By Tanya Ward Goodman
I am digging through a giant wire bin filled with stuffed animals – outsized ladybugs with too wide grins tangle limbs with pink kittens, fuzzy green dinos, and a couple of Sponge Bobs with grubby faces. I can hear the buzz of florescent lights, the boop-boop, bing-bing from the animated toys two aisles over. Somewhere a baby cries. I sift through the pile, shoving aside the fluffy poodles and grinning cheeseburgers. I am looking for something. Someone. I feel strangely desperate as if digging through rubble. I seek the familiar grey brown fur and kind dark eyes of Bunny.
Bunny was once just a stuffed rabbit. He was given to my daughter, Sadie, by our babysitter on her sixth birthday. A tag bearing the Toys R Us logo pierced his ear. She squealed with joy and hugged him to her chest and then placed him on the shelf in her room where he sat in the company of dozens of other stuffed animals for months. And then one day, she cried huge tears as we drove away from the house.
“I need Bunny,” she said.
We turned around to retrieve the rabbit and after that, he seldom left her arms. After a few months, in Sadie’s company, Bunny was transformed. His fluffy fur matted. Our dog chewed his ear and I clumsily mended it with black thread and crooked stitches. A trip through the washer scratched thick cataracts into his eyes. His body grew long and slender from being held in the crook of my daughter’s arm. His head bent to one side to make room for her shoulder in sleep. He was beloved.
“Do one or more things with Bunny,” was the last thing Sadie said to me before leaving for school. Every day, she made this request (demand?) and every day she plopped Bunny into my arms. There were some days that I made an attempt to move him from room to room, and other days when I tossed him on the table and forgot all about my promise. There were (and I regret to say this now) a few days when I vented my frustration with my daughter on Bunny. I might have twisted his neck a little. I might have thrown him at a wall. Once, I took him with me all day, photographing him at the bank as I made deposits, at the grocery store riding in my shopping cart and at home I made my lunch and put a carrot on a plate for Bunny. In the afternoon, when Sadie asked what I did with Bunny, I showed her these photos. She looked at them and then looked at me.
“These are a little blurry,” she said.
My daughter is not an easy child. That is not to say she is not easy to love.
For every day, Bunny wore a red ribbon with a small brass bell. For special occasions, he often sported a necklace made of crystal beads. He had a red necktie and a blue velvet coat for snowy days. I sewed him a set of striped pajamas and a tuxedo jacket with tails. While working on this jacket, I burned my arm on the iron. It left an angry red mark that demanded explanation.
“I was ironing the lapels of Bunny’s tuxedo,” I said over and over again in complete seriousness as if I’d been Edith Head working up a suit for Clark Gable. Just an occupational hazard. What I meant to say is that I played my own part in bringing Bunny to life.
On the second to last day of the year, when Bunny was lost, he was wearing a satin ribbon the color of champagne.
It was not until we had gotten off the second airplane and the second bus, and the elevator that we realized Bunny was lost. It was three o’clock in the morning and at the tail end of the holiday season and we all should have been long in our beds. My husband ran up the down escalator to catch the bus.
There were five or six buses. All white. All chartered. All driven in the middle of the night to an airport where we were not originally expected to land.
I held my daughter’s trembling hand and rode the elevator back up to where the buses had been. The first person who helped us was the airport security guard. His name was Henry. We explained the situation and he took careful notes on a small spiral notebook he kept in his breast pocket. He asked us to describe Bunny and I felt uncomfortable referring to him as a stuffed animal in front of Sadie. I tried to delicately describe his bedraggled state while my daughter held back tears.
“He has a very thin waist,” Sadie said.
“I had a bunny once,” Henry said. He paused and looked up from his notebook, staring not into the night of Los Angeles, but perhaps into a night long ago. “I took him everywhere.” He kneeled on the ground before my daughter. “We’ll find your Bunny,” he said.
We drove home through a thick fog. Our fuel gauge was on empty and my husband’s aging parents were in their own tiny car somewhere in front of us or behind us and no one could see a thing. My son fell asleep, but Sadie sat up straight, staring ahead, the tears coming fast and silent.
“It’s going to be okay,” we said.
“It’s not okay,” Sadie said. “He’s scared. He doesn’t know where he is.”
