I can still remember the day you first picked me up. It was just before Christmas, and I, along with the rest of the toys in the clearance aisle, had already begun to despair of becoming that perfect gift that would light up the face of the recipient not just on Christmas Day, but the whole year round. You see, that is the dream we all have, really: to enter the life of a child and to stay there, always, to transcend the role of a plaything and become an ally, there for them through play-dates and bedtimes and grief and going-aways and coming-backs and everything in between.
In the eyes of most, I had no chance to do that. The old machine in the tiny factory that had manufactured me was on its deathbed by the time I was produced, and its owner even more so; my brothers and sisters were the last toys that came from his shop before he finally signed our patterns away to the belching corporate factories oceans away. And so I was missing stuffing, my left ear had a hole in it, and the tag wrapped round my left ankle, a repulsive yellow like caution tape wrapped round a crime scene, read CLEARANCE: DAMAGED GOODS. But you took me anyways, I think because even though your wallet was almost empty, its contents having been poured out in exchange for that horrible smelling liquid that seemed almost necessary to keep Mommy alive, you weren’t going to let your baby girl spend her second Christmas the same way she had spent her first.
I can still remember the day she first saw me. She’d torn away the hundreds of identical evergreens pressed onto a backdrop of blue wrapped round the shoebox that for a week had been my cradle with the clumsy coordination of a fawn, and picked me up with the gentleness of a doe. Our eyes met, mine black and a little crooked, hers hazel and open wide, and I had just a moment to study her hickory hair and pearly smile before she pulled me into the baby pink of her princess-print pajamas and exclaimed, with a voice that hadn’t quite shaken the lisp of language learning, “Wook Daddy, Santa found a bwue beah! A Bwue Beah! Can I go show Mommy?”
You smiled with your mouth but cried with your eyes as you told her Mommy was shopping, but when she got home she would love to see me. You couldn’t bear to tell her about the note I had heard you read that morning, the one that announced that Mommy wasn’t ever coming home from the store.
I can still remember the first time Emily read me a story. You’d found a stack of books at a garage sale and even though her bookshelf was already stuffed with bedtime stories, you had bought them, because her teacher had told you she was “slow” and couldn’t say her ABCs and you thought maybe, maybe it was your fault, because you just hadn’t read her the right books. You’d left them on the kitchen table and went to the pharmacy to get Grandma’s medicine, because she lived with you now, and had ever since Mommy had left. And you’d turned on Sesame Street and told Emily to watch while you were gone, because if she was good for Grandma you would read her a story when you got home. But Emily told me she was bored, and I nodded in agreement, and so we decided we would start on the stack of books so that you would have less to do when you got home. She picked the first one from the top of the pile-Sleeping Beauty-and held my hand as we walked up the stairs to her room, careful not to grasp the part of the wrought iron railing that was falling off the wall. She tucked me in tight under the fluffy purple comforter Grandma had sewn for her when the old one got too worn out before climbing onto the wicker chair you’d sat in every night since she could remember her, first to read her a story and then to sing lullabies until she fell asleep.
“Once upawn a time, in a wand fah, fah away…”
As she read, a smile spread across her face. The illustrations, each one skillfully drawn and accented with a shiny sort of gold paint, captivated her attention while the words changed these stationary images into movies in her head.
You came into her room just as Sleeping Beauty reached out to the accursed spinning wheel, about to sink into sleep for 100 years as per the beginning of the book, and it was with visible effort that she paused the screenplay in her head to acknowledge that you were home.
“Honey…what happened so far in that story?”
“Weww, Sweeping Beauty’s Mommy and Daddy fohgot to invite this meanie owd faiwy to heh biwthday pawty, so she was angwy and cast a bad spew to kiw Sweeping Beauty, but this other faiwy cast a nice spew so she would just sweep foh awhiwe. But Sweeping Beauty’s Daddy was stiw scawed, so he…”
“Emily, how do you know that?”
“I was weading it to Bwue Beah.”
“Emily, do you know your ABC’s?”
“Yes! A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y and Z, now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me?”
You didn’t know that, when Emily said her ABC’s in class, a mean kid laughed at her when she said “ewe” instead of “L.” And that from then on, she pretended to forget when she got to K. She told me all about it. I told her she should tell you, but she didn’t want to, because she said you needed a nap, because being a Daddy without a Mommy is hard.
I can still remember the first time she got sick. She’d been throwing up all week, and you blamed yourself again, because you hadn’t taken her to get a flu shot, because you didn’t have insurance, and you couldn’t pay for it. You stayed home all week, and made us chicken soup, and held her almost hip length curls behind her head with your left hand and me with your right while she clutched the toilet and emptied out her most recent meals. Her head hurt too bad to read to me that week, so you read to both of us, old favorites like Sleeping Beauty and the new “big kid books” you got her for her sixth birthday, Magic Tree House and Geronimo Stilton. We played tea party and pirates and princesses, and she made little dress-up outfits for me out of construction paper and tissues and little bits of ribbon leftover from Christmas.
I can still remember how brave she was that week. Even as clamps tightened on her brain and tsunamis rocked her stomach, she smiled, because for the first time since she started kindergarten, she and I got to spend all day together. But you were worried. She hadn’t been able to keep even dry toast down for days, and the roses in her cheeks had withered away to sickly patches of white lily. So you took us to the hospital. She clutched me all the way through the artificially lit and immaculately clean halls, all the way through the physical exam, all the way through the MRI, and all the way through your panicked cell-phone conversation with Grandma on the way home, filled with whispers that sounded like “tumor” and “cancer” and “70% fatality rate.” Emily asked what that was when we got home. I didn’t know, and you wouldn’t tell her.
I can still remember the day she had surgery. She promised me that when she was done, we would go get superman ice cream, and she would scoop out all the bits that matched my fur to make me a little bowl of ice cream, which you always ate while she wasn’t looking, because Blue Bears can’t eat ice cream. I can still remember you looking into my eyes in the waiting room, wondering, wondering, if consenting to a surgery with a one in four success rate was the right thing to do, if it was worth risking at least a year of her continuing to grow in peace, perhaps responding to new treatments, maybe, by some miracle, surviving on her own.
I tried to tell you that you’d done the right thing, but I couldn’t talk to you the way I talked to her. You held Grandma’s hand, and the two of you just waited as minutes turned into hours, and the five hours at max the procedure was supposed to take turned into six, and then seven, and then eight. You stood up when, eight hours and thirteen minutes after my best friend had been wheeled in, the doctor who had taken her came back without her. You crumpled like aluminum in a trash compactor when he told you she didn’t make it.
I can still remember that moment when you placed me in her arms, and the tug I felt as she, beaming, clad in white, picked me up, and together, we flew up, up, up, to a pearly gate in the clouds, and a man who introduced himself as Peter opened them up, and we went in, and found something that our language can’t describe, but which I can assure you, is bliss.
I’m writing to let you know I’m taking care of her. She’s having the time of her life. She gets along splendidly with the other children, especially Joseph, the big brother Mommy lost, and we play together every day. At night an angel reads all three of us a bedtime story, but she always says you did it better. And every night, her and Joseph send little notes to Peter to ask for your happiness. They’ve both chosen to wait to grow up, so that, when your time comes, we can pick up where we left off.
But in the meantime, they both ask me to tell you not to cry, because they are happy, and they want you to be happy, too.
You have a whole life to live. Peter showed us a sneak peak, and even though I can’t tell you what all will happen, I can tell you it’s going to be amazing. Stay strong, and remember, Emily and Joseph are always by your side.