Recommended prereading: The Tale of Bun 1: Maxwell
*Bunny names have been changed to protect the fluffy.
Did you know that there exists a scale that ranks life events in terms of how stressful they are? It’s called the Homes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory and it assigns points to various common life events in accordance with how much stress (Messrs. Holmes and Rahe think) they cause. “Death of a spouse” comes in at 100 points (most stressful) and “minor violations of the law (traffic tickets, jaywalking, disturbing the peace, etc.)” comes in last with 11 points. A range of human experiences—some quotidian, others rareified—fills out the meaty middle. (With nearly 1500 points possible, I’d say I’m not doing too badly at 157 points, all things considered.)
Assessing the stressfulness of one factor—new home ownership—is tricky though, because “taking on a mortgage” saddles you with 31 points, “major change in living condition (new home, etc.)” earns 25 points, and “changes in residence” nets 20 points. I don’t know if the points should be added together, or averaged, or if you’re just supposed to pick one and go with it, but it’s safe to say that buying your first home qualifies as stressful life event.
What’s conspicuously absent from the list is “acquiring a new pet,” which should probably be at the top of its own list: Best, Most Stess-Reducing Things You Can Do To Counteract the Holmes-Rahe List, or something like that.
Buying our first home was certainly stressful (though not nearly as stressful as selling it years later to a certifiably crazy couple with their equally mad real estate agent while simultaneously buying our second home, all while starting a new school year), but it was mostly the good kind of stress I learned about in Psychology 101: eustress (as opposed to distress).
One thing that made it extra eu was that we were now free to get a second bunny. Little Maxwell would finally have a pointy-eared, cotton-tailed companion.
We read everything we could on the subject of bonding two rabbits, then went off in search of our second bun.
We arrived home with Gertie, ready to begin life as a blissful family of four.
Only, things didn’t happen the way the books and websites said they would. We did everything we were told: We introduced them slowly; we praised one for being gentle with the other; we put them in the bathtub—a sort of “neutral zone”—where they could get to know each other better; we took them on car rides, an experience so terrifying to the rabbit psyche that it compels them to huddle together in fear and ends up creating BFFs where once there were mortal enemies.
But nothing worked.
Gertie was doing everything right. Though she was younger, bigger, faster, and more self-assured than Maxwell, she dutifully played the submissive role, lowering her face beneath his as if to say, “Lick my forehead, and I’m yours forever.”
But Maxwell wasn’t having it. Was he gay? Was he hung up on some long-lost love from his youth? Finally, a 2005 Steve Carell movie put a name to Maxwell’s condition: he was a 40-year-old virgin. Well, the bunny equivalent, anyway. He didn’t know the lingo, and he certainly didn’t know the moves of bonding courtship.
This social deficit played out horrifically early one morning while the husband and I were getting ready for work. I was in the kitchen and the husband was showering. Hearing a strange noise, I dashed into the living room to find our two fur babies chasing each other ’round and ’round (and not in a playful way) the antique washtub that served as their litterbox. A scream escaped my mouth, prompting the husband to sprint gallantly to the scene—buck naked, mind you—where he grabbed Maxwell and lifted him to safety . . . with Gertie dangling below, her teeth sunk firmly into his hindquarters.
In that instant, “pet parenting” replaced “death of a spouse” as the most stressful life event possible (while simultaneously making Holmes and Rahe’s list good for kindling and scratch paper and not much else).
From that moment on, the two bunnies would be separated. At first we put Maxwell in the guest bedroom upstairs, but it broke our hearts to have him so far removed from the rest of the family. In the end, his wariness of hardwood floors solved the problem. We housed him on the carpeted portion of the first-floor office. His unwillingness to leave the safety of the carpet meant he would never naughtily chew the computer cords, and the room’s dutch door meant he could be safely protected from the effervescent Gertie while still being part of our everyday lives.
The drama was much reduced after that, though not completely gone. Once, while doing the dishes after accidentally leaving the dutch door open, I heard a noise. It sounded like a creaky screen door shutting. Then I remembered that we didn’t have a creaky screen door. I bolted to the office, hands sudsy and dripping, where I found the aftermath of Gertie’s attempt to befriend Maxwell once again. This overture had ended in a frustrated Gertie chomping on poor Maxwell’s ear. Our first trip to the veterinary emergency room followed, and little Maxwell was left with a small but noticeable physical reminder of what can happen when a girl wants to cuddle but you’re not in the mood.
Then, after three years in our new home, Maxwell closed his eyes for the last time. Despite my childhood sadness at the loss of Whiskers, I was unprepared for the terrible heartbreak that accompanies the death of a more interactive animal companion.
Over time, Gertie adjusted to her new role as an only child, and though saddened at the loss of our number one bun, we slowly settled into being a family of three. Further, the husband and I vowed never again to try to bond two rabbits.
Gertie had always been and continued to be a loving companion. Though we had a pet gate at the top of the stairs (the second story of our home wasn’t rabbit-proofed), she loyally ascended the hardwood steps each bedtime and slumbered on the topmost tread, getting as close to us as she could, descending in our wake each morning. She did this every single night of her life, until just a short time before her death, when it became too painful on her aging joints.
She engaged in naughty (but perfectly rabbity) behavior from time to time, like chewing a 4″ by 4″ hole in the side of the couch (Note: If this happens to you, sell your couch to college students. They couldn’t care less.), but mostly she was a well-behaved, affectionate little creature who brought joy to our lives with her pure bunniness.
Gertie surprised us most with her healthy longevity. I’m often asked how long rabbits live, and I usually respond with “nine years,” though it varies by breed and is often less than that. Little Gertie, though, enhanced our existence for nearly a decade, living until she was 12½ years old and only showing signs of dementia at the very end.
I was honored to be with her when she, too, closed her eyes for the last time, though I could hardly express it through the sobs. Her death hit me hard. We were a human-only family again for the first time in a dozen years, and I didn’t like it. Not long after, still grieving, I turned to the husband and said, “Honey, I love you, but you’re not enough. I can no longer live without an animal in my life.” And though neither Maxwell nor Gertie could or would ever be replaced in our hearts, I began the search for a new four-legged friend to help fill the void in my heart.