We tucked the children into their beds, assuring Sadie that we would try our hardest to find Bunny. Tears leaked out of her though she was more than half way to sleep. We were bereft. Sadie had made Bunny come to life for us. In one short year, he’d had six birthdays (one on Mother’s Day and one on my own birthday, facts that at the time had made me a little cranky.) Bunny was the manager of “The Nina Vista for Bunnies,” an apartment house Sadie made out of a vacuum cleaner box. He was allergic to milk chocolate and liked to swing on a trapeze Sadie strung from the top railing of our staircase. Everywhere she went, Bunny went too, his body held close under her arm.
“I feel like I’m going to vomit,” my husband said as I was buttoning myself into my pajamas. I started to cry. I couldn’t stop. It was nearly five in the morning and I was sobbing these huge convulsive sobs. We wrapped our arms around each other.
I dreamt of Bunny alone on the bus. I dreamt of his floppy body slumped on the tarmac. I dreamt of my lonely daughter. And I woke two hours later and started to make calls. I called our airline and the airport where we landed and the airport where we were supposed to land. I made notes in a little spiral notebook. I called the baggage counter and the ticket counter and I wracked my tired, tired brain for any clue. When did we have Bunny? When did he leave us? “Somewhere near Salinas, I let him slip away…” The song wouldn’t leave my head.
My daughter woke early with puffy eyes from a night soaked in tears.
“Is Bunny home yet?” she asked.
“We are trying to find him,” I said. I was careful never to say we would find him. I was careful not to say he was coming home for sure.
I lost my Dad once. For nearly twenty-four hours, my father roamed alone on the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was sixty-two, his brain hit hard by what he called “Al’s Hammer.” I couldn’t know for sure if he was coming back. We already had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; we knew there wasn’t a whole lot to hope for. We knew that even if we found him, it was still just a matter of time before we lost him for good.
I told my daughter this story while we pulled weeds from our yard. We found my Dad. My stepmother found him walking up the road as calm as could be. He was returned to us unscathed.
“But then, he died,” Sadie said.
“He did,” I replied. “But think of all the good stories he left to keep me company.”
“This would be more fun if Bunny were here,” Sadie said.
I told another story, one with a more hopeful ending. I told the story of how Sadie’s dad and I spent two years apart. I told her how when I first moved away I never thought I would have a good time again. I missed him so much that nothing was fun. But eventually, I laughed at jokes he did not tell, I enjoyed parties even though I knew he wouldn’t be arriving late.
“But you could talk to him on the phone,” my daughter said. “He came back, right?”
He did come back. I didn’t tell my daughter the story of my college boyfriend and how much I loved him and how many arguments we had and how one day, he got into his Volkswagen beetle and drove away and I never saw him again. I didn’t want to tell her that big loss is inevitable and that sometimes we can prepare for it and sometimes we can’t but no matter what it will often leave us quaking in the dust. I know from experience that eventually, you get up from the ground and you keep moving, but on that day, I wasn’t sure that if I said this she’d understand I was trying to be helpful.
On New Year’s Eve we attempted to be festive. My mother-in-law wore a silver metallic sweater, but her eyes were puffy from crying. She, too, had dreamt of Bunny on the bus, on the tarmac; Bunny alone in the world. Before we lost Bunny, when it was just after Christmas and we were all together on the beach in the sun, my in-laws renewed their vows. They wrote their own ceremony and spoke the words with only their children and grandchildren as witnesses. They have spent over forty years together.
“I only wish there was more time,” my mother-in-law said as she raised a glass and the last of the sunset set her champagne aglow.
Just before the ceremony my father-in-law had needed a chair and the arms of his two sons to help him into the water in his snorkel and flippers. It was slow, awkward going on the sand and in the shallows, but once there was enough water he swam free. We could hear him laugh all the way up on the beach. I only wish there was more time.
Sadie sat at the table, a bottle of sparkling cider at her elbow. She poured herself glass after glass. Drowning her sorrows. Her lower lip quivered. It was a new year, but we were anything but happy.
That night she sat on my lap and cried when it was time to go to bed. “I know Bunny is alive,” she said. “Because one night I heard breathing and it wasn’t mine. And it smelled like carrots.”
On New Year’s day, the second day of his absence, Sadie read a letter to the tenants at the cardboard apartment house known as The Nina Vista that began, “I regret to inform you that Bunny is missing.” She wondered if anyone would know how to work the elevator. She wondered who would bring more litter for Bear’s room.
