This past fall, a dear friend of mine developed a brain infection, followed by a massive stroke. I had always thought of Nancy, a gifted artist, as the other half of my brain. Since I was 19, Nan had been my confidante, mentor, friend and surrogate mom. My own mother, who died six years ago, was schizophrenic and incapable of being the stable parent I needed. Nancy had filled that void for more than 30 years.
After I learned of her illness, I had a hard time falling asleep. One night, before going to bed, I opened a book by one of my favorite Buddhist authors, hoping she could offer some pre-sleep comfort and enlightenment. But her words did nothing to help. I couldn’t focus. My mind kept ticking away: Is Nan going to be OK? Is she still there, somewhere in the forest of lost sentences that is her brain?
And then my frantic monkey mind moved on to other worrisome thoughts: my distraught friends who were still dealing with the aftereffects of Superstorm Sandy, the tragedy at Sandy Hook, my own personal woes. Some days it seems as if there is just too much sadness and chaos in the world.
I tried reading another page and gave up. Then I turned to something that often brings me solace: Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s a story about an arrogant, vain china rabbit who must learn the hard lesson of love, through loss and struggle and loss once again. I opened the book and saw these lines from the poem “The Testing-Tree” by Stanley Kunitz: “the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking. / It is necessary to go / through dark and deeper dark / and not to turn.”
Yes, I said to myself. I read those lines out loud, softly, my husband asleep by my side. And then—I admit it—I picked up something soft and fuzzy from my nightstand: a plush brown bunny with white ears. I keep it there for emergencies, along with my favorite picture books, Russian fairy tales and a collection of Yeats. These things comfort me. They renew my sense of wonder, especially in these dark times.
This past spring, I found myself, once again, with a bunny in one hand, rabbit book in the other. It was the night after the Boston Marathon bombing, and I was exhausted from grief. I asked myself, What else comforts me in my darkest hour? I made a mental inventory: My hand cupping my husband’s ear as he dozes off into dreamland. Our little dog, Sadie, curled up at my feet, her face turned toward the door. Why I cup my husband’s ear is a mystery. Why Sadie offers us her backside and not her sweet face is a mystery, too. But this arrangement soothes me. As does the heavy green mug I sip from, full of hot milk and molasses, when I need something to help me sleep. And now, since Nancy’s death in January, the photograph of her I placed on my refrigerator brings me the most comfort of all.
Sometimes a book about enlightenment can only go so far. Sometimes we need to return to elemental things, those soft, simple comforts: the sound of our loved one’s steady breath, the warmth of our dog, a picture book and, yes, even a plush bunny. For these things are the stuff of childhood. They are hope and wonder. And they are love.
MIRA BARTÓK is the author of The Memory Palace, winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography
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