It is eight in the morning on a Wednesday and I’m placing Harper’s Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animal, we call him Bear, into the washing machine. I put him in there with some small throw blankets and turn the dial to delicate and then, with a tremendous amount of anxiety, I shut the lid and start the cycle.
I don’t know how much longer Bear can hold up in the wash. He is eight years old, nine really if you count the months he sat in our bedroom waiting – first for the baby that didn’t come, then for Hadley who was fond of him, but was partial to her stuffed animal Goofy doll. It wasn’t long after Harper was born that it became clear Bear arrived for her.
Harper clung to Bear. The two went everywhere together. They had their own language. And every night she sleeps with him in the same way; his belly under her head. Bear is tattered and ragged and quite weak from being so loved.
I keep my hands on the washing machine as it fills, soaking Bear and the blankets. It probably looks as though I’m praying over the laundry, and realizing this, I take my hands off the machine. I do hope that Bear makes it out OK, though. I have no idea how to sew.
Is there a point when children give up their stuffed animals? I’m sure there’s an answer, but I admit I haven’t looked for one because I don’t want to know. I don’t talk to our pediatrician about it because I don’t want to hear I should’ve gotten rid of Bear three years ago. I don’t look through Parenting magazine because I’m afraid there will be an article title like, “I Didn’t Get Into College Because My Mom Never Got Rid of My Stuffed Animal.” So instead, I let the question wash over me until the machine fills and clicks to wash; startling me so that I remember there are other, probably more important things to do.
My decision to put Bear in the wash at eight on a Wednesday is calculated. The cycle will be complete a few minutes after I return home from taking the girls to school. Just enough time to gently lift the damp blankets and make sure Bear made it through OK, cradle him to the dryer, turn the dial to “low/heat/fluff,” and head to the gym.
I’ve been going to the gym on Wednesday mornings for about as long as Harper and Bear have been hanging out. The class I take is called “Trek and Spin:” thirty minutes on the treadmills and thirty minutes on the bike. Six years ago I took it by accident. I thought it was just spin class but about two minutes before the class was supposed to start, I was the only person in the room wondering if I got the time wrong. That’s when Marianna, the instructor, walked in. “We start on the treadmills,” she said and because I was too shy to say, “I don’t run unless being chased,” I followed her, feeling as though I was walking the plank. At that point in my life, it felt like there was so much I was not good at: nursing, taking care of two children, keeping the house clean, making friends, staying away from Target. Now, I was about to step on a treadmill in front of the entire gym and show the public another failure.
Marianna explained to me that she’d give suggestions for incline and call out “slow, medium, fast” while I nodded, and secretly prayed that Hadley and/or Harper would have a blow out in their diaper that would take me thirty minutes to change thus missing the running part of this exercise class.
“Your slow, medium, and fast is up to you,” Marianna said gently. “Don’t worry about everyone else. You decide.” Then she pivoted and turned her attention to the rest of the class, and said, “OK, Wednesday. Let’s be brave.”
And so it was that I ran for the first time in my life for exercise and not because I’d seen a bee or a dog. It felt great, surprising myself doing something I didn’t think I could do. That first day, I showed up feeling defeated, deflated, like a ghost of a person. Being a mother to two children was wiping me out. I was exhausted from not being on a schedule, not knowing what kind of schedule to be on, trying to get to know Harper, and lamenting that it wasn’t Hadley and I anymore. And of course the guilt that came with this train of thought was insurmountable. But every week I laced up my shoes, and ran along side my fears and my guilt, punching them in the face while my strides became faster and stronger. Trek and Spin became my security, my proof that if I can get through this class, I can get through anything.
I think about Bear while I drive to the gym. It’s sort of ridiculous that we get attached to inanimate objects, isn’t it? I mean, the love we give them, the effort we go to attend to these things is not reciprocated. Maybe I’d be doing Harper a favor if I told her Bear disintegrated in the wash. Then she’d learn that she is OK without him. She’d see she doesn’t need him to be imaginative, or to ward off fear. Maybe Bear did his job. He made Harper feel safe and loved while she grew up.
I arrive a few minutes early and hop on a treadmill between two women I’ve been running alongside for almost seven years. I don’t know their names but I know one has grown children and another has one more year before she is the mother of a high school student. We smile our hellos while we set our speeds and inclines to warm-up mode.
A lady on a treadmill next to me shyly asks if I’ve taken this class before. She wants to know if it’s any good and whether she can do it.
“It’s one of the best,” I tell her, “and I wasn’t sure if I could do it either.” I walk her through what will happen and tell her the instructor is excellent. “Don’t worry,” I say, “you’ll be great.”
Marianna takes us through a series of drills that consist of raising the incline higher than we’ve ever raised it before. We’re focusing on glutes and hamstrings and soon I will be begging to sprint. I glance over at the new gal to see how she’s doing. She’s huffing and puffing like me but she looks strong. I wonder if she feels strong. I wonder if she’s surprised she feels strong, like I was, like I am every week finding my strength in doing something really hard.
We start a series of sprints and as my legs shake themselves out I wonder how Bear is holding up in the dryer. I hope he isn’t getting knotted up with the blankets so that one of his limbs twists off. They’re so thin now that I sometimes wonder if Harper were to sneeze whether one of Bear’s arms will fall off. I hope Bear doesn’t get stuck in the lint basket. I hope the thread that holds together the seam doesn’t melt from the heat, so that everything he holds inside himself spills out.
It used to be that after Trek and Spin, Hadley, Harper, and I would go to Whole Foods and have a muffin. Then we’d go to the park; my entire body felt loose from the run and it was easy to help the girls climb and navigate the slides and swings and whatever else it was they needed help with. Today, after the class has ended I feel like I’m forgetting something as I walk out to my car. My fingers fiddle with my keys until my brain sends them the message: there are no hands to hold. They’re in school now.
I drive home alone. I shower, make myself some lunch, then go over my lesson plans for my 8th grade English class. We’re working on metaphors. I want my students to practice writing about one thing but follow the story when it becomes something else – a process that can be pretty scary. My students have to trust me when I tell them that they’ll be OK when one part of their story has to go away so that another part can shine. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
One student insists that he can only write if he wears a sombrero that sits on a shelf in the back of my classroom. He’s challenging me for laughs, I know, but I also know he is a poet so I let him wear it if he promises to read what he wrote. He obliges, and startles the class with what he writes and the sombrero covers his face so nobody can see how proud he is of himself when he reads. I can see him, though. I know he surprised himself doing a thing he thinks he can’t do.
Before I leave to teach, I open the dryer and fish around for Bear. I pull him from the tangled blankets and hold him up in examination. He’s still in one piece. “Well done,” I tell him as I walk upstairs and put him on Harper’s bed. He’ll stay that way until she lays her head on him. He rarely leaves the bed anymore. Harper never says she misses him like she used to. He doesn’t eat dinner with us or sit on her lap during story time. But he’s there at night, supporting her head while she dreams about impossible things she’ll one day accomplish.
Written by Callie Feyen.