When I was young I liked a dark story, pulled from Mexican folklore, about a brave rabbit who sees a starving Aztec god and offers herself—her own breathing body—to save his life. The tale came back to me when I was combing our block for the matted-down figure of my two-year-old’s beloved stuffed bunny, who had vanished on a walk to the grocery store. What dark exchange had transpired when my back was turned? My mind was taking measurements across an intricate field of vision, assessing how far an inanimate object could conceivably go from its drop-point in thirty minutes. How was this bunny suddenly nowhere?
There was no denying a curious unease in our son’s small body from infancy, which is surely what drew him right away to the animal’s dependable softness. Bunny Well, as our son affectionately called him, was so loved there wasn’t a spot of fur left on him. This was the bunny our son held close in sickness when his still-developing lungs were all rasp; the bunny he kept tight against his right ear when I went back to teaching; the grayish blur I pulled out of my purse as I was hobbling into an Upper West Side hospital, seven centimeters dilated with his baby brother. I burst into such loud sobs realizing I had forgotten to leave it with him back in Brooklyn that the nurses thought the baby had crowned right there in lobby.
In the days after Bunny’s disappearance I walked our neighborhood streets slowly, re-tracing every step, while back at home my son sat grief-stricken in the window and the baby fussed endlessly in every chair, swing and bouncer. I looked between trashcans; I dug into leaves. I’d see an old stained hand-towel and for a moment my heart would leap.
My children had not lost anything they could not get back. Friends moved away but we’d visit; toys broke and we’d buy more. Even a long separation between their father and me ended up with us all back under the same roof.
But I did not grow up as they are growing up. Hot summers on Elm Street, my neck damp under the long, unruly hair my mother would not let me cut, I would dig between our couch cushions hoping to find a dime for a Popsicle. When my mother would say, I don’t have a dime! I would laugh because it was actually true. I wanted a ski jacket, a family car that wasn’t rusty and cluttered. I longed fiercely for Treetorn sneakers.
I can still feel all that yearning today, the sharp edge of desire for which there is no real ease. I wanted to fill the hollow it made, but what are we without it?
In the first months of life, the psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnocott says, an intermediate territory exists between a baby’s inner and outer world in which he discovers a “not-me” possession, something he might latch onto for comfort in the absence of his mother. We know it as a transitional object, lauded by working mothers everywhere, a soft thing a mother imbues with her scent, her essence, so that she can then leave her child with it and he’ll still feel close to her, he will not long. We hadn’t known this trick with our daughter, but right away when our son was born I made sure to sleep with Bunny, nurse beside Bunny, and soon he had to have the washcloth-sized body right over his eyes to sleep. What luck, I thought, watching his peaceful slumber, the cotton ears against his head like a holy light, like the Japanese hare’s imprint on the moon. Bunny, our rabbit foot carried as an amulet; our fortune.
We tried to sneak in an alternate but it never took. We’d always find New Bunny stuffed behind the bookshelf or left outside the door. Later, after Bunny Well went missing, a replacement was out of the question. Our son would tell us, with rummage and hiding, what we knew but resisted anyway: there was no substitution for this loss.
In the childhood story of me losing my best doll, Salvation–named after the Salvation Army from which she, and most of my clothes, came–there is a Greyhound bus station and a weeks-long search across states with my mother, but we never found her. I think of Anne Sexton’s Furies when I think of that loss—Remember, big fish, when you couldn’t swim? The world wasn’t yours. It belonged to the big people. I think of my father and what happened after my parents broke up. My mother says I sat at the front window of our house in the woods for months waiting for him to come home, Salvation on my lap. I was the age my son is now. One night, pacing with upset, worrying that my son would never sleep peacefully again, I realized this. Inside Bunny’s loss, an old window was open.
“Encourage him to talk about it,” a therapist friend said. And he did—constantly. How one time Bunny fell in the mud. How Bunny liked to be strapped into the stroller. How he used to have one Bunny and now there was none.
