My father collected stuffed animals in his old age. I didn’t realize it right away. I figured the plush Siamese cat and bottlenose dolphin on his bookshelf were mine from infancy, or souvenirs of Mom’s he didn’t have the heart to throw away. I found out because Brett and I had a big fight the night before. We often fought before his trips, but this one was worse than the others. He had looked, for just a moment, like he’d wanted to hit me. I had just given up my place near Hyde Park to live with him in Wrigleyville. It was unfamiliar. It was unusually cold for November. He went anyway. I spent most of my Friday shift at the hospital picking at my fingernails and imagining cruel things to say to him. The other nurses didn’t comment on my inattention, but they must have noticed. The next morning I took the train out to Evanston to have lunch with Pop.
“You sure about this prick?” he asked, when I’d told him what happened.
“No, I’m not. Sometimes we’re happy. And then there are times like this.” I took the last bite of my burger. We were at a favorite diner of Pop’s.
“He sounds like an asshole.”
“He isn’t, not really. He’s just on the road a lot.”
“Come on, Donna. You deserve a guy who’s going to commit.” The last syllable sounded like a baseball hitting a glove.
“You said the same thing about John Richardson in eleventh grade.”
“Was I wrong? I tell you what, I’ve made some mistakes in my life but I never once got stood up by a gal for junior prom.” He ate two of my fries.
“Brett’s all right though. He called when he landed in Austin to try and patch things up.” I could feel the anger starting to leave me. “And he’s a better kisser than John Richardson.”
“He kissed you? I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him!” He smacked his hand on the tabletop. The silverware bounced.
“John or Brett?” I laughed.
“Either. Both. I’ll make them duel.”
“Okay, Pop, okay. I’m feeling better. You can knock it off.”
“I’m serious! Pistols at noon.”
“Don’t you mean dawn?”
“You want to wake up at dawn?”
I had no response to this, and he grinned. This was vintage Pop. He’d let himself go a bit since Mom passed, but he still looked all right. He liked to wear big denim shirts and khaki work pants. He had a big gut, but it suited him.
Pop looked at the bill, put some money on the table, and stood up. “Let’s go,” he said. “I want to stop at the toy store on the way back.”
“Toy store?” I asked, following him. That didn’t sound like my father, the retired engineer and master welder, the husband who wouldn’t let his wife buy a waterbed because he thought they were ridiculous, the dad who’d told his daughter she hadn’t been especially interesting until she turned three. He was a man of particular tastes and strong opinions, but he was unafraid to ask for favors, and he knew people. He had helped practically half the family find jobs over the years, and never asked anything in return. He wasn’t much for lavish gifts and he didn’t like shopping, so I couldn’t fathom what he wanted from a toy store.
“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“But,” I started.
“Just come on. You don’t have to understand.”
We walked to the car in silence. We didn’t speak until we got to the shop, a small place tucked into the middle of a strip mall. He parked in the one handicap spot and got out.
“Pop, you can’t park there.”
“Sure I can. I’m old aren’t I?”
“It’s not for old people it’s for…” I began, but he walked away. I got out and followed him into the store, which was deeper than it was wide and had shelves running all the way back. I saw Pop chatting with the woman behind the counter. She had what looked like a bug bite on her neck, and she seemed to know Pop. Maybe he’s here for her, I thought, looking at the wooden figurines and Chinese finger traps. But no, he nodded to her and started to browse one of the shelves next to me. I joined him. I picked up a purple elephant with pink ears.
“No,” he said, though I hadn’t asked him anything. “Look. It’s single stitched not double, and that tail won’t last. Besides which it’s purple.” I fingered the fluff on the toy’s ear and put it back.
“Oh wow, look at this one,” Pop said, holding a black and white dog.
“It’s a Bernese Mountain Dog,” he said. “The brown accents above the eyes are perfect arcs, and it’s well stuffed. Look, Donna, it’s firm enough to stand on its own.” He set it next to a floppy black dog toy on the shelf and stood back to let me look.
“I’ll call him Bernie,” Pop said, satisfied. He picked the dog back up, paid for him, and off we went. I wondered what had brought this on, but I didn’t come up with much. It was, for Pop, unprecedented.
