When Love Means Letting the Bear Sing

IMG_9898-smWHEN THE BATTERIES FINALLY DRAINED, the teddy bear’s mouth gaped like a fish in death throes on the beach.

The bear’s original spirited recording of Toby Keith’s hit, “I’m Proud to be an American,” played out now as if the singer had nodded off in the recording studio sipping whiskey.

But that powering down sound sounded so good to us — at least to four of us in our five-member family — as we listened to what we hoped would be the bear’s swan song while we lounged in our jammies around the livingroom’s gas fireplace before hustling off to church last Sunday morning.

For at least a week we had put up with our youngest family member, Ray, 6, compulsively pressing the paw of the little bear dressed in desert fatigues to start the song.

I appreciated the music as patriotic until it rubbed my eardrums raw. Then, I cringed at the opening measures and blacklisted it forever as jingoistic drivel.

This story nevertheless is a love story — one that Hallmark card writers forgo in their Valentine’s Day lines because it highlights how love means putting up with people and honestly wondering more about how they surely put up with you, too.

So, the story went at our house a week ago, except that we were barely putting up with this bear and his boy.

Most of us unwittingly had memorized the lyrics of the first verse and chorus embedded in the bear’s sound chip. And we applauded Ray for singing another word in the lyrics after another dozen times through the song  — a feat for a boy slow to talk due to Down syndrome: “If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my LIFE, and I had to start again with just my children and my WIFE. I’d thank my lucky STARS to be living here toDAY, ‘cause the flag still stands for FREEdom, and they can’t take that aWAAAAAY…”

Sometimes, Ray would dance around the kitchen with the singing bear. Other times, he would rock the bear in his arms as if it were a newborn. Occasionally, he hauled the bear around in a fireman’s rescue carry.

His life became very quickly bear-centric, and so did ours, and we did not like it.

Eventually, we got so sick of this, that my two older boys — Carl, 9, and Andy, 8 —  devolved with me into the moral equivalent of Gollum, the craven character with pointy teeth, stringy hair, and pale skin in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series and “The Hobbit.”

Carl hid the bear in a livingroom corner where two bookshelves meet so that Ray could see it and touch it for comfort without being able to retrieve it for yet another paw squeeze.

“Mom, it’s like that story about the monkey who reaches in for a banana, but can’t get his hand out without letting it go,” he explained.

Andy stuffed the bear upside down in a corner behind his dresser.

I forced the bear to sit like a hillbilly on a haywagon with his legs dangling off the kitchen counter during meals and eventually hid him on top of the fridge.

But our boy with lots of bear love somehow knew this and frantically would point up, which made us all feel guilty, indeed, for not indulging him in such a simple pleasure.

Still, we kept the bear up there in the peanut gallery for long stretches to spare ourselves aggravation.

Inevitably, we found Ray the day before the batteries fizzled slouching alone on the top step of the stairs with his hands folded in his lap as he quietly became undone.

His IQ may be on the lower end of the spectrum, but his emotional quotient is genius.

Ray felt all of our bear burnout and subsequent meanness, and he took it personally.

The corners of his mouth turned down into a deeply etched frown before a single, Skittle-sized tear rolled out of his right eye.

My husband cracked then, told Ray that he would fetch the bear from its perch, and that Ray could squeeze the bear’s paw with abandon — but only in his room with the door closed.

By Sunday morning, the bear was in danger of being just another stuffed animal in Ray’s collection — not the one whose mouth moved when he sang his special song.

And it would have been very easy for us to justify the malfunction to Ray with two words that he absolutely understands: “Dead battery.”

The boy might buy that, and let it go.

But no.

My valentine, my husband of nearly 13 years, quietly slipped away then and returned within a few minutes to hand the bear over to Ray as good as new– energized.

This whole family drama wakes up a truth about me and perhaps about most of us most of the time.

So much of what we do is predicated upon us playing our favorite songs, not someone else’s.

But because of Ray’s age and developmental stage, which will always be delayed, he rarely gets to deejay.

So, the bear breakdown prompts me to wonder more about what of mine he would put on top of the fridge if he could?

And if he could, would he?

May be this small story is about big love, about letting the bear sing and letting the boy dance and letting yourself enjoy someone else’s song exactly because it is all theirs.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at p.mellskog@gmail.com or at 303-746-0942.

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