Bunny was missing. “He doesn’t know where he is,” Sadie said again and again. I began to understand that my confident, beautiful, creative child was still finding her own place in the world. She didn’t know where she was. And when I thought of Sadie on a bus or on the tarmac I was gripped with panic. I cried so much in the first weeks of January. I cried because my daughter was crying and because I felt that I’d let her down. I grieved because I felt I hadn’t protected her from the kind of sorrow that should come later in life. The loss of a beloved shouldn’t come so early. I cried because it was painful to witness this loss and because it was a reminder of all the loved ones that had passed through my own life.
Days went by and I made more and more calls. I filled my notebook with phone numbers and names of bus companies and baggage handlers. I talked to every person who had anything to do with our flight, our landing, our transfer, and our luggage. I talked to the women who worked the ticket counters and the guy who cleaned the airplane. I talked to the man who organized the last minute landing at the wrong airport.
“I had a Bunny,” he admitted. “He’s in the closet. Not that he’s gay. He’s just in storage.”
This kind man drove out onto the tarmac. He walked around and checked the trashcans and the chain link fence. He was so kind that I felt certain there would be good news.
“How you doing?” he asked when I picked up the phone.
“Well,” I said.
“You won’t be,” he replied. He was very sorry. He told me to hug my little girl extra hard.
The officer in charge of the airport Lost and Found department told me he would be testifying in a wrongful death case. He would be out of the office because he’d be in court. I made a sympathetic sound and described Bunny again, but he wasn’t really listening.
“It’s for my wife,” he explained.
He told me how he talked to her on the phone just as he was leaving work. He arrived home and ate dinner alone. He thought she’d stopped to run an errand. He didn’t think anything could be wrong. Not even when he opened the door to find the coroner. Not even when he saw his wife’s driver’s license clipped to the man’s clipboard. It was the first rain. Her car hit the cement divider. She died instantly.
I was choking back sobs when I got off the phone. My husband looked at me like I’d gone crazy.
“I couldn’t make that up,” I said. “The lost and found guy has lost his wife.”
Ten days went by and Bunny was still lost. I kept hoping there would be someone with an eye for details. Someone who would look at the bedraggled lumpy stuffed toy and see the glimmer of satin ribbon, the little necklace made of bright plastic beads and the ear sewn and sewn again. This person would see the small things that added up to a larger beloved whole, but this person did not appear.
Sadie wanted to dye her hair blue. She wanted to look different. I got it. I’ve cut all my hair off on more than one occasion to mark the end of one thing, the beginning of something else.
“I find it affirming,” my husband said. “We are watching her rebuild. She is visibly healing.”
I wanted to agree, but I wasn’t sure. Her visible healing showed too much bone and blood for me to handle. Sadie tried out other stuffed animals. She placed each new candidate under her arm, in Bunny’s old spot, where they were shifted, re-shifted and ultimately rejected. Her empty arm hung like a broken wing.
“What about Celina?” I asked. Celina is a frog in a dress. She was Sadie’s favorite before Bunny arrived and she was sent back to live on the shelf. I figured Celina knew a few things about loss.
“Most stuffed animals,” Sadie said “are fun to take out once or twice. Then they come home and sit on the shelf and tell stories to the other animals about where they’ve been. But a Bunny is family. They go everywhere.”
And so I went to Toys R Us. I felt strange doing it; a little nervous as though I was on a quest for something illicit. I told myself I was only going to see if they had another rabbit. I was doing research that any responsible parent would do. A small child wandered the aisle near me. He was tethered to his parents by a thick black leather belt threaded through the straps of his overalls. They weren’t taking any chances.
And here I am, up to my elbows in plush, searching and searching. A noise comes out of me as I pull a rabbit from the bottom of the bin and the kid on the makeshift leash swerves away. The rabbit is plump and fluffy, his shiny eyes unknowing. I quickly flip through the photos on my phone until I find Bunny in a shopping cart, Bunny at the beach, Bunny eating shave ice. I have hundreds of images of Bunny because he is in every single photo of my daughter taken in the last year. I compare the photo to the plush toy trying hard not to breathe like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo.” The coloring is right. The ears are sewn down, not standing up. Bunny was a lop-eared rabbit. The tag says $10.99. That’s it? He’s cheaply made with crooked seams, probably stuffed with toxins, but he is the right rabbit. I tuck him under my arm and head to the register. Now that I’ve found him, I cannot put him back.