The next time I visited, on an evening two weeks later, Bernie was perched on the armrest of Pop’s recliner. Pop was almost finished watching a tennis match when I knocked, and we watched the last few points together. Pop had one hand on the remote and the other on Bernie, gently stroking his fur. Later, eating the chocolate mousse I had brought for dessert, Bernie was on the sideboard. Pop must have moved him. There were other animals around—a tan giraffe and a fuzzy blue whale—but when I said good night, Pop carried Bernie with him to the front door as he saw me out. I had taken Brett’s car for the evening, and I thought about my father and his little stuffed dog the whole drive back into the city. How odd that this was happening, how odd that my father had a favorite.
I told Brett about Bernie and my father’s new collection. Brett seemed indifferent to it.
“Huh okay,” he said, eating a spoonful of yogurt. “Weird.” He looked quizzically at me from under his medium length blond hair. His nose was small but crooked. We were snacking in the kitchen before heading to Pop’s place for dinner. My aunt Joan lived nearby, and was joining us.
“Leave him alone about it,” I said.
“Yeah, whatever he wants.”
When we got there, Pop was holding a crocheted koala, and as we came in we saw Bernie on the sofa, next to Joan. She was thin, wiry, and not unkind.
“Joan reminded me that we should take the Christmas card photo today,” Pop said. Joan had retina surgery scheduled for the next week and would have an eye patch until she left to visit a cousin in Los Angeles.
“We can do that,” I said.
“Great.” Pop grabbed a camera and held it out to Brett. “Can you take the picture?”
“Um, okay.” Brett took the camera. He frowned. “ Or I can set the timer and we can all be in it.”
“That work for you?” Pop turned to me.
“All right,” Pop said. He and I sat down next to Joan.
“Ah,” said Brett, “Do you want Bernie in the photo too?”
It was a jab, but Pop grinned and picked Bernie up and put him on his knee.
Brett pushed the camera button and hurried around the coffee table to sit down. He said we were all too stiff. We took another photo, and tried to look looser.
After that we ate dinner, and I can’t remember a single thing we talked about, except that Joan looked like she wanted to ask about the animals, but she wasn’t the kind of woman to force the issue.
I wrote a short note to go with each photo I sent out to friends and family, mentioning that I’d moved in with Brett, that Joan was recovering from her surgery, that Pop had started to collect stuffed animals.
Two things happened.
The first was that relatives called to ask if Pop had lost it. Most of them gave up after a few of minutes of reassurance that yes, Pop was still sharp, no it wasn’t a joke, yes he lived by himself and was managing just fine thank you. My cousins Jack and Anna both wondered if Pop had experienced some kind of episode, but neither cared to explain what they meant. The most persistent critic was my aunt Beth. She lived in New York and was apparently some kind of big shot at her senior center.
“But Donna, it seems so…juvenile,” she said.
“You should see how he looks at them. He’s got an eye for their craftsmanship.”
“And his mind is still…what it was?”
“Yes, Beth.” I said. We’d been over this.
“But how can you be sure? Maybe the animals bring on some kind of…lapse.”
“Did I mention that he names them? He never repeats a name and he never forgets one.” This was true, but I also knew it would needle her.
Beth’s voice dropped to a whisper. “He doesn’t think they’re real does he?”
“You know what,” I said, “he mentioned the other day that he hadn’t seen you in a while. Why don’t you come and visit?”
“Oh,” Beth said, “I’m a bit busy this time of year, and the airports are always so crowded.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes. I’m sure he’s doing fine.” I made a noncommittal noise. “I’d better get going,” Beth said. “Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!”
“Bye Aunt Beth.”
The next time I saw Pop I told him about the conversation with Beth. He picked up the phone. The call went to voicemail.
“Hi, Beth,” he said. “I heard you were giving Donna a hard time about my collection. I can’t possibly imagine why you’d want to do that. She’s a good kid and she’s taking care of me just fine. Now listen, sis. My doctor tells me I can’t smoke, drink, or eat cheese. My wife’s been dead for fifteen years and I can’t keep it up for long enough to jerk off. And you want to tell me I can’t have a fucking stuffed dog?”
I decided not to tell him about the other relatives who’d called.
The second thing that happened was that friends and family started sending Pop stuffed animals. Meredith, one of the handful of Mom’s friends Pop kept in touch with, went to Florida for the winter and came back with an alligator with big white teeth made of felt. Pop named her Eliza. A guy who’d worked with Pop for two decades brought him a lion with a silky caramel mane. I didn’t realize Pop had picked a name until he asked me where he should put Marcus. One time I asked him how he came up with the names and he told me he didn’t. Each of them had a unique, correct name and all he had to was wait until he recognized it. I didn’t press him on it. The gifts were pleasure bursts in the slow routine of his days.
