December 2, 2010

Lost and Found: A Mother’s Lesson in Attachment. ~ Dani Burlison

When a Beloved Toy Disappears, A Mother Learns to Let Go.

We last saw our inanimate family pet, Giraffey, in September 2009. She was last spotted wearing a hand-stitched, needle-felted, rainbow-swirled wool vest with miss-matched, crooked wooden buttons and a miniature white cotton bonnet. We noticed she was missing when I left for my first big weekend away in nearly a year.

My eight-year-old, Ava, entered dramatically into a state of panic. She ranted, her tiny, freckled fists pumping in the air. She couldn’t sleep without me, and she could even die if Giraffey didn’t surface before I abandoned her with friends for the weekend! We gathered overnight essentials and as I packed her pillow, toothbrush and pajamas into her brown polka-dot bag, Ava continued to anxiously rant, insisting that she would not be staying with friends unless she found her friend.

Giraffey couldn’t be found.

I assured Ava that our beloved friend would appear in a peculiar, overlooked place upon my return and that we’d all live happily ever after. I was soon reminded that life isn’t always quite so simple.

I tore through Ava’s room in a panic while she was at school, into her closet and reaching desperately to the corners under her bed in a frantic search-and-rescue effort. I scoured Giraffey’s dresser-drawers among the several brightly colored felt and velvet outfits Ava had hand-constructed over their inseparable years together and walked away, defeated. I searched further, tearing through the ancient rubble of canvas shopping bags, forgotten homework and crumpled winter coats in my Honda’s trunk. I set out on archeological digs, rummaging through the piles of discarded toys at the neighborhood Goodwill, clinging to the hope that Giraffey would reappear. I prayed that this sweet seven-inch Giraffe— who managed to stay with us through trips across the planet, survived three DIY neck vertebrae transplants and was nearly crushed to death by not one, but two buses in Nairobi— would resurface. She never did.

I spun through the varied scenarios in my mind and pondered the ways I could make it all better for my daughter, who had rarely spent a single waking moment apart from Giraffey. After her father died unexpectedly in 2008, I felt that I would— and could— do anything to protect my little girl from ever experiencing loss again. She told Giraffey her secrets, spending late nights under the covers, whispering in her spotted ears, surely expressing the sadness and fear around her father’s passing that she was reluctant to share with anyone else. Months after her father’s death, we threw a wild party in celebration of Giraffey’s fourth birthday, complete with cupcakes, gifts and a ceremonial release of lady bugs into our garden. I had prayed that with her father gone, Ava would pour her love and trust into this loyal critter and that she would be forever healed. With Giraffey’s disappearance inconveniently timed with the one-year anniversary of her dad’s death, I feared that Ava would hold her pain inside forever, fearful that all that she loved would eventually leave.

In more desperate attempts to repair things, I spent hours on my computer at night, relentlessly searching for a stunt double that I would somehow manage to weather and fade and mangle into looking unmistakably like Giraffey. I would have the closely-resembled toy shipped to a friend’s place up the street and would spend a week or two rubbing it in the dirt, ripping apart its seams and even rolling the poor thing under my car wheels after washing it in a slightly bleached concoction in order to make the resemblance as close as possible. I’d fold the right ear down ever-so-slightly and include a blackberry stain on the side of the tail. Then, I’d move on to the next necessary and exciting step.

Ideas about shipping this new giraffe to friends overseas where they could photograph her, posing like Giraffey on vacations in Japan, Ireland, Colombia and South Africa also lifted my despair. I imagined postcards arriving from these far-off destinations, notes to Ava scribbled in the best fake giraffe handwriting my friends could muster. Then, when the thrill of international correspondence wore off, Giraffey would fly, sail or otherwise make her way home, bearing souvenirs from around the globe. I was tickled by my creative problem-solving and felt optimistic that this brilliant scheme would somehow remove any hurt and sadness Ava had ever felt. I was going to be a super mom, saving the God Damn day.

Then one rainy spring morning, I awoke restless and frustrated after a long, annoying night of trying to understand why the stupid San Diego Wild Animal Park no longer sold the identical giraffe toy that we had purchased four years prior. I felt a rush of defeat wash over me. The hauntingly familiar acceptance stage of grief rushed through my veins and shook me back into reality. I could no longer reason with the fact that this little critter was gone for good. I could no longer claim to be wholly responsible for my daughter’s happiness and the experiences she will stumble through in her life. I wanted everything fixed. And perfect. I wanted her dad back, for Ava to be happy and free of pain but I knew that all of the wanting in the world wasn’t going to change where we were at as a family.

I also realized that I was quite possibly grieving the loss of Giraffey along with the loss of Ava’s sweet and innocent childhood. She had recently turned nine years old and was ready to move into the next stage of her life—the same stage at which I began offering her older sister cold hard cash to avoid relationships until she was 18. I felt over-protective, nutty and mildly unstable for the lengths I was willing and ready to conquer in order to protect our unit and to avoid any unnecessary change.

Tears pushed forth and I sat alone, humbled by my lack of power. A stunning epiphany presented itself and I realized that this is just one experience in the long string of incidents to come that will put my balance between compassion and attachment to the parental test. I also remembered that while we can go to great lengths to protect our kids from heartbreak and disappointment, these losses help foster coping skills that will serve them as adults. Our kids do, in fact, grow up and the only thing that we will succeed in doing by trying to protect them, is driving ourselves mad. If we spend our energy building tangible and emotional barriers around every real and imagined risk they face, our children’s growth is stunted, altered even, away from who the authentic human adults they are meant to be.

Photographs courtesy of Jessamyn Harris.

It has been two years since our sweet friend has ventured off into the great unknown. Though situations continue to rise up, sending me into fits of overprotective mama madness, I am continuing to master the skills of letting go. I breathe more deeply and prioritize my time to be fully present and aware in the moments of inevitable sadness and discouragement that my girls experience. I am not perfect. I still go batty and attempt concocting plans to buy my way out of witnessing pain that I have no control over, but I am getting better.

And we all still miss Giraffey’s presence in our lives with fierce and intense longing. Ava still speaks of her fondly like the great friend that she was. Sometimes, we discuss the possibilities of where Giraffey may be roaming, surely living an adventurous life with a new caretaker that loves and protects her the way Ava did for all of those sweet and tender years. We remember her often, releasing ladybugs on her birthday and feeling grateful for the difficult and invaluable lessons she brought to our lives. And quite frequently, those thoughts of Girraffey simply remind us to breathe.

Dani Burlison is a displaced social worker, mother and activist turned writer, teacher and wannabe photographer and anthropologist. She lives with her two daughters in Sonoma County, California. She is a staff writer at The Pacific Sun, an alternative weekly based in Marin County, and contributes to Rad Dad Zine, Bike Monkey Magazine and The North Bay Bohemian, among others. For more articles, visit her websiteJessamyn Harris is a photographer, mother and wife who lives in Sonoma County, California and works throughout the US.

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