When does childhood end?
For me, it was on Jan. 14, 2013. In the drowsy hours of that Monday afternoon, my canine brother and best friend wandered off to wag his ever-thumping blonde tail against the tops of clouds rather than our hardwood floor.
If you’d asked me that same question about childhood on Sunday the 13th, my answer would have been a quick and simple one: Never. But childhood does have a definite end, and mine came at the advanced age of 21 with the final day of Orwell Wallabell Holmesie’s steadfast friendship of 95 years (13 and a half by human measures). That’s not to say that I’ve lost my inner child, with her incurable curiosity and penchant for eating things off the ground — no, I intend for her to stick around ‘til I’m just as wizened. But Monday marked the end of an era, with a heavy sense of conclusion.
It’s hard to put the sensation into words, but I suppose in that moment, I felt a bit like Charlie Bucket after his spectacular tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory comes to an abrupt end and he’s just sort of standing there, the only schoolkid left. Charlie — simple, scruffy, bright-eyed Charlie — has reached the end. He’s inhaled the wafting aromas of chocolate waterfalls, eyed with confusion the Squares that look Round and questioned the science behind Everlasting Gobstoppers. Industrious squirrels, Oompa-Loompas and a girl-turned-blueberry blend into the backdrop when all of a sudden you’re just standing in front of Wonka’s executive desk, waiting for the mastermind to look up. Congrats, you’ve made it — but made it where?
Orwell will always claim a special nook in my left atrium, and at least for a little while longer, large swatches of hair on my sweatpants and fleeces. If you think a puppy can’t substitute for a sibling, you’ve clearly never seen one playing alongside an 8-year-old only child. Over the years, from my first bus ticket closely followed by my first bra, through growth spurts and acne outbursts, Christmases and college applications, Orwell listened as I narrated each phase of growing up. I whispered worries into those soft, golden ears, asked him whether I was making the right decisions, sat on his doggie bed while I embarked on hourlong conversations with whichever invisible guests had lent their company for the afternoon. Friends who did not love Orwell were no friends of mine.
It’s not just Orwell, though. Recently, many others — humans — have been leaving too, and with them, a bit more of that infectious, unadulterated optimism of childhood. These past few months, I’ve noticed the passing of more grandparents than I have ever before. I lost my last living grandparent in November, and in the months that followed, it seemed as though every fourth person was sitting beside me in the same dinghy, bobbing slightly more slowly and soberly in the waves.
Once you’re past Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregarde, the Inventing Room and the Television Room, Wonka will finally look up from his desk. He leans forward, squinting, your eyes caught in his gaze. He tilts his head towards the door. It’s time, then, to get in the glass elevator.
Many of those around me appear to have made it through Wonka’s factory far more quickly than I did — perhaps they were more eager to reach the end, or didn’t have the luxury of remaining so long. They wipe the chocolate off their chins and tighten their ties, sit down across from Wonka to be sized up and evaluated. Wonka seems to like Yalies; he generally shows them gladly to the elevator door, where they press one of the buttons with a combination of real and feigned conviction and go crashing up through the roof and soaring away. They shoot off, out of childhood and into a new, adult world of employment and voluntarily eaten vegetables — a world equally fantastical, but with less candy and far fewer Oompa-Loompas.
At some point, I’m going to have to get in the elevator as well. I can’t hang out in Wonka’s office forever, or keep sneaking back to nibble the edible buttercups along the chocolate river. And while I may not be able to take Orwell with me as I wobble and blast into the sky, I’ll be damned if I don’t bring along a few bars of Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight.