“You poor thing,” I say to him, after the morning blur of sneakers and lunchboxes has shut the door behind itself. “Are you already missing Birdy?” He smiles, his face pinkly gentle and unblinking, and I hug him consolingly, tuck him down the front of my shirt so that his small-eared little head can peek out over the top. This is how Birdy ferries him around everywhere she goes—everywhere except fourth grade. He’s like Mary’s little lamb. I often wonder about the strangers grinning hugely at Birdy—and then I remember that they’re seeing a cotton-candy-colored monkey head smiling at them over the neck of her t-shirt.
His name is Strawberry, and he’s a floppy beanbag toy, the kind designed for a baby to clutch and chew and fling. Years ago, Birdy fell in love with him at our local farmstand/tourist trap, in the candle-smelling corner of bless-this-mess kitchen plaques and overpriced stuffed animals. She bought him with her own money. When we stop in now for cider or donuts, Birdy whispers to him, “This is where you were born!” which is exactly what I whisper to her when we visit friends with new babies at our local hospital.
Strawberry is the soul of patience and adventure: he has gone camping and sailing, bowling and ice skating, rock climbing and apple picking. He is, like Birdy, a vegetarian, a board game fanatic, and a democrat. He has seen Ratatouille, Brave, and Toy Story 3 (which made him cry) from the back of our station wagon at the Wellfleet drive-in. He’s been a member of various weddings, tucked into Birdy’s dress or suit jacket, depending on what kind of fancy she feels like. He has been grabbed up in the playful mouths of dogs and sniffed disgustedly by our cat. He has been barfed on at home and away, scrubbed out in our kitchen sink while Birdy shivered and cried, and under a hotel faucet while we apologized to the concierge and stripped the bed. He has been bathed in the plastic dolly tub and swaddled in a towel before getting powdered and sometimes, poor guy, diapered; he has spun through the gentle cycle countless times, and always emerges bright and smiling into Birdy’s waiting arms. He has gamely worn a preemie onesie, a jaunty cap, a pair of doll overalls, a sleeveless wool dress cut from the sleeve of an old sweater, a cowl-neck cotton dress cut from a tube sock, and a homemade mermaid costume, complete with bottle-top bra. He trick-or-treats as a miniature version of Birdy: a flower fairy with petaled skirt, tiny wings, and a wand taped to his willing arm; a robber with a bandit mask, a loot bag, and the very face of innocence.
“I would totally want Strawberry to be alive,” Birdy sighed recently. “But only if he could have his same personality.”
He’s like a pet, really—lavishly doted on and enthusiastically cherished, but unsullied by complicatedness or tantrums or the imperative to say “no thank you” instead of “yucky eggy yuck.” Or expectations: Strawberry can grow up to be a bum, for all I care! Plus, he’s adorable—this delicate primate alter-ego—unlike some of the gross animals the kids attached themselves to over the years: the Pooh with its plastic nose and pilled nylon half-shirt; the blue souvenir bear with “Florida!” embroidered across its chest; the various flea-market finds with their creepy stains and sewn-on trousers. The kids caught us once attempting a large seize-and-dump operation: a garbage bag full of the least of the stuffies—unfavorites we’d imagined, incorrectly, that we could sneak off to the Goodwill. “It’s all the ones you guys don’t even like!” we tried to explain. “The dinosaur puppet that gives you ‘a weird feeling’ and the dog with the ‘creepy-sad face’!” Our children— and these were not little children, mind you—wept for their forsaken animals. “If we promise to love them more can we keep them?” My god, what can you do?
But there’s something darker about Strawberry, and I don’t quite know how to put it into words. It’s not that the Birdy smell of him makes my heart ache unspecifically. It’s not that I project my love for her onto him, although that’s getting at it. It’s that somehow I project my dread onto him—my fear that she could be lost to us. One weekend last winter, Strawberry went missing and turned up, after a heroic search by Birdy’s dad, on the street next to her school. Only turn up is not quite the right expression: Michael wandered the dark with a headlamp until he found Strawberry, who lay in a ditch, encased in ice, from which Michael hacked him out with an axe. Birdy clutched her smiling, frozen monkey and cried with relief. The next day brought two feet of fresh snowfall, and if we hadn’t found him when we did, we never would have. I remember this detail because that was the same snowstorm that buried the lifeless body of a friend’s son, dead in a freak skiing accident. Thank god they got to him when they did, everybody said. Otherwise they wouldn’t have found his body until spring. That is the coldest comfort I have ever heard of.