Brett and I had a few good months after he returned from Austin. I adjusted to living in Wrigleyville. I came to like it, even if I did miss my old place on occasion. Brett was in good spirits because he’d made a big sale. He worked for an educational software company, and if Texas adopted a product, other states were likely to follow, he said. On weekends, we celebrated with nights out dancing and lazy mornings in bed. I left the hospital eager to see him, and he was almost always waiting for me when I got home, often with dinner ready. He made a few day trips, but those weren’t so bad. Then, once I was more or less used to having him around, he announced he had to go to San Francisco for a week. There was a conference he couldn’t miss. He seemed sorry about it, which helped, but he went. I had some of the other nurses over for dinner one night, but except for Kathleen I didn’t know them too well. Most evenings I went to sleep early.
I usually had mixed feelings when Brett came back from trips—happy and relieved, yes, but I couldn’t keep anger from lingering. But when Brett came in holding his suitcase in one hand and a Giants teddy bear in the other, complete with cap and glove, everything was forgiven. For a moment.
“That’s so sweet!” I said, as Brett shut the door behind him.
“Look at the orange trim on the uniform,” Brett said.
“I can’t believe you got this for him.”
“I saw it at a souvenir shop, and I thought he might like it.” He smiled.
I put my arms around his waist. “I’m sure Pop will love it.”
Brett gave him the bear at one of the nicer restaurants in Evanston, a ramen place I knew about but hadn’t tried. Pop took the stuffed animal and put it under his chair, mumbling thank you almost as an after thought. No wide smile, no flicker in his eyes, no name for the little uniformed bear.
“Don’t you think teddy bears look like stupid fat dogs?” Pop said, when I asked him about it.
“No, I think they look like stuffed animals.” I gestured at the koala and flamingo on Pop’s coffee table.
“What kind of bear looks like that? Or sits on its ass like that? Are there any bears that sit that way?”
“Come on, Pop. I don’t know.”
“They’re incorrect is what they are.”
“You know you hurt Brett’s feelings.”
“No I didn’t. And anyway he’s a tough guy.”
“Do you just not like him?” I asked. It hadn’t seriously occurred to me before that Pop might actually dislike Brett. He would go along with me when I was mad at him, but it hit me that Pop might have judgments of his own about Brett.
“He seems fine.”
“And he just happened to give you the first animal you’ve ever rejected?”
“I didn’t reject it!” Pop said. “I put it with the others.”
I looked around the room.
“With the other teddy bears,” Pop said and stood up. I followed him into his bedroom. He opened his bottom dresser drawer. The Giants bear was there, as were three other bears. “I don’t like having them out,” Pop said, “But I’m not going to just throw them away.”
“Okay…” I said. “But you’ll make it up to Brett somehow?”
“Sure. We’ll go to a Cubs game or something.”
“Brett’s a White Sox fan.”
“But you live in—”
“I know, Pop.”
“Okay fine. We’ll go to a White Sox game.”
Brett seemed pleased that Pop wanted to go to a baseball game with him. He bought a pair of tickets for late April, good seats along the first baseline. But he and Pop never went. Pop had a heart attack the week before. He was in the hospital for a few days, and I took some time off work to take care of him when he went home. He wasn’t easy to tend to. He was reluctant to admit how weak he was. Mostly he was angry: at me, at his doctors, at his body. The only consolation was the staggering number of stuffed animals that arrived from concerned relative.
I carried packages into the house and sat by Pop’s bed as we opened them.
“A lemur!” It had big brown eyes and patches of Velcro on its paws.
“Looks like a George to me,” I said.
“I can see why you think that.” Pop wagged his finger. “But his name is Ringo.”
“My mistake. Ooh and Karen sent a dog. And cookies.”
“A Border Collie. Named Ginger. And give them here.”
“No dice. You heard Dr. Sanders.”
“Screw Dr. Sanders,” Pop said.
“You better watch it. I’ll tell her where you live and she’ll come beat you up.”
“I’d like to see her try,” he said, opening the last box. “Oh no.”
It was another teddy bear. He received so many that we eventually had to dig out an old suitcase for them.
“I’ll put it with the others.”
Pop started to recover, and I went back to work. I called most days to check in. He told me about the short walks he’d started going on (at Dr. Sanders’s recommendation). I asked how the animals were doing, and he gave me updates. He asked how Brett was and I told him he and I were doing well. In truth, the stress of Pop’s heart attack had tested us. I was at Pop’s place a lot, and when I was home I had trouble focusing. Brett never said so, but he seemed annoyed that I was gone so much. We spent a few weeks in limbo, neither fighting nor comfortable. But eventually Pop started to show real signs of recovery, and the tension between us began to fade.
