When I was ten years old, my best friend Marika called my house on Easter morning to tell me that her pet rabbit had died. We hadn’t even had the egg hunt yet, and Marika wanted me to come over for the funeral.
“It’s Snowball Dirty-Ears,” I told my mom when I hung up. Marika’s family always had around a dozen pets, give or take, so there was often a funeral to attend.
“Oh no,” my mom said, since Snowball D.E., a lop-eared rabbit, was a key pet, one of the important family members, not a hamster or a goldfish. Only one of the goldfish was an important figure in Marika’s house, a goldfish named Fluffy who would live for ten years total, after he had grown as big as a carp.
Marika was my best friend in the world, and sometimes I felt like I loved her more than I loved myself, more than I loved my own siblings. I felt overwhelmed by how devoted I felt to her, and I often wrote about how much I adored her in my diary. It was an intense friendship, but one we both had ample emotional space for, in those years before dating began.
So that morning, when Marika needed me, I skipped the egg hunt and ran straight to her house. My mom and little brother said they would be over soon after for the funeral.
“Snowball ate some of the birthday cake,” Marika sobbed when I arrived. Marika’s birthday party has been the day before. The timing of it all was unfortunate. A pet rabbit dying on Easter, the day after a birthday party? If there was a God, I thought, he sure was messing with us.
We wanted an explanation, why life would be so cruel. So, as we dug the hole in the back garden, Marika and I decided that Snowball had been reincarnated as the Easter Bunny. We had recently been let in on the gag that our parents were Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, but it really was a nice thought: Snowball Dirty-Ears hadn’t left us because she’d been accidentally poisoned with chocolate birthday cake, but because she had a job to do. Her spirit had taken over as the Easter Bunny, a revolving position, and she was now bringing happiness and chocolate eggs to children all over. We tested this theory to our younger siblings, and they looked up at us in a mixture of amazement and horror.
After Snowball’s funeral service, I had to go to 11 o’clock Easter Mass with my family. As I was leaving, I heard Marika ask her mom if their family could go to church that day too. Marika wasn’t raised with much religion, and I’d always envied the weekend freedom she had, but suddenly I felt lucky that I had something Marika didn’t, a holy place where I was a regular, a designated place to go when someone died.
I didn’t tell Marika that the nuns who taught my religious education class had told me multiple times that animals don’t go to heaven. I often drew animals in the sky above my drawings of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, the only saint I really connected with. When I got to church for Easter service, I said a prayer to St. Francis for Snowball, since I thought he’d listen. Then I prayed long and hard to Jesus and to all the saints for Marika; I didn’t want this loss to be too hard on her.
I was pretty sure Marika felt guilty about the way Snowball D.E. had died, since her own birthday cake had killed the rabbit. I wanted Marika to forgive herself, because maybe it wasn’t the birthday cake at all, maybe the rabbit had an aneurysm or another condition that caused sudden death. I would learn much later that guilt often goes hand in hand with death, and we will always wish there is something we’d done differently, some way we could have stopped it. It is a useless exercise, but something many of us experience after loss.
My own birthday party was at the end of the same month; Marika and I had always loved that our birthdays were ten days apart. I kept my own rabbit, Rocky, upstairs in his cage for the party, and Marika sat next to me as the cake was served. Life went on. Marika got another rabbit, another lop named Pumpkin.
But about a year later, Marika and I visited a farm with our parents and siblings, and a particularly friendly sheep ambled up to the fence and stuck her nose through the fence slats for a scratch.
“Oh my gosh,” Marika said, her hand to her heart. “This sheep has Snowball Dirty-Ears’s soul. She’s Snowball reincarnated.” Marika seemed sure of it. With the big eyes and floppy ears of the sheep, I could see the resemblance to the rabbit.
Our parents left us there, crouched by the fence, as they explored the rest of the farm. They knew we wouldn’t be coaxed away, even though we knew there were horses, our number one favorite animal, still to see. That day, Marika wanted to stay there with Snowball Dirty-Ears’s soul, the one she had lost so tragically. She wanted to stay there for a little bit longer, and because I was her best friend, I would stay with her for as long as she needed.