I was incredulous when I looked up the word “sweet” in the dictionary and saw that it was not defined as Justine. Someone had obviously made a horrible mistake.
Who….what….was Justine? She was the sweetest, most gentle mini-lop rabbit in the entire “bun” kingdom. Her ears rested in soft folds on the floor. Her color was classified as “broken torte,” which was no more than a fancy way of saying she was splotches of black, brown and reddish hues on a white background. And, of course, she carried the signature mini-lop butterfly pattern just over her twitching nose.
I didn’t intend to have Justine. I’d recently lost Jellybean, a black standard lop, following spaying surgery. I was going through all the turmoil accompanying an animal’s death, including horrible guilt pangs. I’d mentally reviewed countless times all the things I thought I could’ve or should’ve done to prevent the tragedy. I’d been an animal person my entire life but my experience with Jellybean left me convinced I had no business with rabbits. Then, less than two weeks after the burial, my husband John called me from his office.
“I was looking in the classifieds and I saw this guy with rabbits,” he said, without the benefit of even a brief preamble. I waited.
“I thought you might want to go out there and take a look.”
“Why?” I asked rather curtly. “I don’t need another rabbit. All I do is kill them.”
He sighed in exasperation. He’d already been down this trail with me. “You did not kill Jellybean. Besides, I didn’t say anything about getting one. You enjoy them so I thought it might be fun to just look.”
“I’m not in the mood for fun,” I retorted.
“Fine,” he responded, “but what about my mom and Aunt Elsie?”
His mother and aunt had flown from Florida to spend Christmas with us in Texas, but I couldn’t make the connection between the two elderly ladies and rabbits.
“What about them?” I asked.
“They might enjoy riding out there and looking.”
“Oh, fine. Let’s go,” I said in an irritated tone. “I’ll have everybody ready when you get home from work.”
We hung up.
An hour later John arrived, leaving the car’s engine running while he walked into the house.
“Everybody ready?” he called.
The three of us appeared as if by magic, holding our purses in front of us and looking for all the world as if we were ready to file off to church.
“Why don’t you bring along a pet carrier?” John asked. “You know. Just in case.”
I was tired of arguing, and I certainly didn’t want to do it in front of his mom and aunt. I trotted off to the garage and grabbed one of the several cardboard carriers stacked in the corner. I always made certain I had plenty of them put together in case an emergency arose and I needed to transport animals in a hurry. The one I yanked from the heap happened to be padded with a thick towel.
We started our journey, which ultimately took us across the entire Dallas metroplex, plopping us down on the outskirts of a satellite city. There, behind a small frame house, was a wooden complex of rabbit “condominimums”. I was afraid the conditions were squalid but they weren’t. There was only one bun to a cage. Everyone was clean, with plenty of fresh water and food, and there was at least one plaything per house. For some, it was a tin can with rattling pebbles. For others, it was a plastic ring with semi-noisey dangles. Still others used their twitching noses to roll plastic soft drink bottles around the wire cages. The gentleman who was showing us around explained that his rabbits were bred primarily for the show ring.
This was the first time I’d been exposed to an honest-to-goodness rabbit breeder, and I didn’t know if he should be classified as a good guy or a bad guy. I had a difficult time making a decision since he wore neither a white hat nor a black hat.
I stood quietly and watched the bunnies. “Do they enjoy rolling those bottles?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “You’ll have to ask them.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Was he being smart or making an attempt at amusing me?
I didn’t say anything else. I could stand in one spot and have a good view of the four, short rows of houses. My eyes wandered back and forth but they returned, without fail, to the mini-lop with the broken torte coloring. I finally walked across the dirt to her cage. The man followed me.
“That’s Hubbard’s Justine,” he said. I was impressed that he knew the tiny bun’s name. “She’s a little more than a year old and has won two legs.” Well, I had no idea what he meant by winning “legs.” Was it the same as in horse racing? I didn’t ask. “May I hold her?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, opening the door of her cage and stepping back for me to lift her out.
Warning bells went off in my head. Mistake! Mistake! Shouldn’t have done it! Put her back before it’s too late. But it already was too late.
Justine was immediate sweetness. Everything about her was soft and gentle. It almost felt as if she were melting in my hands, like a small pile of cotton candy that had been left in the sun. I cradled her under my chin. People would certify me as crazy if I told them what was happening but I felt, unmistakably, the hard knot that had lodged in my chest the preceding year begin its own melting process. I felt cracks beginning to lay down spider veins that circled the hurt of my father’s death. More delicate fissures lassoed around career setbacks. And others embroidered themselves into a lace-like quilt thrown over a variety of disappointments and hurts. Eventually, everything would break into chunks and slide away as if it never existed.
I turned to the man.
“$25,” he said. I guess he had no trouble recognizing a sucker. Since it WAS John’s idea to make this trip, I felt it was only right that he should pay. He handed the man three $10 bills. The man turned and disappeared inside the small house. He returned with $5 and Justine’s papers.
“I have a list of shows where you can get her third leg,” he said.
“No, that’s okay; but thanks.”
“It’ll be better to have that third leg if you’re going to breed her,” he insisted.
“I don’t intend to show her or to breed her,” I answered.
He looked at me. “Then what do you plan to do with her?” he asked.
“Oh, I thought I’d just love her.”
And that’s exactly what I did….in sickness and in health.