Maybe it’s totemic: Let it happen to Strawberry. Whatever it is. Isn’t this a nice monkey? I send my thoughts to the gods, to whatever force might listen. Take him. It’s like the people we saw in Thailand, with their spirit houses— a tiny replica of their home, enticingly nicer than the big one, to trap the picky evil spirits who are more into luxury details than size. Or the Hmong, who put their kids in colorful hats so that the evil spirits will mistake them for flowers and leave them alone. I would wreathe my children’s fragile necks in climbing ivy, cover their hair with pompoms, scent them with blossoms, if I thought it would protect them—and if they wouldn’t have to, you know, go to school like that and be mad at me all day. Instead, there’s Strawberry. Nothing to see here, folks! Just a toy monkey! Move along! Although if anything happened to him, Birdy’s sadness alone might kill me.
I live in anticipation of my own broken heart. I try to move through the world gracefully, my fears fluttering behind me like elegant streamers, rather than sitting on my head like an unflattering wig made out of an anvil. It’s true that I’m no longer the newly minted mother of twelve years ago: the one who couldn’t walk down a flight of stairs without picturing the baby tumbling from my arms to his death; the one who couldn’t cross a street without summoning the imaginary bus to mow us over. But I can’t help fretting still that our happiness is precisely what makes us vulnerable. That we’ll be punished for it. I picture wringing my hands at a hospital bedside; I picture standing graveside; I picture myself bereft, Strawberry’s mild face slicing me clean through with the razor, the rapture of grief. I tell you this confessionally.
After the ice incident, I scoured ebay for a spare Strawberry, a back-up. Could Birdy learn to love another pink monkey? I really don’t know. When I was pregnant with her, I was so devoted to her older brother that the idea of loving another baby seemed vaguely grotesque. It made excellent sense to have another baby, of course, but only so we could harvest its organs in case Ben ever needed them. And then, oh, that fuzzy perfection of head, that valentine of face, that intoxication of lashes, of coal-dark eyes! I was doomed. We’d have to have a third, if we wanted spare organs for the first two.
Even now, writing this, Birdy is home with a fever, Strawberry tucked into her palely striped nightgown. The phone rings, as if cued by my own fretfulness, and it’s the town itself, robo-calling us to tell us that there’s an Eastern Equine Encephilitis high alert. Symptoms include fever and lethargy; it is nearly always fatal. While we listen to the message, I raise my eyebrows at Birdy’s father, and he shakes his head, pats my crazy shoulder. I am tempted to Google “too sick to even want a popsicle / Easter Equine Encephilitis.” But I don’t.
The thing is, of course, we lose our children metaphorically all the time. Their little selves are swallowed up by their bigger selves, and they’re all nested in there, I know. They disappear and reappear, all those versions. They toddle away and back. They stretch and return, shrug you off, and then crawl into your lap. At some point the big kids lose so many teeth that you catch a flash of their old gummy baby smiles—the ones that turn your heart into a staggering clubfoot. This is the kind of loss that’s actually called growth, and we’re lucky for it, of course. But one day it’s going to be totally Velveteen Rabbit around here: Strawberry in a box with the rest of the castoffs. (Will he become a real monkey then? As long as he has his same personality…). One day, I will find him and cry. And he will mean Birdy, still and always: the face of sweet and blameless perfection. He is a metaphor, a symbol, an appendage, an extension, a projection, a fact. He is a transitional object. He is an object of devotion. He is hers, as she is—not quite, not ever truly—mine.
Author’s Note: Even as I was editing this piece, Strawberry, who now wears a laminated tag with Michael’s cell number on it, went suddenly missing. He was in the car, safe and sound, but I’m just crazy enough to worry that by writing about him, I’d jinxed everything somehow. And I was thinking that it had been a long time since I’d written a piece that I’d hate for my kids to read, but I’d really hate for them to read this. “When I look into your stuffed monkey’s face, I wonder what it would feel like to look into your stuffed monkey’s face after you died.” What is wrong with me? (That’s a rhetorical question—don’t answer, don’t send prescription medication.)
Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.