“Thank heavens you had this,” I say to the cashier.
I ramble on about Bunny, how we’re recasting like Darren on “Bewitched.”
The girl raises one thin, penciled brow. She’s not even twenty. She definitely doesn’t get “Bewitched.” She’s was born after they swapped Becky on “Rosanne.”
“Sentimental?” she says.
Having the rabbit in my car is comforting. I look across at him and feel shy and elated. He sits in my purse the way Bunny used to sit in my purse. His gray brown fur makes me feel calmer for the first time in days. I am doing something. I am solving the shit out of the problem. I think of the way that Sadie shared her food with Bunny, giving him bites of pizza, ice cream or broccoli. “This is asparagus, Bunny,” she would say putting the food against his mouth. And then, after a beat, “Good job for trying.”
I imagine what will happen when I get home. This is another rabbit; this is me trying to help you. Good job for trying. I’m not sure how to give the rabbit to Sadie. I want to make it clear that I do not think it is possible to replace Bunny. What I am providing is a rabbit. Because a rabbit is someone you can talk to. But I don’t want to seem pushy. I don’t want it to seem that I’m trying to fix things so that I feel better. If someone had tried to give me a new Dad I would have decked them. I just want to see if this new rabbit will fit comfortably under Sadie’s arm and give her someone to talk to. I want her to be able to share her loss with someone she perceives to be a good listener.
When I arrive home, our babysitter Alicia is waiting. I pull her into the office and open my purse to give her a glimpse of the floppy ears. She immediately gets weepy.
“How are we going to do it?” she asks.
“I think you should do it,” I say because I have no idea how we’re going to do it. “You have my faith and confidence.” Alicia gave Sadie the first rabbit and I think it is better coming from her. From me, it looks like I’m trying to put a Band-Aid on the situation, but from Alicia it’s magical.
Alicia ties her long blonde hair in a knot, adjusts the waist of her skirt and takes a breath. She holds the rabbit for a moment and then tucks it under her arm and heads upstairs to Sadie. I hear their murmured voices and then Alicia comes back down alone. Her eyes are glassy with tears and mine overflow. I realize I’ve been holding my breath.
“I told her it was Bunny’s cousin. He knows Bunny is out of town, but he wonders if he can stay for a while.”
“And how did that go?”
“She wondered if when Bunny came back she could still keep the new rabbit.”
Alicia and I hug a sloppy, weepy hug, and for the millionth time I thank the lucky stars that brought such a kind and kindred spirit into our world. Sadie comes down the stairs. She holds the new rabbit in both hands in front of her.
“This is King Tut,” she announces. She tells us that he can join us at the park, but she will not hold him the way she held Bunny. “Bunny is fierce,” she says. “If he knew I was with King Tut, he might be angry.”
“He would want you to have a friend,” I say. I’m embarrassed by how much I want her to move on and feel better. I feel guilty for selling Bunny out so quickly.
At the park, Sadie leaves King Tut on the cement and goes to play on the slide. He is not allowed on the swing and he cannot play “Skin the Cat,” the way Bunny used to do. So I sit on the steps next to the rabbit and watch my daughter on the swings and the slide and in the sand. She is still sad, I can tell. The sadness weighs her down and holds her dancing toes a little tighter to the earth. Eventually, she returns for King Tut. She holds one paw and then shifts him to the familiar spot under her arm as she begins to climb the ladder to the slide. I can see that her need to be comforted is as great as my own need to comfort her.
I wish I could explain to Sadie that everything she loved about Bunny she gave to him. He was a fluffy lump of nothing until she brought him into existence. He listened because she spoke; her scent became his scent, his body shaped to her own. The rabbit may be missing, but she, my wonderful, imaginative, caring, fierce and loyal girl is still here.
That night, she takes King Tut to bed. He is one lucky rabbit.
Tanya Ward Goodman’s essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, Literary Mama, the “Cup of Comfort” anthology series and TheNextFamily.com. Her memoir “Leaving Tinkertown” will be released by The University of New Mexico Press in August 2013.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.