The Animals My Mother Killed or Neglected Taught Me the Meaning of Love

Danielle Dahl, MSML

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Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@francisdelapena

Originally published in PS I Love You

I'm not sure how old I was, but I know I was very young...maybe 6? I remember begging and pleading with my mother about getting a rabbit.

She loathed this idea because she didn't like rabbits, and when it came to being responsible for others, her track record was terrible. My baby sister was already living at my grandmother's and had been since she was nine months old. I didn't understand why since I was so young.

I didn't realize that the way we lived wasn't normal. I just knew that I had to make her coffee and pry her from the death grip sleep seemed to have on her so I would make it to kindergarten on time. Her slurred words and weird behavior were as frequent as the tears she would cry. Sometimes she would be sad about leaving my dad in NY; other times, she would sob and not tell me why.

I wore my mom down with my constant pestering, and her boyfriend, Lou, took me to the pet store. I instantly fell in love with the rabbit that looked nothing like the rest of them. They had plenty of the small bunny looking ones, but those didn't interest me.

Peter was massive, with these gloriously long floppy ears. When I held him up from under his front legs, he was nearly as tall as I was. I wasn't the least bit concerned that he was an albino rabbit with beady little red eyes. Peter was my first rabbit, but not the first pet entrusted to my mom's care.

My first pet

The first pet I got after my parents divorced was a collie that looked like Lassie. She was a Christmas present from my grandparents, and we named her Chrissy. Chrissy was more than just a dog, though. She was more of a mom to us than my mother was. Whenever my mom watched my sister, Chrissy would rip the soiled diapers off and drag them to my mom.

Chrissy couldn't physically do a lot of things a mother should, but she loved me. She snuggled with me, and she rarely left my side, even sleeping with me at night. I needed that love and affection more than anything since I was resourceful enough to take care of the rest.

I would make my eggs in the morning, but I wasn't great at cleaning the mess. My grandma came over one day and yelled at my mom about why the kitchen was a disaster. My mother told her she did not understand why there were eggshells on the floor and eggs splattered on the stove, but that "Danielle must have done it." My grandmother looked at my mom and said, "Joanne, are you telling me the four-year-old made eggs on the stove?"

Chrissy and I stayed in the hall while they had a tremendous fight. I wasn't a stranger to the yelling, as my mom and dad had done that a lot. Chrissy was the one "person" I knew would always love me and never go away. After breakfast, Chrissy and I would walk to the school bus together. Chrissy would wait for me at the bus stop in the afternoons, and we would walk home. Then one day, she wasn't there.

I walked home that day a little slower and a little sadder. When I got back, I asked my mom where Chrissy was. She told me someone had stolen her out of the yard. I wept, but I was so young I am sure I didn't wonder why she wasn't watching my dog. I still cry when I think of that beautiful dog who somehow knew that I needed someone to love me.

A pattern of negligence and dangerous decisions

Tippy was a kitten I "rescued" after losing Chrissy. A group of older kids had a box of kittens at the street corner, and I brought the last one home. I can't remember if I had some money to give to the older children or if they had just passed off the poor thing to me. She was the runt, and I felt like she needed me to save her.

My mom took one look at the kitten and told me, "That thing is sick and dying." My mom must not have been high this day because she took the cat to the vet and got it medicine and kitty milk. I bottle-fed her and wiped her eyes with a warm washcloth after using the drops to clear up her infection.

I had spent some weekends at my grandma's now. When I came back one day, I couldn't find Tippy. I asked my mother where she was, and she told me she had brought my baby cat to the neighbor's house with her. The neighbor had an enormous Rottweiler, and my mom confessed that while they were busy, the dog ate my cat.

My mom was busy a lot. She would lock herself in rooms with the neighbor. My grandma came over once to find all the tables in the living room flipped upside down, with white residue on them. I didn't know what that had meant then.

The kitten was defenseless, and my mother let a rottweiler kill her because she wasn't paying attention. Inattention was a habit of hers, though, like when she dropped me off at the babysitter's to go to work at the strip club and then couldn't remember where she had left me.

Chrissy was more aware of me than my mother. I loved Chrissy, but she was my protector and caregiver. Tippy had been like my baby. The first creature I had nurtured and watched blossom with love. I still cry when I think about it. That kitten taught me that love is not always enough to save someone.

