When I was a tween, somebody brought me six baby bunnies. We didn’t have the word “tween” back then, but I was somewhere between young and old, meaning I was half kid and half bitch. You remember those years? Lasted about three decades?
But this story isn’t about me. It’s about raising babies. From scratch. And whether some people should be parents or not.
When I say “somebody brought me baby bunnies” what that really means is this: some little neighbor kid whispered to my younger brother: “Hey, your sister’s old and smart. Let’s show her this thing we found.” I don’t know WHICH little neighbor kid it was. They all looked alike: buzz cut, bruised knees, shirtless. It was summer, so they’d all been playing outside 16 hours a day. The lesions from their sunburns had almost healed.
This kid, let’s call him “Kevin,” Kevin peeked his dirty face into my bedroom door one morning. He was terrified of my maturity, but he was made brave by the five or six clones who shadowed him, a comet trail of identical Kevins fidgeting behind him in the hallway. Kevin and his column of Kevins had justification for their terror. My sister and I were deep inside a discussion about the relative comedic value of Bugs Bunny versus Daffy Duck when we were interrupted. And, according to Kevin, it was rabbit season.
The words tumbled out of him fast like he’d been saving them up.
“There’s a pile of baby bunnies. The mother is dead. She got hit by a car. You should come quick.” Then Kevin scratched his ear with his hind foot.
The old-bitch in me scowled at the audacity of this intrusion, but the young-kid in me was desperately curious. The kid won. I got up and put shoes on.
Kevin and his trail of Kevins led me down a dirt road that sliced through woods on each side. The main Kevin pointed to a mangled place in the grass. He veered right and parted the reeds. Under the weeds was a cluster of baby bunnies.
“Well, shit,” I declared wisely. Six Kevins tried not to giggle.
The bunnies were tiny – walnuts with ears. There were six of them huddled together in a grass bowl. They were covered with what I determined to be rabbit fur (I was so wise!). Their eyes were open, but just barely. It was a snugly armload of cute. Or tragedy. Depending.
“Where’s the mother?” I asked, scanning the deserted road.
Five of the Kevins shrugged. The main Kevin pointed vaguely along the length of ditch into the sunlight. We both squinted.
“Did you actually SEE her?” Six Kevins shook their heads and stared at the ground.
My first great act of wisdom was deciding whether or not to assume the mother was gone forever. My second great act of wisdom was how to get the bunnies back to my house. (I ignored the first act. OF COURSE I was going to take them home. LOOK AT THEM! The bunnies were incalculably hypnotic. They were an abundance of “aw.” I was as helpless as if the Kevins had found gold.)
I picked up one baby. It was warm and wiggly and bumpy with young bones. The bunny did not squeal exactly, but it did peep. If the mother was nearby, she should have been able to hear this. I scanned the ditch.
I made the impossible declaration that these babies were orphans.
I assigned each Kevin the privilege of carrying one bunny back to my house. The Kevins did not squeal exactly, but they did peep. (For the rest of their lives these men-not-boys would tell the story of this important task, of their volunteerism to “help that older girl down the street,” without ever once mentioning how their young faces gushed with tenderness the moment they palmed a baby bunny.) I led the parade home and sent the Kevins on their way.
Good grief, now what. What do you DO with a pile of baby bunnies??
Google was a thousand years in the future. The only way we could “look things up” was to ask a parent or to go to the library (although I had no idea what you did once you GOT to the library. Ask another parent?) Our family owned a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas, but the only thing I ever studied in those heavy books were the color overlays of human anatomy. (Is that a nipple??)
I clicked in my head through snippets of knowledge gleaned from years of watching wildlife documentaries. Aha! All I needed was an eyedropper and some milk. There were four Waugh kids and at least six Kevins at our house. We always had milk. And the eyedropper? My father had five junk drawers labeled “miscellaneous.” I had faith. These babies would live!
