Niels was the sickly-looking rabbit at the pet store in the mall. He didn't turn around to see us at all—he just stared into the corner of the cage while the world bustled about around him.
So naturally, I chose this little lop-eared fluffball. I spent the first month of his life nursing him back to health since he was in such bad shape from the pet store (this may have been when he lost his hearing).
I also spent the first month researching proper rabbit care. I realized that rabbits are a lot more work than I thought they were, but since Niels was so sweet, I didn't mind.
He snuggled beside my feet while I wrote papers, jumped up onto my bed when I was hungover and knocked over mini-trashcans to get to the old yogurt cups and orange peels inside.
That first year, I learned so much about how to care for a creature other than myself. On my worst days, Niels's little twitching nose and chubby cheeks were restorative. He showed me how to find joy in the small things when it was hardest to find joy anywhere.
And Rory makes two
A year later, I moved into a larger space and was able to finally get Niels the buddy he deserved. I intended to adopt a sweet girl named Milly, but when I laid eyes on "her" in her horrible cage, I knew two things: "she" was a he, and that I had to get him out of those conditions.
So I ended up with a spunky, boisterous boy and named him Rorschach. He startled easily and was terrified of the vacuum cleaner. That was when I noticed Niels's quirks: he never startled, and he loved to sit in front of the vacuum as it was running.
He was completely deaf.
As the months and years passed, the two bunnies became inseparable. Niels followed Rory everywhere, constantly grooming him and giving him all the affection that Rory so selfishly desired.
Again, I got to see the unrelenting joy that Niels felt with his partner. They played and explored each new apartment together, and served, again, as a light on my darkest days.
The broken years
When I moved into an apartment with wood floors, things started to change. I noticed that Rory had no trouble running around at his usual speed, but Niels began to slow down. Even though he still followed Rory with all the enthusiasm he could muster, his back legs were giving him trouble.
After a couple of vet appointments and a devastating X-ray, we found out that his back was broken at the base of his neck. Our options were surgery or bedrest. Surgery was expensive and uncertain, so bedrest it was.
I can't explain how terrible I felt.
This was all in the few days before I moved (by myself) to a city where I didn't know anyone. So I carefully padded Niels into a small carrier and drove slowly, not even thinking about the new job or the new apartment. Just that Niels would be okay.
The next three months were the hardest. Niels was confined to a small carrier as his condition worsened, and eventually couldn't move even if he tried. My days consisted of waking early, changing Neils's bed pad and cleaning and drying him. I rushed home after work to do the same thing twice more before bed.
I didn't have internet in my apartment, so I watched the same DVD of The Office over and over again with Niels by my side. I fed him anything he would stomach - carrots were his very favorite. Every week I broke down, thinking that it was time to put him down. Every week I couldn't do it.
We still had good times. Rory hopped in for a visit and to give Niels kisses every once in a while, and loved to steal carrots from the little bed. I moved him from room to room as I prepared for the day, cleaned and cooked, just so that he could feel like he was part of things.
I have a strange fondness for those days of having a single purpose: to get home and care for that tiny rabbit.
One morning, while Niels's bed was in its usual spot in the dining room, I came out of the bathroom to find he wasn't there.
He had hopped out of his bed (remember, he was almost completely paralyzed for several weeks). I found him sitting next to the bookshelf, and when I tried to get him back in his carrier he hopped away again. Almost as if he'd never been hurt.
He went uphill from there. He began jumping up on furniture again (much to my horror), and he finally explored the apartment on his own. Soon my boyfriend (now husband) joined us and a few of my friends moved into the city as well. I even let my guard down and started making friends at work.
It was a time of healing for both of us.
The bridal shower
In that time, I got engaged. I loved to imagine the bunnies being ring bearers on our big day (I knew it would never happen, but a girl can dream, right?)
On the day of my bridal shower a year after Niels's recovery, I got a call from my fiance. The second I heard his voice, I knew it was all over. Niels was gone.
I kept my tears at bay until I was driving back to my apartment the next day. I wept for my little man, and replayed everything over in my mind. Maybe if I had never moved into that apartment...maybe if I had fed him more green vegetables...
Niels passed away in the night with Rory, his best friend in the entire world, by his side. We buried him on April Fool's day.
It seemed fitting, although I'm still not sure why.
What I learned from that 4-pound pet
Niels was my first pet as an adult. I adopted him in a time when I was struggling with depression more than I ever had before, and with all his health problems, he needed me just as much as I needed him. We connected in a way I hadn't connected with any other living being.
I learned the sadness of commercially sold pets (adopt don't shop from here on out), and I learned the absolute joy of being a rabbit caretaker. I discovered the financial and emotional burden of pet ownership, and I realized that it's all worth it.
I've now been a rabbit owner for seven years, and I've become more patient and kind than I ever thought I could be because of them. I've become attuned to the smallest things—the miniature binkies, the smacking of their lips when they eat bananas, their facial expressions when they're feeling particularly silly.
I feel safe whenever they feel safe, and I feel honored when they let me pet their little bellies or hold their paws between my fingertips.
What I wouldn't give to hold Niels's tiny face in my hands again, or to see him and Rory snuggling one more time, or to see how much he would love our new rabbit Bonnie.
But thanks to him, I know more about who I am and where I'm going. I know how to give more love than I thought I ever could. And I am grateful for that.