Merel is worried about Ramses, her rabbit. He is not frisky. He doesn’t feel like eating, and he lies limply. Just a few weeks ago her hamster, Ezra, had died. She found him curled up among the wood shavings in his hamster house. Ramses, who had been picked up at the children’s farm, seemed to feel sad for Ezra. And now her pet rabbit had his own problems.
Merel is a woman of a certain age. When she was a young girl, she ate too little, and that took a toll familiar among teenagers. Much later, she is still always in the hospital. Sometimes she sends me a selfie. Blonde, short-cut hair around a stark white face with a tube stuck into her nose, for feeding. Her blue eyes among the white sheets that I have a hard time forgetting. I wish she were here so I could feed her my homemade soup. Spoonful by spoonful.
Instead, I wish her well-being, even though I know she will never be quite right again. But she doesn’t complain. Her delicate body works in its own way. She tells me she is looking forward to sitting outside on a bench again, if necessary in the fog.
Since she is a reader of my column, we correspond. “I will get you to go somewhere else,” she wrote the first time. “I will experience your adventures in a country far away where I will never go myself.” She is especially responsive when I write about disadvantaged people at the bottom of society. The homeless boy in Manhattan, the confused woman in the supermarket, the illegal immigrant who lives in constant fear. She asks, “Do these people know that the light is falling on them across the water?”
Merel is my ideal gentle reader. Her letters are always cheerful, unless there is something wrong with her animals. “Would Ramses be in pain?” She writes under a photo she sends me. I try to distinguish between head and tail in the fuzzy pile of fur in a plastic cage at the vet’s.
I wonder how her own pain is. She is alone, often tired, and has to fight everything herself. But Merel is resolute and full of plans. She may wobble on her legs, but she is not unsteady in life.
Occasionally she sends me poems. Then it is as if she is handing me a heartbeat in a feather. That is how her words make me feel. Her language is a game whose rules only she knows. When I dive into it, I end up in a somewhat disorienting, timeless place where I can’t get by myself. It is often uncomfortable to be there, but there is a lot to experience between her unruly words and the silence that surrounds them.
I admire this proud woman, who forges language into her armor but gives a glimpse into her soul through the cracks.
For Merel, nothing is just what it is. She looks at things like a young child who is wondering about the world. She holds up the world to see and inspect on her own terms. It’s a world where your best friends can just be a hamster and a rabbit.
Because of her I feel more alive than ever.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at email@example.com.