It becomes repetitive, but the absolute best word for describing Justine is sweet. After just three weeks, I was able to place my face next to her head and ask for a kiss. The tiny tongue came out and licked me on the cheek. Then she lowered her head and butted me ever so gently. Sweet. Sweet. She won over the dogs and cats by just being Justine. She didn’t push herself on them. She just waited quietly and, of course, sweetly, for them to make the initial overtures. Then, when they did, she met them with….you guessed it….sweetness. They couldn’t resist. She knew all there was to know about a litter box within a few hours. She had a spacious house in my office but the door was left open 80-percent of the time. She went in for the evening because I was afraid she might hurt herself if she roamed the house alone at night.
Time passed and Justine became sweeter. I knew I should spay her but I couldn’t. I remembered Jellybean.
Justine sat in my lap while I read or watched television. She sat quietly in the kitchen and watched me cook. Several months passed and then, suddenly, Justine stopped eating and drinking. I was holding her and stroking her, trying to figure out what was wrong, when I noticed a lump on the top of her head. I panicked. I crooned to her, calling her all the silly names I had for her. Jussie. Hon-bun. Butterfly nose. There was a long string of them. She snuggled deeper under my neck, and I somehow knew we’d begun that long day’s journey into the ultimate night.
A friend told me about a vet who specialized in bunnies and birds. Expensive but good. I wrapped Jus in a towel, put her in my lap in the car, and off we went. It wasn’t long before I began an educational process about bunny health. I learned how critical it was that they not go more than 24-hours without eating, and how that time frame was even more critical for water. I learned how their bodies were capable of “walling off” certain infections. While she was talking and informing, the vet picked up a scalpel and made a quick cut into the lump on Justine’s head. The tiny bunny never moved. But I did.
The vet began massaging gently around the mini-incision. Horrible “stuff” came rolling out. It was thick. It smelled And it kept coming. And coming. “How can there be so much in that little lump?” I asked.
“It’s an abscess,” she answered, “and the lump is just what you see on the outside. It’s apparently very deep or there wouldn’t be this much excretion.”
“Excretion,” I thought to myself. “That’s a wonderfully civil word for this mess.”
That visit to the vet marked the beginning of my doing things that I never would have thought I could do. The vet handed me a syringe with a hooked end, and showed me how to dig into the abscess and flush it. More stuff (excretion) came out. “Do it until the solution runs clear,” she instructed, “and do it in the morning and evening. It’s important to jot down how quickly the pocket refills.” She told me to buy baby food, mix it with a small amount of water, put it in another syringe and feed the bunny until she was eating on her own.
“Will she eat on her own?” I asked.
“That’s our goal,” she answered, “but we can’t guarantee anything.”
I did everything she said. Jussie was eating after two days of the baby food, but the abscess was quickly refilling with junk. That bunny was really unbelievable. When it was time for her “treatment,” I would sit down on the floor and wait for her to hop to me. She knew what was going to happen but she never resisted. In fact, she did all she could to help make things go smoothly. After a few days, I would say to her “Let me see your head, Jus.” Believe it or not, she would actually hop very close and then extend her head toward me as far as she could reach. She never flinched. It was as if she felt guilty about making me go through this ordeal.
The abscess finally cleared up and we had a month of peace. Then another lump appeared. This time, it was on the side of her head. It was gone after several weeks of treatment, only to be replaced after another brief interval of quiet. Finally, the vet decided to do surgery on her, going in and literally cleaning the entire cranial area of any visible infections. The sweet lop came through it fine, along with five weeks of flushing four times each day. Then we had nearly five blissful months of health. The hair grew back on her tiny head. She hopped and ran and cuddled under my chin. Most people thought I was crazy if I said anything, but I was quite certain she smiled when I looked at her. Then it stopped.
I walked down the stairs to my office early one morning to find Justine laying on her side in her house. I called her name but she didn’t move. Her food and water hadn’t been touched. I reached in and stroked her. She raised her head and then put it back down. I picked her up and brought her out.
“What is it, Jussie?”
I checked her head for lumps. Nothing. I felt her entire body. Nothing. That is, nothing until I began feeling her stomach. There seemed to be a slight swelling but, regardless of what I could or could not see or feel, there was something seriously wrong. We left for the vet where x-rays revealed an enlarged kidney.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“Surgery,” answered the vet, “to remove the bad kidney. If everything goes okay, she can do just fine on one kidney. But….”
“What?” I asked.
“I know you’ve already spent a lot of money and this will be another big chunk. Probably more than $500,” she said. “And I want you to remember we don’t have a very healthy patient going in. She’s really gone downhill in less than 24-hours.”
I’m a long way from rich and there are times when I’m not even close to comfortable. A good month is when all the bills are paid. An excellent month is when they’re paid a few days early. But it never occurred to me to not have the surgery. This was, after all, Justine.
I left the little bun at the vet’s. The surgery was done that afternoon. She died.
I picked up her little body the next morning. I didn’t unwrap it to look at her, but I did hold her for quite a long time before putting her gently into the hole I’d dug.
Who knows? Maybe…. if enough people are told about her….I can change the dictionary’s definition of “sweet” to read….quite simply….Justine. I know she’d like that. And perhaps I can also sneak her name into words such as soft and healing and melting. I would, after all, be speaking honestly since the little lop-eared bun did all those things for me. And, perhaps most importantly, she taught me that God does, indeed, often use the most unlikely creatures to do His work.