Last week my wife came up to me after she arrived home from work.
“Zeus has left us.”
Zeus was one of my daughter’s rabbits. She has had a procession of rabbits in her life since she was about six years old. A friend had given our daughter a female Rex and sometime later we decided to get a male rabbit (neutered) for bunny companionship. Thus began a series of male/female companion rabbits that have spanned the years. The older female died, then she was replaced with a younger female. Later the male died and was also replaced. This rabbit pair has had many overlapping incarnations since that first root couple in the years-ago past.
Every death has been met with its own grief, an ongoing practice of loss. Loss is a difficult thing to understand, especially for a child. Ching Man Ching in his treatise on T'ai Chi Chuan counsels, "Learn to invest in loss. Who is willing to do this? To invest in loss is to permit others to attack while you don't use even the slightest force to defend yourself. On the contrary, you lead the opponent's force away so that it is useless. Then when you counter, any opponent will be thrown out a great distance." In my daughter’s practice of loss with her pets, she has loved, lost, grieved, loved again. She is a strong and resilient young adult for her learned practice of loss.
I dug a hole in the backyard beneath a Japanese maple where we could bury Zeus. He had been with us the longest of any of the rabbits. As a young rabbit he had been full of himself, taunting us to catch him and put him back into the cage at night where he could be kept safe from the predations of the raccoons and possums. As an old rabbit he delighted in eating peanuts and fresh veggies from our hands, then waited for his head to be scratched and stroked. I removed him from the towel shroud in which we had wrapped him, then placed him fetus-like in the hole. Barbara placed a few roses from the front yard along with a few fresh sprigs of basil within the cup formed by the fetal-arced corpse. Fresh basil is a rabbit’s delight.
Tears came to my eyes as we paid our last respects, for the last sight of Zeus conjured up many memories. Rabbits are the cannon fodder of the animal world, surviving only by their fecundity. Why would the sight of one rabbit bring tears to my eyes? He had become a symbol. Just looking at his empty shell brought up full memories of our family and our life together. I had come into this family when my daughter was five years old, so this bunny history spanned nearly all of our time together. I remembered consoling our daughter through her times of loss and helping her celebrate her triumphs. She hasn’t lived at home for four years now as she has been off at college and has just graduated with many honors.
So, the body of Zeus has a great power to conjure up all these memories. Thinking of him can lift me from a depression because of the power of memory and gratitude. The rabbit is still a rabbit, though, with no meaning outside our little family, with no power apart from us to heal the blues or provide comfort. Symbols can provide a doorway to the deepest place or to the infinite nameless force, but symbols are not, and cannot be, the deepest place or the infinite force. You will have your own version of Zeus. In our tears we covered the body, but kept the symbol alive.
The next morning we looked out into the backyard. A skunk was standing by the gravesite. I then noticed a patch of downy hair scattered on the ground. A raccoon had probably dug into the grave and now the skunk was looking for something to scavenge. We found the bones of a leg, but the rest of the body was still in the hole. We matter-of-factly covered the hole with dirt once more, then placed a board and one of Barbara’s sculptures over Zeus’ fragmented remains. The body is scattered and digested but the symbol, the memory, remains whole. The practice of loss. When the memory wanes, life will bring more symbols as doorways.