code it needs to kill the disease.”
“That’s amazing,” Mary says. “Like, really amazing.”
“Yes,” the nurse nods. “It is really amazing. About a tablespoon of liquid that will protect you from a disease that has killed millions of people.”
“I’m totally going to be a doctor,” Mary says, offering her arm.
The shots go quickly — the nurse is fast and funny and she gives the kids Minion Band-aids afterward, engaging them in a lively debate over which Minion is which.
“Okay,” I tell them. “You guys go out and get your lollipops and wait for me.”
“Aw! We want to watch you get your shot!”
“No,” I say. The truth is, I’m not great with shots. I usually set the example and act all cool, but I can’t today.
Today I kind of think I might faint, and the nurse sees it instantly, shoos the kids out, lowers the table with a hand on my arm.
“I’m ok,” I say.
Four pregnancies, three babies, the children with their viruses and broken bones … how many exam tables, how many pocked white-square ceilings?
I really hate it when tears fall into my ears.
That could be a fantastically awful song lyric.
Tears in my ears. Swishing like sorrow or pool chlorine tra-la tra-la …
The nurse has taken advantage of this awkward pause to ready my syringe. She is brandishing it at me, sees my face, stops.
“So what’s up, Mama?” she asks.
“My friend died of cancer,” I manage. “This morning.”
The nurse hugs me — fiercely, and it’s so weird, this lying-down embrace with a woman, a stranger, but I cling to her and a sob rips out of me.
“She was beautiful,” I say. “And I know people say that when people die, but she was so damn beautiful.”
“God forgive me,” the nurse whispers into my soggy ear, “but I swear He leaves us the assholes.”
We laugh-sob, she brushes wet hair from my cheek and then puts the needle into my arm.
I got a Minion band-aid. Bob, I think.
In the Target parking lot, I Google.
Websites from farming colleges: it is a total myth about not touching babies or the nest. If the rabbit knows you, she’s not going to mind/commit bunny slaughter. Just give her a treat so she’s not jealous.
Back at home, I give Buttercup a chunk of apple. I stroke her back and scratch her ears. Then, oh-so-carefully, I bring my hand to the pile of fur, which turns out not to be a pile, but a very soft, deep nest, at the bottom of which two silky, newly-crafted bodies breathe.
On Facebook, we grieve. Oh her wit. Her generosity. With people. With life.
On the ride to the hospital, she had talked about what a beautiful fall day it was. How blue and crisp and filled with color and how happy she was to get to see it.
That last day, she had lived.
Buttercup’s chest is bare from where she ripped out the fur to make the nest. The babies easily find her milk. The kids marvel at how all the pieces fit together, the fur and the nest and the bared skin, and how Buttercup just knew how to do it all.
Her babies are sleeping with fat tummies, the fur she has tucked around them rising and falling with their breaths.
Life’s longing for itself.