On the Wonderful Properties of My Rabbit Aswan

Let this first sentence serve as a content warning for an extended discussion of suicidal thoughts and depression. If you are here looking for the undiluted saccharine, try this instead. Still, there will be pictures of and there will be affection for bunnies.

In the summer of 2015 I graduated from my MLIS program at UBC and, as you may already know, went to live with my brother and his wife in Toronto, Ontario. They owned–indeed, still own–two rabbits who I was excited to spend more time with: a bedraggled and affectionate cloud named Delphie and a distrustful half-dwarf named Baxter. To my great surprise, they had a third rabbit living in the bathroom when I arrived: a tiny starved white-and-caramel lop with outsized ears and feet.

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Aswan as a bathroom bunny. Picture copyright Christian Hendriks, 2015.

My sister-in-law had been walking home from her studio and found someone giving her away on the street, with a carrier and a bag of pricey rabbit pellets. Concerned that she would wind up in a stew pot or with some family incapable of caring for her, she took the little rabbit home. According to that previous owner, who could not bring her with him to his new condo, her name was Aswan. 

My siblings(-in-law) were trying to find someone to take her in. I said I couldn’t; I had no idea where I would be living in the near or mid or distant future, I had no economic prospects, and I did not feel like I was healthy enough to be responsible for a plant, let alone an animal. So they advertised, and in the meantime Aswan lived in the bathroom. We went in from time to time to give her company and to feed her.

Starved she might be, but once we got a little food in her she was friendly and curious. In particular, she wanted terribly to know what I was doing with the toilet any time I went into the bathroom to use it. I found this awkward and invasive, so I took her into the guest room where I was staying during the day. This way I could use the bathroom without a rabbit in my business and I could spend the rest of the day with her. Soon she was flopping and binkying, both signs of rabbit comfort and happiness. She hated being moved between the two rooms, though–she still hates being carried–and so in a week I stopped putting her in the bathroom at night.

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A young Aswan sitting on a bookshelf. She got up there herself. Copyright Christian Hendriks 2015.

You know where this is going. Eventually my friends and mother prevailed upon me, and my brother and his wife promised me support, and Aswan herself showed confidence in and affection for me, so that I capitulated and decided to take responsibility for her, for the rest of her twitchy-nosed flop-eared life. Even at this point I did not really want to keep her, but she is a lovely rabbit and she grew on me. It is hard not to love a little bun who so clearly adores you.

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An adult Aswan exploring my mother’s back patio. Copyright Christian Hendriks 2016.

This girl is a wild-child. She is assertive and adventurous and good with strangers (so long as I am about). Despite the hostility she met at the teeth of Delphie and Baxter, she seems to be patient with other rabbits. On the one hand, she is bold enough to explore and try to climb up on any object she can see; on the other hand, she is nervous around loud noises and has paranoias about phantom predators. She is a fan of treats–carrots, apples, maple leaves, dandelions, clovers, and best of all banana–and, when she was younger, she would expect you to hold the treat while she ate it. When I was staying with my brother and his wife, she would sleep under the futon; it was nice to hear her under there at night, shuffling from time to time. In the morning she came up on the bed to beg for breakfast and, later, to cuddle.

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Aswan in an outdoor enclosure at my mother’s place. Copyright Christian Hendriks 2016.

One morning I fumbled over the side of my bed for the tissue box, only to find it empty. I was sure it was half-full the evening before. After a bleary investigation, I found that she had taken every tissue out of the box, folded them approximately in half, and placed them in careful lines along the edge of the futon. I know how she folded them in half because not long after she tried lining the topside of my bed, too, while I was sleeping in it: she would take the tissue in her mouth and crease it with her mobile little lips, running it back in forth until it was nicely folded, and then she would place it carefully next to the previous one.

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Aswan in my apartment in Alberta, sleeping under my table while I use my laptop.

The easiest thing to share is this video, though. I live in Fort McMurray now, and my mother bought me this rug. As she said, it was the best money we spent that weekend: Aswan clearly loved the chance to run about and practice her hops and evasive footwork.

