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A bunny helped me reconnect with my aging father

This First Person column is written by Amy Thai, an animal lover who lives in Richmond, BC. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

“Did Mom tell you I got a bunny?” It was an offhanded question posed to my dad during a trip home to Ontario.

Lately, I had been struggling to connect with him and our conversations felt one-sided. In a half-hearted attempt to find something, anything, that interested him, I pulled out my phone and showed him a few photos of Jay, my new pet rabbit.

To my surprise, my dad perked up. “A black bunny!” he exclaimed, leaning in to examine the photos. I wanted to know more. Were black rabbits rare? How old was Jay? Did I let him outside? I scrambled to find more photos, clinging to this unexpected moment of clarity. Thanks to Jay, I felt hopeful that I had rediscovered a way to connect with my dad.

I see my parents only once or twice a year, so the minute, day-to-day changes in their appearance are magnified for me: each visit, I spot new white hairs and wrinkles. My dad seems to be aging faster than my mom, although they’re about the same age. I strongly feel it’s linked to when he lost his leg to flesh-eating disease about a decade ago.

Amy Thai, right, is escorted at her wedding by her father, left. (Amer Nabulsi Photography)

At first, my dad was triumphant. He’d beaten a life-threatening infection and was determined to walk again. He diligently worked on using his prosthetic leg, walker and canes, and it was a proud moment when he walked me down the aisle at my wedding a couple years later.

But over time, the hassle of mobility aids eroded his motivation for going out and staying active. I have stopped joining us for meals at our family’s favorite buffet. I have turned down my offer to wheel him to the park on a sunny day. I no longer heard the rhythmic “thump… thump” of him practicing with his prosthetic from him at home. He retreated to his wheelchair and spent most of his time at the computer or napping.

Seven-year-old Amy Thai holds up a crayfish. As a child, she and her father de ella shared a love of animals. (Submitted by Amy Thai)

My dad has always been quiet but now was becoming absent-minded. It dawned on me that the decline in his physical activity could be leading to a decline in his mental acuity. That’s when I realized our time together was precious and floating, and I needed to make each visit count. I had nearly lost him before, so having him here was like a second chance, and I feared I would squander it.

I didn’t feel like my presence alone was enough. I wanted to have meaningful conversations with my parents. I wanted them to share my excitement about my new house and promotion. I also wanted to get into the deeper stuff like their wishes for themselves when they passed. I could still talk to my mom about these things but my dad now struggled with simple questions.

I was at a loss for how we could spend quality time together. And then he saw Jay.

Amy’s father Nguyen Dang Thai caresses Buster, the first rabbit the family kept as a pet. (Submitted by Amy Thai)

I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was a bunny that broke through my dad’s fog. Growing up, my dad and I never talked much. Instead, our time together revolved around animal-related hobbies, like catching crayfish at the river, bird-watching, and caring for our menagerie of fish, birds, hamsters, gerbils, turtles, crabs, an iguana and — our favorite — a bunny named Buster. Loving animals together has been how we expressed our love for each other.

When I visited again a few months later, I came prepared with more photos and videos of Jay loaded onto my laptop so my dad could see them more easily. I had been worried that my dad’s initial interest in Jay was a one-off occurrence, but he brightened up again when I showed him the new photos.

Amy Thai and her pet rabbit, Jay, wear matching Santa hats. (Submitted by Amy Thai)

I realized that our love for animals was the bond that connects us even as other things crumbled. There was no need to start having deep conversations if that had never been our style. Finding joy together in a photo of a bunny was enough.


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