The Life and Death of Red

One time I hid my dad’s cigarettes. I don’t know how old I was, but I was with my dad and step-mom, out in the parking lot outside my Auntie C and Uncle B’s townhouse. We were helping them move, and Uncle B had given me this small shoe box sized wooden box, with mother of pearl inlay, brass hardware, and a matching simple lock. Everybody smoked. Everybody knew smoking was poison. My dad and step-mom smoked Merit Ultra Lights, the ones in the white and blue soft pack. Everyone wanted to quit, hence the ultra light instead of the full flavor white and yellow pack, but everyone liked their smokes. I wanted my dad to quit. I said it lots. I was worried he would get sick. Or at least I think I was, I think probably I was just aware of the ‘badness’ of smoking, and perceived my dad as ‘good,’ and thought he should chuck the ‘bad.’

I offered a trade. “I’ll quit sucking my thumb if you quit smoking.” My dad gave me a quizzical look out there in the parking lot, my aunties and uncles carrying boxes. The thumb sucking thing had been a point of contention between us of late. I sucked my thumb, no big, was my thinking, but to my dad this was a Huge Deal. Every time he saw me with my opposable digit in my puss he would yell at me to take it out. I would wait until he stopped paying attention to me, then turn my back and stick it back in. I figured we were two equals with bad habits that needed be kicked. My dad had a different perspective. “I don’t have to quit smoking, but you have to quit sucking your thumb,” he said. I felt my standing pulled out from under me, I was embarrassed, I remember a laugh from the box lugging peanut gallery of my aunties and uncles. He had a cigarette in his mouth. I sat in the back seat of the open doored car and fiddled with the lock on my new box.

My dad was pissed. He knew I’d done it but I wouldn’t fess up. When he went back inside, I locked the cigarettes in my new box. I feigned ignorance, innocence. Eventually my Uncle B said I should probably give them back. So I did. Or maybe that’s when the lock was ripped off of my new box. Or maybe that happened later. My dad continued smoking for decades after that. I quit sucking my thumb shortly thereafter. The box I hid in my closet. In it I put little special things, like pictures of my mom and brother D (who were not to be mentioned in my dad and step-mom’s house), a pin of a girl’s face in profile that was a gift from my mom, eventually books I wasn’t allowed to read (mostly pre-teen horror). It was only a few years ago that I threw out the box upon finding it mostly empty in my mom’s attic.

The concern about the thumb sucking was for my teeth. I have surmised this in retrospect based on my recent experience with Red. Red is the essential bedtime companion. A stuffed book extrapolated from Dr. Seuss’ Circus McGurkus, Red is well worn, with chewed on, rubbed off corners, little loose strings, and stuffing that has formed into lumps under the faded balancing elephants, and rattling drum-tummied snumm. C has had Red since birth. At first he was more drawn to the blue, Pat the Bunny inspired Sleepy Bunny that we named Bookaling Wookaling, but it was lost and replaced so many times that eventually its authenticity was questioned, and the rarely chewed Red was elected to replace it. We brought Red everywhere. We bought a backup, but C was too aware, named it Sister Red, and only snuggled it in a pinch. Red was the essential go-to comfort object. Better than ambien, Red was the essential bedtime element. Dave and I would search everywhere for it, run out to the car to get it, turn the car around at the beginning of a long drive to go back for it.

Last summer, C stayed with his Grammy and Grampa, what we nickname Gramparents Camp, and the problem of Red was brought to my attention in full force. It made C’s breath smelly, and that would be bad for his gums. Grammy talked to C about it, tried to ween him from his chewy succor, but in the end C won out. His addiction remained intact. Our pediatric dental visit this year was marred by an insistence by the dentist that Red chewing be eliminated. The chewing was going to give him buck teeth, and he’s already got a bit of an overbite, causing him to pronounce Th as F. How could I be such a terrible mom? The pride I had at his lack of cavities, ability to sit still in the chair while the hygienist brushed his teeth, was washed away like so much spittle in the drain as I realized that I had failed him. How could I have let this happen? Action must be taken.

C and I talked it through. It was time to stop chewing on Red. It was no good for teeth, for gums, we knew it. The negatives far outweighed the positives. We were in agreement: C’s oral health was more important than his psychological need. We set a date, we worked up to it, and we were going to stick to it. C would stop chewing Red by the time he was five. Five came and went. Red stuck around. We set a new date: the end of the school year. Dave and I were stressing out. This was serious business. We had to cure our child of his bad practice before it led to harder stuff. What if Red was just a gateway? That after Red he’d be chewing licorice whips while nodding off after coming down on the wrong end of a sugar high? Unheeded heart-to-hearts were followed by sending Red to the laundry at bedtime to avoid the temptation. Getting C to sleep without Red meant that I would snuggle him until he would fall asleep, which mostly meant that I would fall asleep at C’s bedtime, only to be woken up by Dave about 8:30 pm suggesting that perhaps we should eat dinner.

I gave in. It was too much. Red won, and I envisioned C at 15, stowing his beloved Red into his backpack for sleepovers and camping trips, his teeth so far out of his face that his lips wouldn’t close around them. I imagined masses of future oral fixations, everything from candy to cigarettes to like whatever. I began to tally up all the ways I had failed him, beginning with the pacifier dipped in sugar water when he underwent tests prior to massive head surgery at Montefiore hospital in 2010. Perhaps even the need for that surgery was due to something I had done wrong during pregnancy, or having him later in life, or myriad other ways that I could blame myself. The horror! Then just as I got over all that, forgave myself for all of the unknown reasons that everything was my fault, got next to the idea that my child would have bad teeth, corrupt gums, it stopped.

It stopped last night. Last night I asked C to get into bed, to gather what he needed for bed, and told him that I would be in to read stories in a minute. I pulled out some books and snuggled up. I didn’t notice that Red wasn’t there. For a while now I’ve been trying not to notice it. C fell asleep during Miss Nelson’s Field Day, I headed out to the kitchen to make dinner with Dave. This morning I found Red buried under a pile of t-shirts on my bedside, which is where it had spent the night. And now that I think about it, probably the previous night as well. Or maybe even a few more; those t-shirts have been piled up there for days. Red died his own honest death, now it is my comfort in the past, in passing, in things that take care of themselves.

  cousins apres swim
  snuggling with Grammy  me and my dad
  rock climbing noodling in the deep end

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