*    *    *

As I already shared, the depression that took me in the summer of 2015 was the first time I had felt suicidiality anywhere near so strong. Before that there had been a few dark nights where I considered suicide, but never seriously; that July I obsessed with specific plans to kill myself. I wanted nothing more than to die. Some rational part of me knew I should try to live, though, and if I recall correctly I had by then declared war on entropy and knew that committing suicide would be surrendering to entropy. But the voice of suicide was strong, so strong; it would have been scary, had the thought of dying filled me with fear rather than relief. I fled Vancouver for home and, in early September, moved in with my brother, his wife, and an apartment full of rabbits.

I had an idea for quite a long time, ever since realizing I had a mood disorder, that I had certain guard rails against suicide: a series of things which would prevent me from killing myself if I ever felt suicidal. These were all, for the most part, people, such as my parents and my brother. When my father died in November of 2014, I knew that one of those guard rails was gone, but also the experience of his death and the opportunity to observe my family reacting to his death reinforced the need to live, if at least for them. I might not want to live (I had stopped wanting to live years before I felt suicidal; these are quite different experiences), but I did not want to die, either, for what it would do to my remaining family. Or so I thought.

When suicidiality actually showed its pretend-reasonable face, I discovered I was wrong. The knowledge that my family would grieve my death was not a guard rail at all; suicide, with all the calm and thorough argumentation of a scholastic monk, explained how rational and responsible and just it would be for me to kill myself, how it would be for my family’s benefit for me to remove myself, a burden, from their lives. I said before that I do not intend to go into this in much detail because it was all, in the end, deluded nonsense; I also do not want to encourage readers to share those delusions. Under certain circumstances, I understand, suicidal delusions are contagious.

Suffice it to say that other considerations lacked real force, too: I was not convinced that any theological considerations were strong enough to prevent me from doing this (I do not believe in eternal damnation in the first place); I had a good plan that overcame various practical considerations; and my war against entropy began to pale. I was tired and I found it harder and harder to care. Depression takes the form of apathy and exhaustion. These can be morally sapping conditions.

In other words, every possible reason I could think of to go on living did not have any force I could not mitigate. I did not care enough about anything that might stop me and I did care, quite a lot, about not being alive anymore.

Of course it is hard to say, for sure, what I would have done in different circumstances. I can say, though, that there were many days when it felt like the only thing keeping me from suicide was my rabbit Aswan and the commitment I made to keep her.

Aswan had bonded to me. I was her human, and she loved me. Rabbits grieve the death of their companions but, unlike humans, it would be impossible for her to understand. Moreover, I did not know what fate she would have if I were gone. Once I got a place of my own, it would be easier for me to give her the kind of life she deserved than my brother and his wife, or my mother, could provide. My brother’s other rabbits, after all, attacked her whenever they could (usually to their regret, because Aswan is larger than both of them, fiercer than Baxter, and more able-bodied than Delphie); my mother also had a dog and a cat. And the reason I had Aswan at all is that no one else would take her. She was dependent on me and, if I was gone, she would be lonely and confused. I had made a commitment and I loved her.

I honestly do not know if I would be writing this if I hadn’t had Aswan thrust upon me.

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Aswan. Copyright Christian Hendriks 2017.

Sometime after moving to Fort McMurray I stopped thinking about suicide so often and sometime after that I stopped wanting to die. I still don’t think I exactly want to live. But I have Aswan. She is an anchor in the world keeping me here. If I ever do good for the world, if I ever comfort a friend, if I ever talk a person down from suicide, if I ever have children, if I ever feed the hungry or clothe the naked, if I ever do anything worth doing, it will be because I had a pet rabbit.

And I have Eglamore now, too! That’s another long story, but I got him to keep Aswan company while I am at work. He is still afraid of me and I don’t think he’d be sad to see me go, but he’d have nowhere to live. He does not love me, but I love him and I made a commitment.

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Eglamore, aka Mr Fluff, sitting amid his supper which he, unlike Aswan, does not feel the need to eat the moment it is available. Copyright Christian Hendriks 2017.

[Edit: due to an error on my part, this post has been post-dated by about a month. It was actually published on 8 July 2017, in case that matters to anyone.]

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