One afternoon, when Bear was little, he asked me to play with him. He was about 6 or 7 years old, baby-faced, tousled blonde hair that liked to stick up in jagged rooster tails, and he had a trouble-making streak a mile wide but a heart of pure gold. We climbed under the dining room table, which was now his veterinarian’s office, dragging a large stuffed dog with us.
Dr. Bear immediately assessed the stuffed dog’s woeful condition and began the delicate surgery, leaning intently over the stuffed dog and delivering a step by step narrative to me of the critical work he was performing. He was quite serious, completely in character, and I ended up hunching over the stuffed dog with him, drawn in by the urgency in his voice, carried away by our imaginations.
Suddenly, Dr. Bear sat back, nearly thumping his head on the bottom of the table, and with agonized tears shimmering in his eyes, he told me, “He didn’t make it.”
As crazy as it sounds, I felt hot tears well up in my own eyes, and just then, Gary walked by and asked, “What are you doing?” Spotting the tears in our eyes, he crouched down, concerned, and asked, “What’s wrong?”
To simply say “The stuffed dog died” sounded so ridiculous and absurd. I tried to laugh, make a joke out of it, but the truth is, to both Bear and me, for just a moment, it truly was a heartbreaking tragedy, because we both let our imaginations completely take over and sweep us away. We were no longer sitting under a dining room table. We were, for an instant, in Bear’s vet office, and there really was an exhausting and draining battle for the beloved dog’s life, and it really was torturous to lose him after trying so hard.
I still remember that because it amazed me how Bear was able to do that, so effortlessly, to immerse himself in the story, in the character, and thoroughly draw me in along with him. I don’t know if he remembers or not, but I will never forget it.
Yesterday, Bear celebrated his 17th birthday. He is nearly as tall as his dad now (which is very tall, trust me), so there will be no crawling under dining room tables anymore. I actually think the stuffed dog from that memorable day is still with us, though, tucked into the back of a closet, should we ever have the urge.
Sometimes, at just the right moment, if you glance at him and catch just the right angle, Bear still has a bit of a baby face, a fleeting flash of his younger self. I still can’t believe that small boy who operated heroically on a stuffed dog all those years ago is gone. In his place is a handsome young man, a football player, a smart-as-a-whip wisecracker, with hair that still likes to stick up, his father’s endless trouble-making tendencies, and still, always, a heart of gold.
Happy birthday, Bear. Maybe someday I will give you a stuffed dog for your birthday, and just maybe, you will remember that long-ago day too.