I wanted to give him everything, the toy he reached for at the store, a baby brother without the loss of attention or the disruption of our routine. I didn’t want him to know the first small cracks of disappointment inside, not yet. But loss is an exquisite yarn stitched into every quilt-square of our lives. It is an essential element, and it rides on the backs of even our luckiest moments. Life is brief, my mother had said that morning, in a text after I refused to pick up the phone. The Hobbesian subtext—and brutish—was clear in the reflective glass. And I could feel it, that tough truth, cold as the first freeze-gale over the mountain when we’d haul the mattress back in from the screened-in porch and hunker down for winter.
I was proud of the things I was able to give my son when my own childhood room at the time of my siblings’ birth had been my mother’s closet. What a shock it was to find I was no different: I could not fill every longing, battle his sleep terrors, bring back what was gone. “The heart is a repository of vanished things,” Mark Doty wrote, and I considered the space at the center of me that is always gathering injuries and desires, the space my son would soon know.
Bunny Well was just a rabbit, just a toy, just something dropped on the way to the grocery, I told myself. It hurt, but surely my son would heal if enough time went by. There were bigger losses, but I didn’t dare to think of them.
Instead, I’d see Bunny over and over in the usual places, a flash of him, but when I’d look directly, the spot would be empty. Bring up Bunny Well! our boy would cry from bed, his vanished thing receding ever farther into the days behind us. Every photo of him in the apartment had Bunny draped, dragged or held somewhere inside its frame; every photo felt like the spike of a fishhook in the mouth. And the new baby seemed permanently attached to my chest, so I could never quite reach my grieving son without maneuvering my arms around the lump of somebody else. I hardly knew what to say those first painful nights. That I’d give anything to get him back? A cash reward; my own breathing body?
I have known rabbits, the wild cottontails running like shots across the yard when we lived in the woods, and then later down the mountain in the town on Otter Creek, where I kept a carnival rabbit in a cage. My Granny had bought him for me at the Kentucky State Fair, and every day I stroked the soft part at the top of his head between the ears, a softness that seemed too delicate for this world, that contained an unmistakable obligation, something I didn’t feel again until I had my first baby and my thumb stroked the tiny, defenseless spot at the back of her skull.
I suspect my mother let my bunny loose in the wild because one day I came home and he was gone, the door to his cage unlatched on the porch. I didn’t feel sad, exactly. I was beginning to understand the relationship between liberty and privilege, yearning and joy; how much pleasure comes from wanting something without the certainty of ever getting it.
And then, understanding that everything is finite, too—a harder lesson. That nothing lasts forever.
Sometimes when we’re going to bed and I’m turning the pages of Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car, the pig and the cow and the rabbit riding in the back seat, barreling over wide fields of blowing grass, I look at the baby sleeping in one arm and my son’s soft face in the other, I hear the sound of my daughter brushing her teeth down the hall, and a feeling comes over me, a terror so strong I can’t move. My fingers stiffen into phantom rods. I can’t make them turn the page or even bend to remind me that they are mine, that we are a body together. What sends me into this panic each time is that I remember some day none of this—blanket, eyes, legs, room—none of this will be.
How futile the suggestions of Get a replacement and Dirty up a new one began to feel.
“Sometimes there is no more, not ever any more,” Ghita Orth wrote. And I felt myself pulling this in, letting it rest in me: Sometimes there is no more. Every joy has its limits. Though never finding Bunny felt like escorting our son to this all too soon, the truth is not unclear; there is an end-point to everything.
Several months after I gave up the search, we were walking up a hill when he pointed at a gated building and shouted, “Bunny!” I nearly fell over. But when I looked, it was only a stone bunny, resting in a flowerbed.
It was an odd relief: the beloved was fading. Its memory, its pull. Bunny Well was becoming simply a bunny again, living in a wide world of bunnies in storybooks, in fields, in flowerbeds, on the moon. He was our lesson, the brief Salvation of our time, my son’s comfort in a world that wasn’t yet his. Remember, big fish, when you couldn’t swim? Remember, my boy, when you couldn’t sleep?
And then, one day, you could.