Growing up with a mother who was an animal lover and a father who thought the only proper place for an animal was inside his stomach, has created some interesting memories in my life as a child. It’s taught me how to love, but also how to say goodbye.
I was the most ecstatic and awkward nine-year-old ever when my mom brought home a new dog. And then I learned to accept that life moves on when my father recognized that it was too much of a financial burden on our family. This trend continued through our lives. Cats come in, cats go out. Ferrets come in, ferrets go out. Birds come in, birds go out. It wasn’t until a rabbit was brought into our lives that something changed. When it came to that time—time for him to go—I had an idea. In school, our class hamster had just died. We were in desperate need of a new pet. Perfect solution: my bunny Brownie would become the new class pet! Dad was tired of him, mom was onto another pet plan, he’d bring joy to my classmates, and I could see Brownie every single day! Ideal.
So began my fascination with rabbits, a lifelong love that would even lead me to write a book about one.
In college, we couldn’t have any pets. But we snuck in a floppy-eared rabbit simply called “Bunny.” He hated his cage. He was potty trained. And he slept in bed with me every night (see also: chewed up my blankets and pillowcases while I was conked out). He was our dear mascot.
During adulthood, my husband and I adopted a rabbit. We named her Eema. She was black and white. She was our baby. It was also around this time that I learned of the horrific jackrabbit drives of the Dust Bowl. My realization of this dark period in history occurred during my children’s literature class at Rosemont College. We were studying the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, and the scene where the jackrabbits are brutally bashed astonished me. It did not astonish everyone—many students in the class had already known about jackrabbit drives from learning of them in school; mainly those who grew up in the Midwest. Us east coast misfits were uninitiated.
I had never known that around 35,000 jackrabbits were massacred in an attempt to stop the plague of nearly eight million jackrabbits, nicknamed “Hoover Hogs” that swept across Kansas counties during the 1930s. I learned that children took part in the beatings too. Can you imagine being so hungry and desperate that you gather your children to literally club animals to death? I wondered how this would have been explained to kids.
I started writing The Dust Bunnies, a middle grade novel set in this time period, which touches on issues of hunger, poverty, and yes, the jackrabbit drives. My inspiration came from discovering the realities of these lethal drives. It also came from my connection to Eema the rabbit.
Shortly afterwards, Eema became fatally ill. I came home one day to find her laying on her belly, blood beneath her. I drove her to the emergency room only to learn she had cancer and wasn’t going to make it.
Also around this time, I learned that my younger sister with Down syndrome had also fallen ill.
I was back and forth, from the hospital to the vet, praying for both of my loved ones. With my sister, I stayed overnight, researching ways to help her. Meanwhile, the vet called me to tell me the very slim chances of Eema’s survival. I needed to say goodbye. I should’ve been used to this, right? But I sobbed into the phone. I know now that I was transferring my sadness for my sister onto Eema. The two merged in my mind. I was low. Very low. I needed to find a way to stay sane.
I continued writing The Dust Bunnies as a way to deal with the pain. My main character Dill, a scared little jackrabbit who so desires to be brave, became my sister and Eema rolled into one. He was going on a journey, he was sick, and he needed to be saved. As the writer of the story, I needed to save him just as I needed to save my sister and Eema. Perhaps if I could control his destiny, his journey to health, I could somehow, magically, rescue my sister and Eema. I wrote with a vigor that can only come about by extreme hope and fear combined.
The vet called me up. Eema wasn’t going to make it.
Unless…I was prepared to let her have a blood transfusion. It was a fifty/fifty survival rate.
For all the times I learned to say goodbye to pets, I was not prepared for this one. With both Eema and my sister bed-ridden at hospitals, the emotional pressure pounded on my chest. In normal world, my energies should have only been concentrated on my sister. But in emotional-stress-world, I was confused. Eema started to represent my sister. How could I refuse a blood transfusion? What if I said no? Would I be saying no to my sister? Of course she needs the blood transfusion! Please! That night I added another chapter to The Dust Bunnies, just as I had throughout this entire painful process.
The next day, the vet called me. Eema survived.
And three years later, my sister is healthy.
To this day, The Dust Bunnies has been very much edited, because the draft created during this time period was wrought with much more emotional turmoil than a middle grade reader should be privy to. But it was a way for me to cope at the time. It was a way for me to rescue my sister in my mind when I knew I had no control.
Sometimes I’m asked why I like rabbits. They don’t play fetch and they don’t purr like cats. But they are peaceful animals, aren’t they? A rabbit is built to constantly be on guard, to not get eaten. Their job is to survive. But when the chaos of life is calm, you see a curious creature emerge. A loving creature. A happy creature. Have you ever seen a rabbit do a binky? Please, do yourself a favor.
And this is life. We are built to survive, to endure chaos. But when the storms are calm, we must find our inner joys. We must do our happy dances, our binkies. Because we never know when it’s time to say goodbye, no matter how many times we’ve practiced. It may not get easier. But we can always get stronger, through hope and the magical bond of family and friendship.