I filled up a glass with milk and carried it to the make-shift “pen” (a cardboard box lined with a towel pilfered from the “rag bag”). I sucked milk up into the eyedropper and lowered the tip to one bunny’s mouth. I squirted the milk. It went everywhere. It went up the bunny’s nose. It dripped on his ears. Milk flew onto the fur of every bunny in the box. They writhed at my ineptitude for mothering. I realized that the milk was cold and likely unpleasant. (Are you in, genius?)
Back upstairs. I slammed the glass of milk into the microwave. (We may not have had internet yet, but we had a prehistoric microwave that ran on gerbils.) I heated the milk to “wrist temperature” and headed back downstairs. This time I was careful. Each bunny licked the end of the eyedropper with his adorable pink tongue like it was mother’s milk. From a cow.
The bunnies were ravenous. One drop, another drop, six drops. Back to the beginning of the line. The bunnies started climbing over each other. I couldn’t get to each mouth fast enough. This was taking too long.
Wait a second… GRASS!! Bunnies eat grass! Deep in my compendium of wildlife facts I remembered that rabbits as a species were particularly precocious. They “grew up” fast. Maybe I could supplement their diet with grass!!
I raced outside. I ran around plucking different kinds of grass from the edge of the house: long grass, short grass, fat grass, thin grass. Some of each! They shall want for nothing!
I baled my little harvest into a fat tuft and dropped it into the bunny box. They loved it! The bunnies gnawed mouthfuls of grass. Long, short, fat, thin. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw. A bunny eats grass long ways, sucking it up like a Disney dog eating spaghetti. Unless they’re starving, in which case they eat grass in every direction, like a real dog eating spaghetti. Like maybe Shrek.
They ate their fill and got sleepy, as all babies do. By now it was full dark. I left a few strands of grass in the box so they could snack during the night. I put a lid on their cardboard home and made myself a sandwich, satisfied. I went to bed, worn out from feedings.
I got up the second day to find the six babies making starving sounds, peeping, scrabbling, and crawling on top of each other. Every single morsel of grass was gone. I went outside and plucked up more grass, long, short, fat, thin. I dropped it in the box. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw. Repeat. Bunnies eat a lot! I abandoned the eyedropper altogether figuring that what they really needed to grow strong was more grass. Pluck, toss, gnaw. Bedtime. Exhaustion.
I woke up the third day and found five of the bunnies making starving sounds. The sixth bunny was jittering back and forth. His whole body was shaking. The sixth bunny would not eat. I fed the five. Pluck, gnaw, bedtime.
I got up the fourth day to find two bunnies making starving noises, three bunnies shaking uncontrollably, and one bunny dead.
On the fifth day, four bunnies were dead and two were on their sides, jittering, dying.
“Well, shit.” Nobody giggled.
Here’s what you don’t know, and what had just occurred to me: I had just poisoned six baby bunnies. I didn’t mean to. I was just doing my job.
My “job” as a tween in the 1970s was to rid our home of ants. Ants were allowed to live outside the house, but not in. This was a reasonable détente that the ants unfortunately never agreed to. Our house was next to an enormous woods and we ate cereal, therefore we had ants. The way we kept ants out of our Cap’n Crunch was to spray the perimeter of the house with a chemical called “chlordane.” You sprayed this toxin on the seams around the outside of your house. You know… where the grass grows long? Short, fat, thin? Chlordane would kill the ants by disrupting their nervous systems. I guess by now you can connect the dots, or in this case, the baby bunnies. All the way to their communal grave in the woods.
And when I say that YOU sprayed the perimeter, I mean, of course, that I sprayed the perimeter. With nerve toxin. Me. That was my job. And it worked. Really, really well.
It was sad. It was horrifying. It was avoidable. Except that it wasn’t. If the mother rabbit hadn’t disappeared, if the Kevins hadn’t found the nest, if my father had not owned an eyedropper, if stupid ants didn’t try to invade our stupid Crunch Berries. If the bunny hadn’t stopped to bark at the moon.
“Survival of the fittest” dictates that two of the babies would have been eaten by hawks, two would have been ravaged by feral cats, and one would have been hit by a car and then pecked to shreds by a vulture. Nature is miserable, man. I knew that. I’d seen the encyclopedias.
