by Jill McCorkle
When my son was eight, he went through a period of time where he was obsessed with death. He referred to it as “my fear” and often had trouble sleeping. My father had died just before Rob turned two and so his memories of that time would have been very limited. However, with the desire for my children to know who my father was, I talked about him often and told stories about their interactions with him. I told Rob how I couldn’t keep him away from the hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom. If there was a chair beside the bed, he managed to climb up on it and try to pull himself over the bar. Numerous times I caught him babbling away and patting my dad the way he might’ve the head of a dog and once I found him all the way in the bed. One day near the end of his life, my dad asked me to lift Rob up into the air, way up, he said, I want to see his whole body. It was on this same day, he directly addressed what was happening, something he had not really done since his diagnosis two months before. He said: I wish that I could be there to watch them grow.
When Rob was almost four, he experienced what he called “big little.” I’m not entirely sure what exactly was going on, I just knew that I felt closer to my dad during that time than I had since he was alive. Rob would come home from pre-school and tell me that he had seen my dad at his school. When questioned, he told me that he came every day when they were on the playground. I said, “Oh, I would love to see him,” and Rob said, “I can take you. But,” he added, “I have to drive.”
I have often thought that his desire to “drive” me where he wanted me to go is not unlike what we try to do on the page as we shape our visions and images—our stories—in a way we hope will translate for others and have the power to take them there. One night he called me into his room to tell me that “big little” was happening. I asked what this meant and he said: everything is big and everything is little. Worried that something might be going on with his vision, I asked that he close his eyes, relax. “Now tell me what you see,” I said, and he responded: “All I see are Grandfathers.” I said, “You mean Grandpa David?” his grandfather who was still alive, and he said, “No, all is see is your Daddy.” He lay still, his eyes closed, and then he said, “Oh, and there you are, Mommy,” he pointed out into the dark room, “and you’re just a little tiny girl.” Sometimes “big little” scared him and I’ll confess it scared me a little at first. But I also found it very comforting, this thought that maybe my Dad’s wish had come true and he indeed was watching. “Big Little” is now a story I like to tell when people are talking about experiences when they feel connected with something or someone beyond the realm of their own present lives. And again, isn’t this what good fiction successfully does? We see it all unfold on that personal movie screen we have in our minds, the same screen used for childhood make believe, fantasies and wishes.
I’m not entirely sure what accounted for “the fear” to begin four years post “big little”; it was before his other grandfather died. Rob now tells me he suspects it was from watching one of my favorite movies “What About Bob?” and the scene where Bill Murray talks at great length about his fear of death. Oops. Whatever kicked it into play, it was vivid and all-powerful. I had found that so many childhood phases rolled out as quickly as they rolled in, but “the fear” continued in such a way that it seemed like getting a little help from an outside source would be a good thing.
At the time, Rob was also obsessed with Pokémon, the Red Sox, boycotting Hebrew School, and shooting basketball, which he would do for hours at the time. There was a free standing Fisher-Price goal in the Doctor’s office and I remember sitting in the waiting room and hearing the thump thump thump the whole fifty minutes he was in there. On the way home, the talk was mostly about basketball. I heard how many times he got it in and how many times the Doctor did not. “I like him a lot,” he told me, “but he’s not a great shot.” What I learned later of course was that a whole lot was being discussed in-between shots.
When asked what he would wish if given three wishes, Rob’s first wish was to live the normal life of a man plus one hundred years. His second wish was that everyone he loved could live a normal life plus one hundred years. And his third wish was for a Papillion. We already had a big sweet lab and a watchful Sheltie, but it seemed in light of “the fear” that this last wish that could come true, should.
Where is all of this going? I’m telling a story. And it is connected to the topic I was interested in lecturing about last residency. Show AND Tell. I’ve told the background of a particular time and now I will show the outcome.
A kid in baggy jeans and Red Sox jersey walks into a pet store where there are a lot of dogs waiting for the right home. There is a woman running the place who overhears the desire for a Papillion and sees the boy and his sister running from cage to cage, falling in love with first one and then the other. The sister loves and wants them all, but the boy has his heart set on this very particular kind. A Papillion, if you don’t know, is a teeny tiny thing with great big ears that when up look like a butterfly landed on the head of a Chihuahua. I had already called a few breeders only to learn that these delicate creatures (aside from being quite pricey) are more likely to be placed in homes without existing larger dogs and children running in and out all day.
“There’s a Papillion,” I heard Rob say and he pointed at a little black fur ball in the corner of a pen. The woman immediately swooped over and informed him that he was exactly right! “Not full blooded,” she said, “but there is definitely some Papillion there.” I think everyone over the age of eleven (my daughter’s age) knew that this was not true but I was willing to let imagination take over at this point. And that is the story of how we got Buster.
Buster has been determined as a Shi-Poo—shitzu and poodle blend—and he’s a scruffy little 12 pound dust mop who thinks he’s a big dog; his ears do not stand up high like a butterfly but flop like his Beatle style haircut and Dr. Seuss looking tail. Still, we call him our Papillion and have for fourteen years now.
If you came into our house, you would see this elderly little guy in a blue argyle sweater curled on a blanket and snoring like a truck driver. He is deaf except for the highest pitched whistles, and his vision is fading fast. You would see him there—little old dog sleeping—and I could point and say: There’s Buster. Without the telling of his story, he might only serve as part of the setting, a snoring sound effect or comic relief when you touch him and he startles out of a deep deaf sleep. And in the present moment, he is all of those things. But he also has the history of getting an eight-year-old boy over the fear that kept him awake many, many nights. He is a symbol of long life and wishing good things for those you love; he is that universal wish for immortality. He is a wish that came true.
A story told promises to have a life of its own. There is the actual story as it happens—all that we see and hear and witness in a moment—and there is the reverberation and endless reflection that results from the telling and the history of the telling. It’s the blend of the concrete and the abstract, the showing and the telling. It’s the big and the little. I can show you, but I have to drive. And there’s the real beauty, because we all possess the power to drive; we all have our vehicles of choice. No two trips ever the same.