I was gone more and more now

My grandma had found me in more precarious positions. There was the time the neighbor's son and I were playing by the river with a dead bird we had found while little white lines distracted our parents.

Not long after getting Peter Rabbit, I moved in with my grandma during the week and only went to my mom's for a few hours after school and the weekends.

Before moving, Peter and I were inseparable, but now my mom was responsible for his care. I came back from being gone one day and immediately went to free Peter from the cage. He wasn't in there, and I knew something had happened. I went to find my mother and ask where my rabbit had gone.

She told me a very creative tale about how Peter Rabbit had gone to Rabbit Heaven. As fanciful as this story was, she must have been high. I sobbed for a while, but she grew tired of that and sent me out to play, so I went.

We lived on a property that butted up against a wooded field. I was a curious child longing to escape, and the edge of those woods always seemed to beckon me closer. This day was no exception. I noticed a white bag that lay close to the edge, and I could see something bright red inside.

I don't know what I thought it was. I don't know why I walked over there and opened it. I know I wasn't old enough to understand the spiritual concept of any heaven. When she told me Peter was bouncing around in fields of flowers, I assumed she meant literally. But here was my beautiful white, gloriously floppy-eared hare… covered in bright red blood.

I screamed an ear-piercing sound, only a terrified, angry six or seven-year-old girl could make. And I ran back to the house, continuing to wail. I remember yelling at her, screaming that she was a liar. A terrible, horrible liar. I didn't know any words meaner than those but had I known them; I would have said them.

She tried to calm me down by explaining how a soul worked and that she hadn't meant his body was in rabbit heaven. I didn't care about her stupid rabbit heaven any longer. I couldn't fathom one more loss, especially not like this.

It felt like they all died because of me

Peter Rabbit terrified her. She hadn't wanted me to get a rabbit in the first place, but when she finally said yes, she did so because she thought I would get a little one.

He was massive with these gloriously long floppy ears. When I held him up from under his front legs, he was nearly as tall as I was.

You could tell he made her uncomfortable because she never wanted to pet him. She looked at him like he was an abomination that came straight from the depths of hell. She told me she had gone into the garage to get something and discovered the rabbit was not in his cage.

She claims to have been chasing him all around the garage trying to get him back in it, but he was afraid of her and she of him, and it was this wildly exhausting exercise in running from one another.

Suddenly, Peter slipped on a cardboard box lying on the garage floor and went flying at an unnatural angle. His back broke, and she had to put him out of his misery. So, she grabbed her handgun and shot my beloved Peter.

I know now she was lying. I still cry when I think about how she assassinated that poor little rabbit who was only one of many animals to have the misfortune of being loved by me.

I wish I could say it stopped there

Looking back at this now, I know that my mother was unfit to raise her children. She had no business having pets either, but I wished for an animal's unconditional love so badly. My mom humored me with a bird after the rabbit because my grandma wouldn't let us get a pet. It wasn't long before my little blue parakeet died too.

She told me straight to my face that the bird starved to death because she forgot to feed it. There were two stray puppies I had found and brought home who had a similar fate. I was living with grandma full time now, rarely visiting my mom, so there were no more animals after the stray puppies.

My mom ended up going to jail after that for a while. Within a few more years, she would leave me to enter the witness protection program.

I wish I had realized that my mother hadn't taken care of me most of the time, and there was no way she could take care of these other creatures.

I spent the former part of my childhood trying to survive. I tried my best to take care of my animals, but I wasn't old enough to take care of anyone. I know now that I was searching for love in these animals. That was something that my mother couldn't give. Through the years, I have realized that it was not because of me.

As I pet one of my dogs while the other one lays at my feet sleeping, I think about how loved they are. I can hear the cats meowing from my daughter's room. I walk past my son's room and smile. I persevered, and while losing the animals I loved was traumatic, they each taught me a lesson. They made sure that I knew what it was like to be loved unconditionally. I learned that even when we are at our most vulnerable, a little love goes a long way.

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Words matter. Sharing the pain and evolution found in our life stories compels others to investigate, “How they came to be who they are?” Delving into the events that shaped us as children creates a level of self-awareness each of us can use to establish enduring and essential change. I use my personal history, education as a Management professional, and training as a Life Coach to write insightful articles about leadership and teams, personal development, and everything else that pertains to growth, both professionally and personally.

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