One weekend we went to pick up Pop for lunch. He answered the door lugging a duffel bag.
“Teddy bears,” he said, in response to our faces.
“What about them?” I asked, taking the bag from him.
“After lunch,” he said, with a slight wheeze, “we’re taking them to an orphanage or somewhere.”
And so we did. The woman there gave us a suspicious look when we showed her all the bears. She was thin, with short white hair and the trace of a mustard stain on her lapel. From the way she talked it seemed like she didn’t trust us, but she took the bears.
Brett and I noticed, as Pop emptied the suitcase, that the Giants bear wasn’t there.
“Hanging on to the bear Brett gave you?” I asked.
“Of course!” Pop laughed. “I could never part with Robbie. He is one well made bear.”
We knew Pop was kidding us, but I could see Brett was pleased.
“What a good idea,” he said, as we drove home. “I bet those kids will really love the bears.”
“I hope so. They’re nice teddy bears.”
Brett didn’t say much more, but he was smiling. I looped my arm around his as he drove.
Just when Pop seemed to have made a full recovery, and Brett and I had settled back into a comfortable routine, Pop fell on one of his walks and broke his wrist. The fall could have been worse, but it still severely limited what Pop could do for himself. He spent a lot of time in bed, and because he didn’t feel like doing anything, he got weaker. Then, because he was weak, he didn’t feel like doing anything. I didn’t have time to take care of him, and I tried to convince him to move into a retirement home not too far from where Brett and I were. When I mentioned the idea to Brett he said it had already occurred to him, but that he hadn’t wanted to suggest it himself.
Pop didn’t go for it.
“I’ll stay right here,” he said. His arm was in a sling. He held Bernie in his lap.
“Pop, I can’t take care of you.”
“Oh, I’ll be all right.”
“No, you won’t. How does this not make sense to you?” I was starting to feel desperate.
“Donna,” he said. He frowned. I had expected him to get pissed off, but he looked serious, somber even. “I worked hard for fifty years. I provided for you and your mother. I have earned the right to die in my own house.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that, and so I left.
I snapped at Brett all that week. He took it. For weeks he’d had a trip to New York scheduled, to meet with investors. Neither of us had brought it up for fear of starting a fight, but two days before he was scheduled to leave, I lost it. I cursed him and cried at him.
“What am I going to do?”
“It’s going to be all right,” he said.
“I can’t take care of patients and take care of Pop and take care of myself,” I sobbed. “It’s too much. It’s way too much.” I hated how I sounded.
“We’ll get through this,” he said. He put a hand on my back. I brushed him off.
“And don’t come back with a fucking Yankees bear,” I spluttered.
“A Yankees bear?” He looked away, confused.
“Oh you know, Pop’s hurt and Donna’s pissed, but a teddy bear will make it all better.” I said the last bit in a singsong.
“I’m not going,” he said. “I thought I told you…I asked Jen to go instead after Pop had his fall.”
“You’re not going?”
“I’m not going. I’m staying right here.”
I collapsed onto the bed, feeling exhausted and relieved and very, very stupid.
Time moved differently after that. The days were long and yet the weeks flew by. Every day after work, Brett picked me up and we went to Pop’s. We took him for walks, though he could never go far. We cooked simple dinners for him, spaghetti or soup or sandwiches, and made sure there were enough leftovers for Pop to fix himself lunch. A lot of the time we picked up takeout on the way. On weekends, we spent the whole day in Evanston, playing cards with Pop and trying to cheer him up. Every now and again Brett would banish me from Pop’s bedroom, on the pretense that the two of them need to have a “man to man talk.” I would sit down on the sofa, pick up a stuffed whale or elephant, and promptly fall asleep. Sometimes Pop fell asleep during our visits, and Brett and I would put on a movie and sit together. Often, we fell asleep too.
Brett leveraged his big sale in Austin into a transfer out of the sales department and into marketing, which meant he would only need to travel once or twice a year. I loved him for it, but it wasn’t enough. Pop had another heart attack. He spent nine days in the hospital. I used up my vacation days to be with him, then my sick leave, and after that we hired someone to look after him, at least during the day. Pop couldn’t get around without a walker. Even that took it out of him. After a few weeks with the walker he gave up and bought a wheelchair.
