The Pet Rabbit
My sisters and I had a pet rabbit for a few weeks when we were young. We, or rather our mother, named him Pedro. I always believed that my mother was driven by some abstruse logic in her choice of pet names, which was recognized in our family as her prerogative.
He was a youngster, not nearly fully grown, friendly and cuddly. I don’t remember where we got him. We were very fond of him and we relished the fact that he was ours to care for and to maintain.
One summer day, a Sunday, we killed him.
It was wholly unintentional, but it was our action, or more precisely our inaction, that took his life. Nothing could be more certain.
We left for our grandparents' house, two hours away, for the day and none of the three of us remembered to give him water. It was exceptionally hot that day, and his pen was on our back porch, which heated up well beyond the external temperature on sunny summer days.
When we returned from Grandma and Grandpa's house, we were all quite cheerful. We ran to Pedro's pen to play with him.
He was on his side, shuddering.
In that terrible instant of realization that is the space between happiness and despair, we understood that something was horribly wrong. My mother ascertained the nature of the problem quickly. She got an eyedropper and gave him water. For long minutes, we stood there beside her, hushed in fear and guilt, watching, terrified but not yet completely without hope.
In such moments, when the possibility of two endings presents itself, one heart-rending and the other miraculous, you try to imagine only the miracle. “Please,” you plead, “please, may it come to pass. May he be spared and may I be given another chance to show my compassion. Please. Please.” It is too much to think the worst can be true until there are no other options.
It was too late.
He perished in her hands, the three of us gathered around her, praying desperately that she could work a miracle, and then in utter anguish when the miracle did not come.
And then, our hope extinguished, it began to sank in that we alone were responsible for his suffering and his demise. We had been the agents of the agonizing death by dehydration of this being that we so loved. We did it. We were the authors of his agony.
It was intolerable. We cried inconsolably at the perishing of this little being, gasping and shivering so pathetically, so tiny and so helpless. We had wanted only to love him, and he depended on our love to sustain him, but we failed him and he died.
The radio was on during this awful spectacle. One song I remember playing just as the full dreadful finality was dawning on me. Its lyrics tell a tender love story, but it is now forever a song of death and loss for me. I will not name it because to utter its title instantly resurrects the chorus in my brain, and this causes the anguish of that moment to explode back into my consciousness, instantly, devastatingly.
To this day, nearly five decades on, I am overcome with a deep sense of dread whenever I hear or even think of that song, a feeling of darkness and tragedy that will permit no alleviation. It is tingling faintly as I write this. The finality of the grave is the sole, complete meaning of that music for me. When I hear it, even without hearing it when it manifests inside my head against my will, I am again guilty of the most heinous crime: the lethal failure to give care to a being I claimed to love.
We buried him in the back yard. When it was finished, I placed a flat stone over his grave and knelt at the tiny tomb for what seemed an eternity, hearing the sounds of the world around me and not hearing them, existing in some space just alongside and separate from my previous life, allowing my emotional haze and confusion to magnify to the point that for an instant I thought it possible I might be dreaming it all, and I hoped with all my desperate child’s heart I might awake and find that the unreality of what was occurring would be in a lightning stroke clarified and undone as I stepped out of the choking mist of the nightmare.
I begged God through scalding tears to make him wake. But there was no awakening, and no alleviation of the unbearable culpability and no reversal of the tragedy and the rabbit remained dead in the ground and I stood there, a mere boy, exposed to the judgment of a pitiless world.
In my endless desire to find—or make—unsuspected meaning everywhere, I now see how the name my mother gave this creature should be understood.
Pedro is Peter in Spanish. That tongue and a woman who spoke it as her own and who would one day become my wife waited in my future to shape my life and my dreams.
And Peter was the fisherman called to be a fisher of men, the truest of the disciples, who was so vigilant in protection of what he held dearest that he wielded a sword to prevent evil coming to it. The perfect inverse mirror of my failure in such care as a boy, but a model to which to aspire as I left childhood, and a rock on which was built an edifice of love that sheltered me in my later wandering, in a place far from Pedro’s grave, across the ocean, as I sat weeping not in mourning but joyfully in stone churches built by men dead eight hundred years ago.
All of it there already as a seed, in the naming and fate of a little rabbit, and watered by the disconsolate tears of children who loved him.
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