Since my first birthday, I’ve had this stuffed bear I call Toots. Well, I’ve always called him a bear, but his physiology really does defy taxonomic classification… I’m not sure whether the tail and belly button (both features added by my Grandma at my demand) would clarify or confuse the question of precisely what type of critter Toots was originally intended to represent. Or why he looks like he’s perpetually cheering.
Regardless, Toots is THE bear, the companion of my childhood, the indispensable intimate who went with me on every trip, every vacation, every Girl Scout camp, every sleepover and slumber party–I never spent a night without Toots.
Toots protected against nightmares, comforted in the face of stressors, conversed with me at all hours of the day and night, and was in every way entirely “real” to me. You’ve read the Velveteen Rabbit, right? A stuffed animal becomes real by being loved to bits and tatters…
And “loved to tatters” pretty well describes the state of this bear. After a lot of years’ worth of trips through the washing machine (and hanging by his ears from various clotheslines), he got too fragile for anything but hand-washing, and by the time I hit college, my mother had to give him a full facelift just to keep his stuffing on the inside.
Because, yes, even in college–much to the amusement of my roommate, and the annoyance of my boyfriend–I still went to sleep every night with Toots tucked in the crook of my arm. This bear traveled with me through twenty-one countries (some of which don’t exist anymore on today’s maps) and through all the rough moments of growing up, and (perhaps ironically) of trying to become a grownup.
On the evening that I left my first husband, I grabbed a sleeping bag and Toots on my way out of the house, and spent my first solo night on the floor of the empty apartment for which I’d just signed, wide awake and clutching Toots for reassurance.
Toots was my comforter and my protector, but I also felt protective about Toots–as evidenced by the strange recurring nightmare that haunted me, reappearing for years in a multitude of variations, in which Toots somehow got lost in the world. I would wake feeling equal parts foolish and traumatized, but within that dream I always felt an awful anguish over the knowledge that he was “out there” without me to take care of him, that he wouldn’t know what happened to me, or that I loved him and had tried to keep him safe. Time after time I dreamed of Toots slipping out of range, out of my protection, out of reach of my love. I feel as foolish relating this dream as I always felt on waking from it, but the emotion during the dream was always real, and rending.
My mother told me, when my son Christian was born, that having a child would be like having a piece of my heart walking around the world outside of my body. I haven’t yet come across a more apt description than that–and I found myself this week reliving that nightmarish feeling of helplessness that I used to experience in dreams about Toots. But this time it’s not a ragged bear I can’t help–it’s my son.
Christian is one of those kids who has been “adult” since his toddler years. He’s off all the charts intellectually, and he deals with everything–including his emotions–with his brain. He intellectualizes his feelings and internalizes them and “stuffs” them, refusing to talk about his emotions, ever. I recognize this trait easily, because he’s exactly like his mother. In my case, it took a mess of addiction and the grace of A.A. to relearn a lifelong habit of “trying to feel things with my head,” as a friend so aptly described my previous process.
For Christian to be stressed to the point of actually expressing an emotion is the equivalent of a scream for help from anyone else. And this is the child who was curled in a ball on my lap last Sunday, clutching his stuffed bunny (his Toots-equivalent) and clinging to me and openly crying–because we had only a few hours until his dad would pick him up, and he doesn’t want to go back to that house.
I won’t burden you with all the reasons, except to say that they coincide with many of the reasons why I don’t live in that house anymore. (I did write about one telling example last month…) But here we are–I had the power to remove myself from that household four years ago, but I’m absolutely powerless if my children wish for the same “escape.”
The realities of my own disasters come crashing home at this point–it’s entirely due to my last alcoholic relapse that the kids aren’t with me at least half the time, as they used to be. It took a court battle (funded by my parents–bless them!–because I’d blown every resource with that relapse) for me to hang onto my legal status as a jointly custodial parent, and to win back any time with them at all, after six months in which I saw them only a handful of times. I can point fingers at my ex, but it’s my own doing that I have so little leverage now in the matter of helping Christian out of his father’s household.
Earlier in the weekend, we had been watching Secondhand Lions–a movie about a boy Christian’s age, who at one point tells a beloved grownup: “You have to stick around, because I need you!” Christian turned to me with the great seriousness of which he’s capable, and told me forcefully: “That goes for YOU. I’m not putting you in the ground ‘next to the lion,’ so you have to live a LONG time. I need you.”
And that’s what was still ringing in my mind as I wandered around the house after their pick-up, distraught by Christian’s distress (and my uselessness in the face of it), and restlessly picking up his Bunny–to which he’d clung all afternoon, right up until reaching the sight-line of the door where his dad stood waiting. For the moment, I can’t do a damn thing about the schedule, and I can’t “protect” him from being unhappy at his dad’s house. But maybe what I can do for him today is something about that “stick around” thing. He’s a worrier, and the fact of my smoking has always distressed him. So… I quit.
“End-of-smoking” is its own story for another day, but I will say that when Christian called–in tears again–the next day, he was mightily cheered by the lowdown that I’ve laid down the lighter. Yup, I’ve locked myself in by saying it aloud–and until he’s here to see non-smoking-Mom for himself, a bear and a bunny and our second-hand
lion house-cat are keeping watch and keeping me honest. Toots seems to be cheering…