I stand at the side of the bed, looking down long lines of stuffed animals. They form a plush parabola around my sleeping child. For years, they have held all-night, wide-eyed vigils on this bed. By morning they will have been flung at each other in crazy angles.
But now, at 11 PM, they are still.
Standing here, I am seized with the impulse to reach over, lift each tiny ear, and whisper:
“Tomorrow, life as you know it will be over.”
Why? Because the rumors of layoffs are true.
Tomorrow a fluffy little flesh-and-blood animal will crash this scene. As I write, she is crated like fruit in a van, perhaps confused and terrified along with a pile of other street dogs. Her driver is speeding through the night from Houston to New England. Tomorrow we inherit a collar, a chip, a list of shots, a small supply of food, and a dog.
We’ve waited years for this moment. But standing here on the edge of it, my sadness surprises me. It’s ridiculous to be grieving the fate of 30+ stuffed animals, right?
What am I so sad about?
Families grieve transitions, even the joyful ones: Another baby on the way, the start of kindergarten, a new neighborhood. Each new beginning is the end of some old familiar sweater-like norm. The old drops away, as the family is re-made into something new.
Now, as artificial cherubs give way to a real one, something is gained, but something is lost, too.
I grieve the loss of imaginary play
For years, these stuffed animals lined up gamely for music class and divided themselves into reading groups. They followed carefully printed rules. They wore Band-aids and were declared feverish. They ordered complicated meals at restaurants, then went to bed early.
In solitary imaginary play, everyone does your bidding.
Over time, they began singing, hurting, and eating a bit less. Almost imperceptibly, books and extra-curriculars nudged them aside. My dread grew as my daughter’s interest waned.
Then, a few weeks ago, fantasy got a bit of a stay. A doll arrived. The animals re-assembled on their risers as if they had never left. They sang as they were told. I thought, perhaps this is the final flame-out. A last nod to the orderly love of the inner world.
Standing here staring at them, I can’t help but think of the Velveteen Rabbit. How age and love shaped it, how constant companionship wore it out and made a real bunny out of a stuffed one. How, even when its child moved on, it had lived its purpose, and its realness would never again be in doubt.
For me, becoming real means embracing a new seriousness, a closer attention. Things matter more. Looking back at my own long line of defining moments, I see that whatever it was that mattered at the time, it came into sharper relief. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It called to me.
My training in massage therapy got real when we left the skeleton behind for the flesh and blood practice client. Later, the very real practical exam led to the first real job. I began to grow up, professionally. As I’ve aged, fewer and fewer things submit to my will. Instead, as my focus sharpens, things get way less orderly, way more complicated.
Things haven’t always gone as planned
I feel the focus and the messiness even more now, years later, in my day-to-day work with oncology clients. Reality rules when I meet the real client behind her paper intake form. When someone comes in with the real diagnosis after weeks of tests. When all the side effects they told her about have come true, and cycles of medicine stretch ahead of her into the unknown.
Reality rules when the truth is even worse than predicted.
Reality rules when I sit with someone who admits being buried by depression, even after hitting her 5-year milestone. Post-treatment, this phenomenon is baffling. People observe, “I’m supposed to feel better than this. But I feel worse than before I was diagnosed, before everything fell apart. How did that happen?”
There is no way to rehearse for cancer treatment.
Or, for that matter, its aftermath.
My client and I might linger in conversation for a bit, but eventually we move to the massage table. My hands hover in the air before coming to rest on the living, breathing moment. Below is an aching back, or a head full of distractions and fear. Maybe fatigue, nausea, running down the list. I try a brief rehearsal, or at least a bit of a plan: What matters most? How will my hands make their first contact? How can I possibly help?
As my hands hover, I find myself calling on larger and larger love. Sometimes, I feel as though that is all I have. It’s the only thing that can carry the moment.
Then my hands relax and begin their work.
These quiet conversations and simple exchanges stay with me, long after the work hours are over. They come home with me—not in a “should leave it at the office” way, but in a “must hold it close” way.
Later, my child and I talk about growing up
I tell her, I wish we could reverse it, and I do wish that, as much as I want to dial back the experiences I have just held close in my hands. I want to send us all back to that time before it happened, whatever “it” was. I want my child to return to the simpler ages of one and two that Billy Collins writes about.
Instead, my kid stares down standardized tests and schedules, a sadness and a seriousness. Growing up brings competing demands and chaos, along with the obligation to bring order to it all. Grown up days do not always bend to your will, and you can’t always practice for them ahead of time.
But growing up has plenty to recommend it, too. Even though it tends to come in overwhelming increments, those moments become more manageable. I tell her about plateaus. You gain some agency. New joys, often in surprising places. And yes, there’s more to do, but so much more is possible.
Most importantly, new things come to matter.
In order to hold those new things, love grows proportionally. Because it has to.
I think we come out ahead.
Tomorrow a living, breathing dog will arrive. She will come with quirks, as all of us do. Things will be messy while we learn each others’ rules. They will be messy after we learn each others’ rules.
Eventually she will fold itself into our family. We’ll default to the new configuration. We will not be able to imagine life without her, as we all march inexorably toward life without her. Unlike her polyester predecessors, one day her fluffy little body will give out altogether. Nature is like that.
So tonight, I take a long look at the small, stuffed faces lined up around my daughter. They gave her some good practice, loving and ordering them them around. Now she’s ready for an even larger love.
Perhaps I am, too.
For a moment, I feel silly whispering goodbye to them, but I can’t help myself: I thank them for their service.
Then I close the door.