Saturday, February 11, 2012

Suspending Disbelief

I wrote this post last week Friday, but forgot to post it...I think.

Quite some time ago, I posted about Matthew's imaginary friends.  Sadly, I can't seem to find that post, or I'd reference it here.  From the time he was about 18-24 months old, Matthew has had imaginary friends.  His first was Owl, and Matthew carried his imaginary owl in cupped hands for months...maybe as long as a year.  He talked to Owl, stroked him, cuddled him.  It was very sweet.  As he got older, he created PippiFire, and Oh Canada; ultimately, though, it was a humanoid-looking squirrel by the name of Bambi who captivated Matthew's imaginary world.  Bambi was arguably his longest-lasting imaginary friend, and he loved Bambi.  A year ago, most of Matthew's drawings featured Bambi and his various escapades, and we had lots (and lots) of conversations about what was going on with Bambi.  Bambi was a fixture in our household.

Yesterday, while I was doing some early-morning cleaning in places that don't often get cleaned, I came across a Bambi picture that Matthew had created last spring...a picture of Bambi getting ready to play hockey!
I sat down and looked at that picture and thought about how long it has been since Matthew and I have had a conversation about Bambi.  That little drawing, on which I had noted the date, was the last time, to my knowledge, that he drew Bambi.  It's like Bambi up and died last June.

You see, the imaginary friends stopped last June when we brought Seth and Lizzie home...sadly, the transition in our family did something to Matthew's imaginary creativity.  Matthew's little world of manufactured friends came to an end exactly when his new reality came crashing down around him.  I still can't get over how striking the timing was of those two events in Matthew's life: one gain; one loss.

My eyes full of tears, I looked at that little picture of Bambi and I sat nostalgic for some of those times past, when Matthew was the one and only, and when he still loved to live in other worlds.  Of course I'm a thousand times glad that the younger kids are here now, but still...there are many poignant memories of our life before.

A little while later, I showed Matthew his Bambi picture.  He audibly sighed and touched Bambi with his finger. Stoked him down the length of him.  He smiled, somewhat wistfully it seemed to me.

"Bambi," he breathed.

"Yeah, Bambi," I echoed.  "It's been a while huh?"


"Do you miss him?"  I asked.

"Sometimes," was the answer.  "I guess I've moved on."

(bit of a gut clench for me)

"You don't need to," I said hopefully, almost question-like; I reminded him then of Owl, Pippi, Fire, and Oh Canada.

"We'll see," he said, closing the conversation loop.

I determined in that second that I needed to do at least something to spark that boy's imagination again.

The opportunity came sooner than I expected...the same day, in fact.

When I called the kids for breakfast a little while later, Matthew came running.  He was carrying one of his teddies - a big, pillow-like frog

that he's had since infancy but which gets inconsistent attention.  He plunked Froggie down on the kitchen counter and then sat down at the table for breakfast.

Then he said, "Mom, Froggie might be hungry, too."

I bit back my first response (which was oriented towards getting our breakfast going) and said instead: "Oh yeah?  Might Froggie like a little cereal?"

Apparently Froggie was amenable because Matthew got out a tiny dish and put a little bit of dry cereal in the bottom of it.  The dish was placed carefully just below Froggie's grinning mouth.

Seth, ever my little realist, immediately said (in the tone of you idiot) "Matthew, it's not reeaal - it can't eat!"

Matthew shrugged his shoulders, said "I know," and sat down to eat his breakfast.

Now, despite what you might think of me, I'm no idiot; I know an opportunity when I see it.  You may already know about me, from past posts here, that I am definitively not a cultivator of things such as Santa or the Easter Bunny or even the Tooth Fairy...but I'm all for my kids having as fertile an imaginary soil as possible.  Matthew's soil has been a little barren of late, and Seth has been learning how to plant the seeds of a creative inner life - imagining things is hard when life has, frankly, been unimagineably hard and when reality has been plenty enough to deal with.

I figured I needed to find a way, without the kids knowing it, to get some of that cereal out of Froggie's little dish.  I so wanted, even if for a moment, to see a look of wonder on my boys' faces.  Even if they figured out right away that I was the culprit behind the missing food, I wanted that moment for them.

Eventually, knowing it was risky, I got up from my chair at the breakfast table while engaging the kids in conversation...hoping that they would not notice that I'd gotten up.  I moved silently towards Froggie as he lay unsuspecting on the counter.

"What's the weather like outside today?" I asked when I was abreast of Froggie.  "Have we had any snow overnight?"

All three kids turned to look out the patio windows.  For about two seconds, they looked.  I frantically picked up Froggie's little dish and dumped most of the cereal into my hand.  Heart actually pounding and feeling triumphant, I moved back the three feet to the table and slid into my chair.  The kids had turned back to the table by this time, but none of them had registered my movements, and they continued to chat about the snow and what their plans were for it that day.