But I’m not nature. And it shouldn’t have been me killing bunnies.
Then I realized that, yes, I was absolutely nature.
Bugs Bunny and bowls of cereal are part of the circle of life. Ants, grass, Kevins, and baby rabbits. The circle of life includes a circle of grief, and sometimes the circle shakes apart. It just does, and sometimes you’re the one holding the snow globe. It is Duck Season and it is Rabbit Season. Both. Always.
I am wrapped around a body pillow. Tweak leaps onto my back from what feels like the top of a cliff.
Tweak: “WHY ARE YOU STILL IN BED?!?”
Her cannonball knocks the air out of my lungs. My eyes pop open. The clock is a Stephen King clown.
Me: “Good grief, Tweak. It’s only 6:08. I’ve slept for eight extra minutes.”
Tweak: “Do you know how much damage I can do in eight minutes?”
Me: “To what – your sleep study?”
Tweak chews my hair.
Me: “Besides, it’s my day off.”
Tweak: “Off?? As opposed to…?”
I roll over, not gently. Tweak’s claws are still hooked to the quilt and she plops sideways on the mattress like a balloon full of potato salad.
I chortle before I can stop myself and she extracts vengeance by raking a claw down my back.
Tweak: “We. Don’t. Chortle.”
She rearranges her dignity and sits beside me, curling her feet under herself like a breakfast loaf.
Tweak: “So, what are you doing on your day off?”
Me: “I’m not sure yet. What do YOU usually do?”
Tweak: “HAHA!! Good one.”
I reach for my phone on the night stand and pull up a list called “Things to Do When I Have Eight Damn Minutes.” The last item is: “Don’t take any more shit.” I close the phone and set it on the pillow next to me. Tweak crawls on top of it.
Tweak: “I’m on the list. HAHA!”
I roll my eyes so hard they rattle. The commotion summons a ruiner.
Bowie bursts into the room, the Kramer of dogs.
Bowie: “Hey! You guys having fun in here without me?”
Bowie-dog’s happy tongue smiles and she paws the pillow, a kind of dog fist-bump. Tweak dives off and digs a nail into my thigh. My phone crashes to the floor.
Tweak is asleep on a tuffet. Well, she WAS asleep. Now she has one eye closed and one eye open, and the one eye that’s open is kind of pissed off. Probably because I just hit it with a stuffed mouse.
Me: “It’s a gift.”
I didn’t MEAN to hit her in the eye. I meant to hit her in the belly.
Tweak: “A gift from who?”
Not the belly. The head. I kind of wanted to belt her in the head.
Me: “From WHOM, Tweak. From WHOM.”
I’m still sort of mad at her for hiding during my party.
Tweak: “Who bit you in the grammar ass?”
Me: “Where did you go all day? I had people here. They all wanted to meet Tweak the Oracle Cat.”
Tweak: “I warned you. I’m not comfortable in large groups.”
Me: “Half of them think I made you up!”
Me: “You are a lot of things, Tweak, but you are not FAKE. You’re here, right HERE, taking your third nap. You are the Jojo of Who-ville. You. Are. Here.”
Tweak: “I’m not special.”
Me: “You’re short-bus special.”
Tweak: “I could stand to lose a few pounds.”
Me: “You could stand to gain a few followers.”
Tweak: “And I’m kind of a pain in the…”
Me: “RABBIT SEASON.”
Tweak: “DUCK SEASON!”
We share a brief, affectionate death-stare, then we both glance down at the stuffed mouse. I pick it up again. The mouse is heavy for its size, collapsing into the palm of my hand like a testicle. Above its pointy cloth nose are two bobbly eyes, and its body is covered with jagged-y “fur” made of looped brown yarn. It’s an absurd rug nugget.
Me: “It’s chock full of crack-nip.”
I drop the mouse-ticle. It plops to the carpet, a jaunty bean bag. Tweak hops down from her tuffet and sniffs.
