If I count backwards through the gifts that Richard gave me, they all end with the house and everything in it, left to me in his will. Eleven days before that, he gave me a band of diamonds. The night before that, two silver bracelets at the rehearsal dinner. Then back three weeks more to Valentine’s Day 2005, when he surprised me in his hospital room with a box of chocolates and a card tucked between the hands of a teddy bear wearing a little sweater with a red heart on it.
I gave him a jar of heart-shaped ginger snaps that year, because ginger is good for nausea. He was touched, because the jar was one I had filled with homemade truffles for him on our first Valentine’s Day. We laughed at the memory of my attempt at a Martha Stewart recipe. The truffles had turned out delicious, but looked horrifyingly like cat turds—leave it to me to mess up a recipe with only two ingredients.
That cookie jar stayed with him at Johns Hopkins while I brought the bear home with me. My other teddy bears had names—Theodore, Louis, Edward—but I didn’t have a name for this one. Andrew? No. Hopkins? No. Poe? No. I was a little too grown up to sleep with the bear tucked beneath my chin, but I didn’t want him to be lonely. I set him atop the stack of gratitude journals on my nightstand and slept alone.
A week and a half later, I was back in Baltimore to bring Richard home. We packed up the jar of untouched ginger snaps—he wasn’t eating much by then—along with his other things. Back in Athens, it landed on the dresser top, but was soon covered over by the clutter of illness.
He died on March 16th.
I couldn’t throw away the cookies. I couldn’t name the bear, either. I talked to him sometimes. I traced the shiny surfaces of his eyes with the tip of my fingers to keep them bright. I dusted his shoulders every few months. I kept him out of reach of the dog who liked to eviscerate stuffed animals. When she died the next spring and I got an even bigger dog who liked to shred things, I kept the bear safely out of harm’s way. He just never got a name. There had been too much going on when I got him to focus on finding his name and now it seemed disingenuous to go back and paste a name over that absence.
The first year went by. I cleared the clutter of illness but left the jar of ginger snaps on the dresser. Sweetness and memory, growing stale. February 14th rolled around and I realized that, for the first time since I was 19, I didn’t have anyone to send a Valentine. I left work early so I could throw myself onto the bed and sleep until the day was over, but there sat the cookie jar and I made up my mind to deal with it.
I sat in our hammock down by the river and as the afternoon sun bounced off the water, I opened the cookie jar and let myself cry as the smell of ginger rose out of memory and into the day. I reached in and took out a heart-shaped cookie, held it in my palm and spoke aloud one good memory from my life with Richard. “Thank you for this house.” Then I threw the cookie into the river for the fish to eat. Another cookie, another gift. “Thank you for that Valentine’s Day that you ripped the ugly wallpaper out of the bathroom while I went shopping.” Into the river. “Thank you for the time you brought me roses and said that you knew you should give me red ones for love but you got the pink ones because they smelled like real roses.” Into the river. “Thank you for teaching me how to paddle a kayak.” I went through dozens of cookies, a hundred memories. With every memory, every gift, I felt lighter, as my spirit rose up as the cookies in the jar dwindled. Then I was down to just two cookies and it was time to get to the heart of the matter. I pulled a cookie out and cried for a while. “Thank you for loving me.” I threw that cookie as far out into the river as I could, into the current of the middle channel, into the deep. A few clean breaths and I reached in the jar for the last cookie. It was broken into two pieces, right down the middle. I laughed. “Thank you for this broken heart.”
A year later, I was pregnant on Valentine’s Day, just beginning to feel the butterflies that would become Vivi, and I had a new love to fill my mending heart. I passed the bears given to me by high school and college boyfriends on to Victoria, but not my Valentine’s bear. He still sat on the nightstand, keeping watch over the bassinet, for Vivi and then three years later for Carlos. After Carlos moved to his own bed, the bassinet sat empty. Over these years, the stack of gratitude journals had grown, too, and the bear’s head was perilously close to the light bulb. I moved him into the bassinet. He sat there for another year, still without a name, still never far from my side.
One morning, all five of us were piled in the big bed for family snuggle time and someone did something to someone else and Carlos ended up crying. I tried to distract him with…there was nothing in reach save my pen, a journal, a kindle and a glass of water. Vivi grabbed the bear and before I could remind her that he was mine and special to me and not to be touched, she waggled him in Carlos’ face and the crying stopped. I decided to get over it, to let life happen as it would. I showed Carlos how the bear’s arms could be opened but the tiny magnets in his paws would bring them back together. “See, baby?” I said as I pulled the arms apart, then as they popped back together I cried “BOOP!” He dissolved into giggles. I repeated this again and again and each time I squealed, “BOOP!” to his delight. Carlos took the bear and squeezed it tight like babies do. My heart lurched and sank as I watched my special bear being treated like an ordinary toy after six years on the shelf. But when my darling boy pulled the arms apart then whispered, “boop,” I knew the bear finally had a name.
One day, if Carlos counts backwards from his bear, past my broken heart, he’ll find Richard too. In a family, every story is like that. Sometimes one generation has to hold on to something for the next until it can be known by its name.