Pop’s birthday, his eightieth, was in August, and Beth, to her credit, threw Pop quite the party. I’d told her that Pop was in a bad way, confident she would spread the word whether I asked her to or not. She coordinated with Joan and the rest of the family to rent out a block of suites at the Hilton. Cousins I hadn’t seen in years flew in, and Brett and I invited as many of Pop’s friends as we could track down. For the night of Pop’s birthday, Beth rented one of the hotel’s ballrooms. The family mingled over miniature hot dogs and Prosecco. I introduced Brett over and over, which he took more or less in stride. After dinner, several toasts were made to Pop, who brushed them off with a gruff smile.
Before dessert, Beth had a surprise.
“I know we haven’t exchanged gifts for decades,” she said, “but everyone insisted we pitch in and get you something. But what to get for the brother who has everything?” She beamed out at the family. “I thought long and hard, but I think I’ve found just thing.”
She motioned to a bellboy, who stepped out of the room and returned with a huge golden teddy bear sitting on a luggage cart. Its fur gleamed and its red bowtie shone. The thing must have been six feet tall.
Pop caught my eye, gave me a wicked grin. And then, with Brett’s help, he stood up.
“Thank you all,” he said, “for being here. It means the world to me. Thank you, Beth, for wrangling all these knuckleheads to come wish me a happy birthday. And thank you for this remarkable bear. I think I’ll call him…Henry. Or maybe Josh. I’ll let you know at my eighty-fifth birthday party. Thank you all again. Thank you so much.” As he sat down Beth started us in a rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Late that night, after Beth and the rest had gone to bed, Brett, Pop, and I found ourselves alone in the hotel lobby with the huge bear. It stared vacantly straight ahead. It seemed to have the faintest ghost of a smile.
“That thing gives me the creeps,” Pop said.
“Me too.” Brett looked the bear up and down.
“I don’t know if the foster home will take this one,” I said.
“Well I don’t want it. You two better take it,” Pop said.
“We don’t have the space,” I protested.
“Wait,” Brett said quietly, “I have an idea. I’m going to get the car. You two stay with the bear.” He trotted out the front door of the hotel.
It was late, and I was tired, but my boyfriend had disappeared into the night with a gleam in his eye and a plan to dispose of my father’s life-sized teddy bear. Some things are worth staying up for.
Brett pulled the car around. He and I helped Pop into the front seat. Then Brett helped me clamber into the back with the bear. We set off at a leisurely pace, even though Brett seemed excited. Pop was excited. I was excited. The bear was enormous.
Brett drove us past Millennium Park and across the river. We looked up at the skyscrapers on the Magnificent Mile, seeing them as if for the first time in the wee hours of Pop’s eighty-first year. As Brett looped back onto Lake Shore Drive I knew where he was headed. Sure enough, the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel rose up before us, and out we drove, as far we could go. When we had to stop, Brett and I got Pop’s wheelchair out of the trunk and the bear out of the backseat. We continued on foot, Brett pushing my father as I lugged his teddy bear until we found a gate we couldn’t open. Brett brought Pop over to the railing.
“How’s here?” he said.
“Now that’s my boy!” Pop roared into the Chicago night. “Now give me that bear.”
I passed it to him, or rather put it in front of him. I set it down facing Pop, and as Brett helped my father to his feet for the second time that night, Pop looked the bear straight in its extravagant glass eyes. Then my father summoned strength I didn’t know he had, and hucked his birthday present into Lake Michigan. The bear bobbed for a moment, then sank as its plush, extra-huggable fur and downy, super soft stuffing absorbed water. We stood there as Pop cackled like a loon. Then, spent, we walked back towards the car and the glittering city.
The next months were calm. Brett, it turned out, had a knack for marketing, and quickly got promoted. Taking care of Pop was still a challenge, but Pop took a real liking to Paula, the in-home nurse who came by on weekdays. And when Brett and I were with him he was often in good spirits, laughing and telling Brett stories about what I’d been like as a girl. Pop was still frail, but he seemed energized.
After Brett asked me to marry him, I called Pop.
“Christ, Donna,” he said, “One minute you’re kissing boys and next thing I know you’re marrying them. ”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Pop. We tried to take things slow.”
“Okay fine, congratulations. Put Brett on.”
Pop passed away, asleep in his own house, not long after the wedding. The house in Evanston went to Joan, but Brett and I took Bernie and the rest of the animals. We boxed them up and put them in a closet, but we knew, from the hints we’d dropped to one another, that we would want them soon enough.