I am Joe Black: On Life and Death and The Practice of Kindness
My distant neighbor Molly complains that the bunnies in her yard eat her stuff–crops, flowers and ornamental plants, but at our house, the rabbits eat dandelion stalks and leaves almost exclusively. I’m down with that.
It think it’s because her husband Dave grooms their lawn so scrupulously that the rabbits don’t have access to good healthy stands of common weeds, like they do at our place, so they eat his wife’s plants.
My old man does not groom the lawn.
He mows and chops and drags and digs and does all manner of fossil fueled mechanical processes, generally of a destructive or reductive nature, but no, he does not groom.
So we have dandelions and lots of them. Acres of them.
But I won’t let him spray herbicides on them because we are organic here and I won’t let him mow them when the bees are working either.
I never said I was easy to live with. But the birds, bees and bunnies are, so he concedes.
Not surprisingly, the dandelions generally get ahead of us and turn to fluffy white seed heads before we mow them and isn’t Mom Nature the mother of intelligent design because just when the dandelion seeds are bone dry, she whips up the wind a little to help spread them throughout the good Earth, or at least my little corner of it, so I never have to worry about next years crop of weeds.
It’s a beautiful thing for the bunnies, which were prolific this summer. We spent a lot of time watching them enjoying the bounty of our weedy lot.
There was one little bunny in particular we grew especially fond of.
He was teeny tiny when we first noticed him in the yard. He looked too young to be out of the nest. I could have held him in the palm of my hand and don’t think I didn’t want to because I seriously ached to do so.
I immediately felt protective of him and worried about the ravens, owls and hawks that frequent the neighborhood, and sometimes our yard. Occasionally he would be out in the company of one or two bigger rabbits, but he was usually on his own, which made me wonder what kind of derelicts his parents must be. I kept a wary eye on the trees for predators and would have wrestled him from the talons of an eagle if I had to.
For several weeks he came in and out of the bird thicket adjacent to our back deck, which is a small naturalized area of native plants–salal, Indian plum, huckleberry and elder berry–that provides food and cover for birds of all kinds, but it was kind of quiet this summer due to the drought.
One day when my sister-in-law was visiting we sat out on the deck and watched him nibble his lunch below us and then retreat into the shade of the thicket for a little nap. How sweet is that? Of course I loved him fiercely!
A day or two later I stepped out on the deck to the obnoxious screeching of blue jays in the bird thicket. I ran at them and shooed them away. I didn’t see the bunny or anything else in or around the thicket, but I know they act that way when the feral cat is about, or the owl.
Later I caught a glimpse of the bunny running under the deck and into the front yard. Linda and I moved to the front porch and watched him sitting motionless beneath a patch of oregano for the longest time.
He was still there a while later so I sat on the porch again, watching him watch me. Eventually he took a few cautious steps towards me, looking right at me, which was odd, so I took a moment to scrutinize him. That was when I noticed the wound on his hind leg. It looked bad. My heart sank.
We managed to catch him and bring him inside, cradled in a towel, to examine the leg. The flesh was stripped clean exposing the bones and he had a couple of puncture wounds on his ribs. in spite of his famously weak stomach, Glenn held the cradled bunny while I tried to clean the wounds with a syringe of warm water. God I love my old man.
I applied some antibiotic cream and wrapped the leg with gauze bandages, but the wound was profound. We made him a little den of soft towels and grass in a box in the bathtub and left him to rest while I tried to contact an animal rescue for advice.
Twenty minutes later when I went back into the bathroom to check on him, he was stretched out on his side in the box, as if trying to reach the the pile of grass in the corner. He was in distress. I stroked his fur and talked to him gently, hoping to comfort him. His breaths seemed so shallow and he whimpered a couple of times as I petted him. Moments later, he went altogether still and his soft brown eye went glassy.
I have tried to save wounded birds, butterflies, broken dogs abandoned on the road, and now, a baby bunny, without much success. Other animal lovers I know have shared tales of reviving birds and saving baby squirrels and other wildlife, but for me, it just seems to end badly. And I so want to help them.
I contemplated this as I buried the bunny in the yard. My friend Teresa once told me I was a helper, because I often came across animals in distress and even people and tried to intervene and help, but I’m beginning to feel more like Joe Black.
Maybe I am a helper of a different kind. Maybe I am a helper that walks with you through the shadows. Like Joe Black.
Maybe I shouldn’t say that out loud. I could lose a lot of friends.
Death is something we all have in common and yet we rarely discuss it in this life. I think that could make the dying person a lonely person. I know from the testimony of a friend who lost her daughter that it can make a person grieving over the death of a loved one very lonely.
Last Spring I was approached by a tiny injured wren as I worked outside, just like the bunny. And like the bunny, I tried to make him comfortable. I placed him in a box in the warm greenhouse, filled with grass and birdseed and water. I hoped I could save him, but I couldn’t.
You can’t change your calling, even if it sucks and is kind of morbid. If I am meant to be a helper that walks through the shadows with the dying or stands in the shadows that death casts on grieving loved ones, so be it.
I have sat with three dying dogs and two dying parents, a handful of birds, and a baby bunny. Every one of them represented a loss to this heart, in varying degrees.
No one can spare the dying from that last lonely walk or lighten the shadows their leaving casts over the survivors, but we can offer companionship, a quiet place to retreat to, a listening ear and soft words. We can attempt to mitigate the loneliness.
We can try to rescue injured bunnies, broken birds and shredded butterflies and practice kindness towards the Earth also.
Which brings to mind the words of a song by Jewel:
In the end, only kindness matters.
Amen and Amen