Mar 26, 2014, 07:07AM

A Birthday Gift

The vulture comes for us all eventually.

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The morning of my 47th birthday is bright with cold sunshine. There is an early November frost coating the grass, and my breath hovers like little clouds of steam against the brilliant blue sky. I am standing in flannel pants, flip-flops and a big t-shirt with my dog Blue, who stirred me from a warm sleep. It feels too early to be awake, and, oh crap, I'm a year older than I was yesterday. But there's something fresh and new about the world on a frosty autumn morning, and much as I try to grumble, it feels good to be outside.

Blue is sniffing insistently at a grating over a shallow drainage area near the front porch. Finally I go over to investigate. Under the metal grating is something brown, and round and furry. I can see that it's the back end of a young bunny.

I worry that the bunny may be trapped under there, although reason tells me there has to be another way out. After Blue goes inside, I return outdoors and lift the grating. The bunny is too scared to move. By this time my daughter has awakened and the two of us sit down on the cold wooden porch to marvel at our adorable visitor. “We should call her ‘Present’,” I say, “because she showed up on my birthday.” We watch the bunny’s sides expand and contract with her breath. “Present sounds weird,” my daughter tells me, “Gift would be a better name for her.”  “Gift it is then,” I smile.

Minutes go by, maybe hours. My daughter is snuggled against me and a frosty wind blows across the tops of my feet. We’re getting cold, and hungry. But there's no way we’re going to miss this. I’ve brought my camera out and take a few pictures of what I can see of Gift’s back. We throw some fresh lettuce around to try to lure her out. Gift is unimpressed. And then, after an eternity, she stands up on her back legs with her head rising up above the drainage ditch and looks right at us. She's breathtaking, with big round shiny black eyes, and a gentle face. Somehow I manage to press the shutter on my camera before she delicately hops away.

As the days go by, Gift turns up at unexpected times and in the most unexpected places. She's never there when we try to find her; her appearance is always a surprise. She lets us get close, but not too close. Often we find her at dusk, sometimes near the bushes and other times right at the edge of the driveway. She never wants the veggies I bring her, but prefers all the fresh green weeds growing in my lawn. My daughter and I sit and watch her as long as she will allow, and Gift grows used to our presence and our voices.

Sometimes she turns up at dawn. One spring morning as the sun is rising, I find her sitting on the grass near my front walk, gazing out into the distance. She startles when she sees me, but when I speak to her quietly, she calms down and decides to stay. Slowly I sit down to watch her while my family sleeps. This is the closest I have ever been to her—I can see the individual hairs on her furry little face. If I moved one arm’s length closer, I might be able to touch her. I imagine her softness and warmth beneath my hand, but I don’t dare try.

One afternoon in July, my daughter and I are watching television. Blue will not calm down. He keeps going to the window above the couch, sniffing and barking. My daughter and I turn and look out the window. There is Gift, sitting on the lawn, right beneath us. She’s resting in what seems to be a nest of grass and yard debris, quietly grooming herself. Then she looks toward the ground and begins grooming something else. All we can see is a tiny ear peeking out of the earth. Gift is a mother! Our television program is completely forgotten as we spend the rest of the afternoon on our knees on the couch with our faces pressed to the window. We never do get a look at the babies under the nest of grass, but watching the ground seem to breathe with the tiny hidden life below is hypnotic.

For weeks I don’t mow the lawn in that area, until I'm sure that Gift has moved her babies. Over time I find other holes in the lawn, so the babies seem to be getting around. I let my grass get ugly and pray Gift’s babies are safe. She certainly keeps them out of sight, but that just means she is a good mother. When we see her, she is always alone.

August arrives and with it my daughter’s 11th birthday. The day is clear and warm with a cloudless sky of the most intense shades of blue. I let her eat a hot dog for breakfast, and we go out for pedicures and chair massages, lunch, and shopping. It has been a few weeks since we have seen Gift. When we arrive home, one of my daughter’s friends stops by and we all eat birthday cake before dinner, another indulgence for the occasion. It’s been a perfect day.

But then, just as my daughter’s friend is getting ready to leave she says, “I have to tell you something sad. There was a dead bunny in the road that was hit by a car. I think it was Gift.” It feels physical, like a blow. Not Gift, not today. There is nothing I can do or say to restore our joy. My daughter asks if she can walk her friend home, and I’m left alone with my thoughts.

Up in my room, I fold the clean laundry and put the clothes away. The sun is low, and the sky is more gray than blue now. I feel like I’m moving in slow motion, listening to the rustle of the trees, the crickets, and the bureau drawers sliding in their tracks as I open and close them. I think of the irony of it all—how Gift arrived on my birthday and departed on my daughter’s. I think of how amazing this day has been, how amazing this whole year has been, and how I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I think of how a glass is smashed at Jewish weddings to remind us that even in the times of greatest joy, sorrow is still with us. I think about how my Gift, and all gifts are enjoyed on borrowed time, and I ask God to show me a sign that my little friend is okay, wherever her spirit is. I see the balance of love and loss, joy and sorrow, comings and goings in all things and know in my heart that it is as it should be. And in that moment, I let Gift go.

I realize my daughter should be home by now, since her friend lives three houses down. Knowing she is hurting too, I'm concerned. I call her cell phone and she answers on the first ring. “Where are you?” I ask. “I’m in our yard near the garbage can, with Gift!” her breathless voice answers, “I was getting flowers to put in the road where she died and I turned around and there she was!”

I'm down the stairs and out the door before I can even think. I see my daughter and Gift on the lawn, only an arm’s distance apart. I sit down beside her in disbelief and we just watch as Gift happily grooms herself and enjoys some fresh, green weeds from my overgrown lawn. We ask ourselves if she could be a ghost bunny, but we can see her sides moving with her breath, and the shine in her eyes. It’s another bunny that passed to the next world in the road today. While we recognize the sadness, we rejoice in the relief that Gift is all right.

Oddly at this moment, a vulture circles overhead. “Who it is for?” my daughter asks. “Not for us,” I tell her, “Not for Gift. At least not today.” We are getting bolder and inch closer to Gift. She tolerates this for a moment and then decides to reclaim her personal space. She looks weightless, almost otherworldly as she hops across the lawn and out of sight.

Gift appeared on my birthday and was returned to us on my daughter’s. The vulture doesn’t come for us today. But I know the vulture comes for us all eventually. I’ve heard the breaking of the glass in the midst of my joy and I have felt the sting of that reminder. Somehow it makes the day even sweeter. And I remember now, that after the breaking of the glass, it is time to return to dancing.


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