On Monday, we lost Alex.
Any of you who know Laurel know exactly who Alex is and how traumatic these last five days have been her, but for the benefit of those of you who don’t:
Alex is the Beanie Baby lion Laurel has carried with her everywhere for more than a year — and a year’s an awfully long time when you’re still four months from turning three. We’re not sure just how old Alex actually is, but his worn, matted mane and general state of manginess lead us to suspect he’s been around quite awhile; Laurel found him in a box of old toys which used to belong to her cousins while we visiting them sometime last summer, and he’s seldom left her arms since. (The “Alex” comes from Alex the Lion from Madagascar, a movie she first saw around the same time she discovered the toy.) Alex is, in a way, part of the family: he’s never been “Laurel’s lion” or “Laurel’s toy,” but always, always “Alex.”
The last time Alex was seen was at the grocery store on Monday. Terry knows Laurel had him when they went in, but she didn’t have him when they got back to the truck with the groceries. Terry went back into the store and went up and down every aisle looking for Alex, and she left her phone number with the customer service office. She’s even been back twice checking with the store’s lost and found and called once.
But it’s obvious at this point Alex is gone.
Laurel, understandably, has been distraught all this week, though she hasn’t been able to express exactly why — advanced though her speech skills might be, expecting her to communicate emotions of that complexity is a bit much. She’s had a hard time going to sleep (Alex slept cradled in her arms every night) and has taken to pulling out her hair in anxiety. She’s been carrying around a small puppy Kelsey had given her a couple of weeks ago, but we can tell it’s just not the same — she likes the puppy fine, I suppose, but she’d had her heart invested in Alex. Unlike Kelsey, who happily flits from Most Favoritest Friend to Most Favoritest Friend with the wind, Laurel and Alex have stuck together solidly for almost half of her life.
Not quite as understandably, I’ve also been distraught this week. Every time I think about Alex’s absence, every time she asks where he is or sullenly says “I miss Alex,” I find myself having to fight back tears. (I’m sure that shatters the image of me as Tough Stoic Manly Marlboro-Man-Without-The-Marlboros so many of you hold of me.) Most of it simply has to be my not wanting to see my daughter upset, I guess, but I’m wondering if there’s be something more to it that I can’t quite get at, some childhood trauma of my own I don’t even remember.
Regardless, my daughter was upset, so I jumped into action Monday night. I crawled out of bed in the middle of the night, hit Google, and found and ordered her a replacement Alex… not sure whether I’d be able to pull off the switch, but feeling like I had to give it a shot. (Part of me felt like I was in a bad sitcom, some episode where my neighbor asks me to watch his dog while he’s on vacation and I accidentally kill the dog through some bizarrely contrived negligence and try to buy another one that looks just like it hoping my neighbor will never notice but of course he does and I learn Valuable Life Lessons about Facing Up to My Responsibilites and Lying Is Just Wrong. Or something.)
Terry’s been prepping Laurel the last couple of days for Alex’s imminent return, pulling out the kinds of fantastic lies that could really only work on small children still gripped by their imaginations: “Alex went on vacation! He went to a spa to relax and get himself cleaned up, and when he comes back he’ll be prettier than ever!” We weren’t sure how much she bought it — two-and-a-half years old or not, she’s a really, really smart kid and we wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised had she seen through our film of bullshit. But we had to try.
This afternoon, a small box was waiting for us in the mailbox when we got home.
Both girls were asleep in the truck, so I grabbed the box and we drove around a little more so we could examine Imposter Alex before presenting him to Laurel. He’s not exactly the same as Original Alex; in addition to his much better overall health, his eyes are a little different and the underside of his jaw is white, details we were hoping she wouldn’t notice. (My suspicion is that Original Alex was actually a cheap knockoff of Imposter Alex, who has his pedigree: he’s an Authenic Ty Beanie Baby.) But the body’s largely the same, and I was counting on that being the aspect she’d focus on: how he felt in her arms.
After we got home and got the girls inside, I snuck back out to the truck, cut the tag off and set Imposter Alex up on the ground right outside the front door. If we were going to ride this lie, we were going to ride out to the end: Terry knocked on the wall where Laurel couldn’t see, and we encouraged Laurel to go answer the front door. We helped her pull the door open and directed her gaze groundward, where Imposter Alex was looking up at her expectantly.
“Oh,” she said quietly. “Oh.” She looked at Imposter Alex for a minute.
And then she picked him up.
And she didn’t put him back down for the next three hours.
“This is Alex,” she said to Terry later. “He’s my lion. He’s very special to me. He came back to me.”
(Here’s where I completely demolish the rest of my image as Macho Man Holt by admitting that after it became obvious Laurel was accepting our ruse, I cried. Hard. I felt like I’d done something Good: I’d managed to alleviate my child’s pain and anxiety. I realize there’s benefits to your child learning how to cope with loss and grief, that children need to learn to deal with those emotions, but dammit, not just yet and not with her very favorite toy.)
The book Kelsey picked out for me to read to her tonight was The Velveteen Rabbit — a book she’s never had me read to her before, a book I wasn’t even aware we had. If you know this story at all — and being that most of you were once kids, you most likely do — you can appreciate why that book hit me a little hard tonight. (If you don’t know this story, I’d like to introduce you to my good friend Google.)
I hate The Velveteen Rabbit. I’ve always hated it, ever since I was Kelsey’s age. Tremendously. (That hatred either is symptomatic of whatever real or imagined childhood grief guided my actions this week… or possibly was the root cause of it. I’m honestly not sure.) Yeah, okay, it’s a happy ending for the rabbit and al, but I’ve always felt just awful for the kid, who had all of the toys and books which were meaningful to him taken from him — especially that damn rabbit.
But when I got to the end of the hated story tonight, I tried to reframe it within the context of Alex Lost and Alex Regained, and it made me hate the story a little less:
I imagined that some night, Laurel (who’s maybe five or six now) will be sleeping peacefully in her bed when she’ll be woken by a noise just below her window: a soft, playful growl. And she’ll go to the window and look down into the bright, clear night to see a majestic lion standing beside the swingset in the backyard, smiling up at her with a familiar spark in his eye, moonlight dancing through his mane. And she’ll look down at the now-well-worn lion in her arms, the lion that she can’t remember ever not sleeping next to her. But she’ll smile at the familiar-looking lion in the backyard and she’ll wave and maybe she’ll blow him a kiss, and then she’ll climb back into her bed and snuggle down next to her Alex and return to her peaceful sleep.
UPDATE, June 2010: We’ve recently had to move on to Alex v3.0. So far, she still has no idea.