After breakfast, Matthew went to get Froggie before running upstairs to get dressed.  As he pulled Froggie off of the counter, he glanced into the little dish and gasped.  He stopped dead in his tracks.

"Mom," he said in a quiet tone full of wonder, maybe disbelief.  "Look!"  He held out the bowl.

"What's up?" I asked casually, pretending not to notice.

"It's almost empty," Matthew said.  "Seth, look.  Froggie ate the food."

Seth:  "What??  No way!  He eat it?  Froggie is real?"  He ran to the counter and stared in overt disbelief.  My little realist was suddenly confronted with possibilities of a world he's not all that familiar with.

Matthew (beaming):  "Wow, Mom, I knew he had it in him.  He actually ate...while we were all sitting there eating breakfast.  That's amazing.  Awesome."

I was thrilled.  I spoke no lie - the boys just concluded it by themselves.  I think that deep down, Matthew knew fully that Froggie is inanimate.  In fact, later in the day, when I began a conversation with him to make sure he knew that it was me who'd done the deed, he put his hand up in the air and stopped me with the words "Mom, I need to believe this right now."  His self-awareness stunned me but I was thrilled that he was willing to suspend disbelief in favour of a creation of his imagination.  It was a great reminder that his imagination is still just needs a little propping up.

And as an added bonus, a few minutes after Matthew and Seth had finished marvelling at Froggie's accomplishment, Seth ran upstairs and brought down one of his teddies: Harry the Puppy.  I've been trying to build Seth's imagination for months, with some success.  But he generally refuses to be goofy about/with his teddies - he pretty much shuns them.  When I try pretending to talk for his teddies in squeaky little voices, he just looks at me with disgust and makes some comment about the fact that I'm pretending and that the teddies aren't real.

But when he came barrelling downstairs yesterday with Harry, it was like Froggie's consumption of the cheerios had changed the entire playing field...maybe even the whole sporting event.  Suddenly Seth was speaking for Harry - in a cute, tinny, squeaky little voice.

Seth, as Harry the Puppy:  "Mommy, I'm hungry too.  May I please have some food?"

Me (stunned at Seth's willingness to pretend):  "Hi Harry.  Sure you may have some food.  How are you today by the way?"

Harry:  "I'm fine.  I like lying on the counter, too."

That began a ten minute conversation between me and Harry the Puppy!  I had a face-to-face with Harry, and Seth stood behind me, all the while staying in character as Harry.  It was awesome!  Harry ended up with cheerios in a dish, too.

Of course, I hadn't thought through the rest of my morning and the implications of my desire to cultivate all things imaginary.  The fact is that I spent a good chunk of the next few hours giving food to the kids' various teddies and then trying to get rid of the kids for a few moments so that I could take a handful or a cheekful of food away from their bowls.  All three were amazed when Froggie later ate most of a piece of chocolate on Matthew's bed with no one apparently going upstairs in the interim; and they were stunned when Harry ate all but one of his cheerios and a few almonds later on!

Even Lizzie got into it.  Eventually she brought down her Baby Stella, and wanted some cheerios for her. The greater challenge here was that Lizzie wanted to carry Baby Stella in one arm and hold the cheerio bowl in the other hand.  I had no idea how to get rid of some of those cheerios while she held the bowl, but after a half hour of Lizzie waiting and starting to get angry, I finally pulled her on to my lap,  drew her attention to something out the window, and simply grabbed a fistful of cheerios with the hope that she wouldn't notice.  She didn't!

A few minutes later, she turned to Baby Stella's cheerio bowl with the intention of starting to force feed her baby the food (she's nothing if not determined, my Lizzie!).  She instantly became riveted on the cheerios remaining in the bowl.

"Did I eat those cereals, Mommy?" Lizzie asked suspiciously. (She always mixes up the words cheerios and cereal.)

"No, I don't think so, Lizzie," I responded.  "You've already finished your breakfast."

"Oh, ok," she said with ready acceptance.  "I guess my Baby hungry."

I felt victorious by the morning's end.  Not only had I seen evidence of Seth's willingness to be silly and creative without worrying about being embarrassed; not only had I seen Lizzie readily accept the impossible; but I had seen Matthew's willingness to be re-engaged in an imaginary world.   Later in the day, I was overcome by the sight of Matthew sitting at our little craft table drawing a partial picture of Bambi.  I don't think that Bambi will be resurfacing into the friend that he used to be to Matthew, but I couldn't help but imagine, as I watched Matthew draw, that Bambi's sudden reappearance was another indicator that maybe, just maybe, Matthew's new reality might be more ready and able to co-exist with his alternate realities of old.


  1. It's nice to see that Seth and Lizzie are learning to play pretend too! Children need wonder and magic!

    When I read the first part of this post - I couldn't help but feel that maybe Matthew was lonely and needed to create these friends, as many single children do. Perhaps, Bambi 'died' because he no longer needed his companionship when his brother and sister came into his life?