Me: “You’re kidding.”
Tweak: “What?” This time, it’s a question.
Me: “You’re not gonna roll around like a meth head then twist up a fatty to calm down??”
Tweak: “Are you high?”
I stomp to my computer, finally doubting her existence. I type in Google: “Are there actually cats who don’t respond to catnip, or is Tweak just a lying whore?” Google smacks me down. It turns out there ARE such animals. Not common, but real.
I turn to Tweak. She is back up on her tuffet cleaning mouse-ticle fuzz off her nose.
Me: “Cats who really love their mothers have chemical reactions to kitty dope, you know. For the internet.”
She attacks a throw rug, biting the corners and folding it like an origami swan. Or a Tasmanian devil.
Tweak: “You said he was bringing The Girlfriend that feeds me ice cream!”
Tweak races up the couch at a diagonal, hurdles over a chair, and dives onto her tower of blankets. She punishes the top fleece by whipping it to the floor and then stomping the life out of it. It’s the Parkour of the Pissed Off.
Tweak: “I need that girl’s lap. I knead that girl’s lap.”
She’s chanting now, abusing homophones.
She leaps up into my lap, even though it’s obviously inadequate, and stabs a claw through my thigh, whisper-breathing into my face.
Tweak: “Where. Are. They.” It is not a question. Her assassin’s breath is hot and serious.
Me: “Calm down, Tweak.”
She inhales, making the attempt. She exhales, hissing, failing.
Tweak: “I am calm.”
She stabs three or four peaceful shivs into my leg to prove it.
Me: “Tweak, The Boy got on an airplane in Florida last night, and the plane flew him to Chicago. The plane stopped flying because of something called ‘weather’ and they made The Boy get out.”
Tweak: “Did you sick bastards evolve thumbs just to torture me?”
Me: “The Boy had to spend the night there.”
Tweak: “They eat people in Chicago!”
Me: “He’s wiry. He will not be first choice in the Cannibal Scramble.”
Tweak: “He needs to hurry up so he can pet me.”
She deflates. All of Tweak’s rage melts into my lap, my lap that is imperfect but convenient.
Tweak: “I miss him.”
I stroke a finger over her forehead.
Me: “He will be here tomorrow before you finish your second breakfast.”
I step into the sunshine to look for the old woman. Company is coming and nothing says “I love you guys” like a smelly dog.
I scan the backyard. Bowie-dog is hiding under a hedge. She loves a bath the way I love a rectal exam.
Me: “I know it’s not your favorite thing, but a bath will keep you from The Cancer. From the Cancer of Offending Friends. From the Offriending.”
And because she’s a very good dog, and because she will do almost anything to keep me from making up words, she drags herself out from under the bush, voicing her protest with an exhalation of long-suffering. She may be old, but she sighs like a teenager being prepped for braces. Or slaughter.
Me: “Go. Get in the bath.”
Bowie-dog hangs her head low and shuffles down the hall to the torture chamber. Tweak watches this death march from atop her tower of blankets. Tweak licks a paw and scrubs it over her face, mocking.
Tweak: “Your mother was a honey badger.”
Bowie: “Your father dripped down my leg.”
Tweak: “That’s why you need a bath. Because licking yourself would be incest.”
Me: “Oh my god… STOP IT, YOU TWO!! This is a time of cleansing!”
Bowie-dog dutifully climbs into the tub and I soak her with warm water. I lather her thick black fur with shampoo. Her ears are resigned to dying and she tastes the air like it contains Zyklon B.
Me: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, old woman, it’s just a BATH.”
Bowie: “It’s just a colonoscopy.”
I rinse off the soap and towel-dry her feet and head. I leave the bulk of her heavy wet coat for the sun to evaporate.
I release her from Guantanamo, and Bowie-dog beelines for the back door. But not before Tweak paints a target on herself.
Tweak: “You know… cats don’t need baths.”
Bowie locks and loads, steps deliberately in front of Tweak, and shakes 40 gallons of intolerance onto her throne.