The Velveteen Chair

Mar 30 2012

I often sit in my 5-year-olds’ room at night while they fall asleep. I think about the day. And then I write. To you. To them. To God. To me.

Being here soothes my boys. That’s my excuse.

But being here soothes me, too.

One of my twin boys rockets to Land of Sleep so quickly I’m always stunned he doesn’t give himself a concussion when his head hits his pillow with such force. He doesn’t so much fall asleep – which implies a process – as he becomes sleep. The switch flips, and he is enthusiastically done with his day.

My other twin boy wrestles with sleep like it’s a theological dilemma. If there IS sleep – and I’m not saying there is – how can I know that it’s intimately involved in MY life? … and … What’s the meaning of sleep, anyway? … and … Why does bad sleep happen to good people? 

I sit in the Velveteen Rabbit of chairs, a hard, boxy, perfect club chair that belonged a long while ago to my boys’ great-grandfather, and then to my parents-in-law, and then, ever since the occasion of our marriage 17 years ago, to Greg and me. It’s the kind of sturdy chair that makes people say things like, “They just don’t make things like they used to.” My mom-in-law tells stories of reading happily in it in college, both legs flung over an arm of the chair while her head nestled in the corner of the wingback. My boys use it today as a diving platform for jumping across their hot, raging lava floor and onto their bed.

The Velveteen Chair has been reupholstered several times throughout the decades of its rich and long life, and one glance at its patchy, anemic velour will tell you that it needs to be again. But I lack the resolve to make the change because I fear that the pursuit of beauty will somehow alter its character or release its soul or dilute its magic. And that will never do.

I sit here in the almost dark, and I listen to Cael.

“Mom?” Cael says in his sturdy voice.

“Yes, Cael?”

“Why does lava bubble up from a volcano?”

“We’ll talk about it in the morning, Cael. It’s sleeping time.”

And a few minutes later…

“Mom?” Cael asks, wide awake.

“Yes, Cael?”

“When people go into outer space, they can’t breathe. That’s why they wear space suits. Right, Mom?”

“We’ll talk about it in the morning, Cael. It’s sleeping time.”

And a few minutes later we do it again.

And a few minutes later we do it again.

And a few minutes later we do it again.

Until I’ve said “Yes, Cael.” and “We’ll talk about it in the morning, Cael. It’s sleeping time.” at least four thousand times.

For a long time, I thought I should stop him at “Mom?”

But every once in a while, he whispers something that tugs at my heart.

“Mom?”

“Yes, Cael?”

“What’s that sound?”

It whistles as it blows. To me, it’s comforting, being warm and cozy inside while the storm rages. I’ve learned that the storm always rages, that it’s ever-present, that it’s part of life. And so I’ve learned to love it when there’s shelter and we’re all curled up together and safe at home. To Cael, though, the wind is a stark reminder that storms exist at all.

“It’s just the wind, baby. It’s just the wind,” I say, which soothes him for reasons I don’t understand.

I don’t want to miss these questions. These thoughts. So even though I tell him that we’ll talk about most things in the morning, I still keep my foot in the conversation door, not closing it on “Mom?”

“Mom?”

“Yes, Cael?”

“Are you going to leave?” He means tonight and as soon as I fall asleep.

And I have to say, “Yes, Cael. I’m going to leave.”

He’s sad. And I think the Velveteen Chair is sad, too. And I know the mama in the story is sad. Because I am her. And I’m going to leave.

I don’t poo-poo his five-year-old fears at being left by his mama. I don’t tell him that he has a twin brother whose hand is mere inches away and ready for holding. I don’t suggest that he should be brave, because courage in the night is never an expectation I have of anyone at all. I don’t remind him that he ends up in my bed still every single night and that our minutes apart from each other will be few and fleeting.

Because I know that it’ll only be a short while – just a matter of the growing-up years – ’til I say, “Cael, are you going to leave?”

And he’ll say, “Yes, Mom. I’m going to leave.”

I pet the arm of my Velveteen Chair, hand moving with the grain of the fabric.

Being here soothes my boys. That’s my excuse.

But being here soothes me, too.

The Velveteen Chair knows. I think she really does.