Of all of the icons of our son’s childhood that will eventually give way to cars and girlfriends and, ultimately, adulthood, I believe the one I will miss the most is this sad looking, worn out, ragged little stuffed bear. Her name is “Jolly”. She was given to him on his 1st birthday by his aunt and uncle. For reasons understood only by scientists specializing in the study of children and teddy bears, they have been inseparable ever since. When she first joined our family, she was full of wires and batteries and she glowed with soft ambient light when her paw was squeezed. But those days are long gone. Eventually, her electronic innards were surgically removed by the sure and steady hands of my wife and replaced with a most unlikely replacement stuffing: white athletic socks. As the years passed, Jolly traveled everywhere we took our son. She has flown to the Happiest Place on Earth. She has road tripped thousands of miles in a stylish minivan, staying at enough hotels to earn her own reward points. She has seen the Gulf of Mexico; the snow covered mountains of Vermont; and a lot of what lies between. Over the years, her perky little ears have shrunk until one is almost non-existent. One eye was lost, but then lovingly replaced by a grandmother’s hands. Worn spots now give her a bit of a mangy look and her original snow white color has transitioned to a dingy shade of gray. Yet through it all, she has remained an ever faithful friend to an ever loving little boy. And despite her many travels via air and road and bus, we have never lost her. Well, except for that one time…
My wife travels for work and when she is gone, the ultimate responsibility for not breaking, ruining, or permanently scarring our son falls squarely on me. I am expected to behave and operate as a fully-certified, professionally-trained adult father (a job for which my qualifications are, at best, sketchy). It was during one of those periods of ridiculously high expectations and unreasonable responsibility that the “incident” occurred. Our son was in daycare at the building where I work and still at the age where the simple act of transportation required a complicated litany of strapping in, tying down, and buckling up. Every morning’s trip included a variety of bags, pouches and accessories that had to accompany him. And, of course…the bear. On that fateful day, the straps were strapped; the ties were tied; and the buckles were buckled. The bags and pouches and accessories were all tucked safely in the back seat. But the bear…the beloved Jolly bear…was still on top of my 4-Runner when I backed out of the driveway and headed downtown.
It was not until we had turned onto the busy, 4-lane state highway that I saw the tiny, white furry figure fall past my rear windshield, bounce twice, and land right in the middle of the westbound lanes. My heart stopped. Literally. My heart actually stopped beating. Then my military training kicked in and I went into combat search-and-rescue mode. I pulled the truck to the side of road and calmly told my son, “Sit tight, buddy…Daddy will be right back.”. As I stepped out onto the shoulder of the road, I was greeted by the sight of an endless, two-across line of speeding, rush hour traffic. Before I could make another move, I watched in horror as a school bus ran over Jolly bear, sending her rolling. But at least she was rolling towards me and not away from me. And still the they came; the cars; the SUVs; the 18-wheelers. There sometimes comes a point in a father’s life where he has to make a decision: what is the level of risk he is willing to take in order to protect his child? Or, in this case…his child’s teddy bear.
Into the traffic I went. If you are reading this and you are of a certain age (as I am), you might remember a video game called “Frogger”. Well, for the next, seemingly endless, one minute of my life, I played a human game of Frogger. Did you know that if you step into heavy traffic and hold out your hand in a “stop motion”, like a police officer directing traffic, some cars will actually stop? Some. Not all. Some people say that in time of extreme mortal danger they have seen their entire life flash before their eyes. I did not. I saw a tow truck flash before my eyes, with a large, startled looking man behind the steering wheel. A large, hairy, startled looking man with an extended middle finger and a very loud horn. Yet somehow, in the midst of minivans and motorcycles and carpool-kid-laden SUVs, I managed to snatch up Jolly bear and sprint back to the 4-runner, where my little boy sat quietly, still completely unaware, in the back seat. As I merged back into traffic, I tried my best to wipe the poor little bear clean on the leg of my pants. By the time we reached daycare, I handed my son his filthy, road-rashed, roughed up little friend (just as any father free from the encumbrances of a sensible and responsible wife to intervene would have done) and he was none the wiser. Yes, I had successfully outwitted a 4-year-old.
Four years later, the little bear is still affixed to that little boy. I know that won't last much longer. Sometimes, when I see Jolly sitting there, I cannot help but remember that day and the abject terror I felt at the idea of the sudden loss of that little bear from my son's daily routine. Occasionally, I am courageous enough to admit to myself that I feel just as much fear about her slow disappearance. The reality is that some day, sooner rather than later, I will need the bear more than he does. Or at least I will need what the bear represents: these wonderful days of his boyhood that we are sharing together. But that day is not here yet. And if that means I need to play another game of "dodge-the-Dodge" on the highway to keep them together, then I'm ready and willing. These days are worth it.