There's This Bear in Honolulu



There’s this bear in Honolulu that looks exactly like me. No one has ever commented on it, but the resemblance is uncanny. Our faces are nearly indistinguishable, our expressions mirrors of each other. In Hawaii, the bear lives on Bertram Street on the island of Oahu—always that island, though the bear has roamed over it a fair bit, as bears tend to do, especially the smaller ones who don’t take up much space in terms of habitat and thus go unnoticed or at least unmonitored for long periods of time. I’ve never seen the bear on Oahu; the last time we saw each other was in Montana, when I was 33, and the first time was in Washington state, the day of my first birthday. Between ages one and 33, we saw each other almost every day, in every place I lived. 

The bear’s name is Cocoa and we are the same age, but if you saw Cocoa, you’d immediately think of a child, whereas I pass for an adult most of the time. I don’t look like my history; by happenstance and by design, it doesn’t often show on my face, though it’s become alarmingly clear in my nervous system and hormones as I've aged. This bear, though—you can tell exactly where there’s been trauma. There’s a lighter colored, horizontal band across the back of his head from a close call with a baseboard heater one Montana winter, and he’s snugly flattened from being held tightly for decades by someone terrified of life and the world, who imprinted on a small bear the way orphaned ducklings will imprint on a hand wearing a duck puppet, or a friendly farm dog. I don’t know how his years in Honolulu have changed Cocoa. There’s a chance, one I don’t like to think about, that he might have left the island after all, or have ventured into a neighborhood where I can’t track him. 

I sent him away for what I thought would be a short time. He had helped me for so long and I was trying to help someone else. I sent him Priority Mail from Nashville to Bozeman when my mother was going through her first round of chemotherapy, to be with her when I couldn’t. I have a photo from sometime later, near her death, when she was far beyond the tantalizing promise of drug cocktails and her misleadingly puffy chemo face had sunken into the gauntness of cancer’s reality. She is holding him in her arms. My brother is leaning over from a chair next to her bed, kissing her forehead, and she is smiling. The bear is facing the camera, facing me; his back is against her chest, his face just under her chin. My oldest niece, now almost 10 but barely out of babyhood at the time, was smitten with Cocoa then too, and carried him around the house during those last months. He sat strapped into her car seat with her when we went out, which was rarely for long because all time was borrowed time—we thought every day was going to be the last because that’s what we’d been told, and every half hour trip to the grocery store was fraught with anxiety. But driving can also be good for calming anxiety, and so sometimes we drove, caught in the paradox, out into the foothills on gravel roads, through new developments in what were once fields, up to lakes in forests where we’d camped as kids.

I’m not exactly sure of Cocoa’s whereabouts in the year between his shipping and the last three months of my mother’s life. I’m not sure if he was with her in Seattle when she went to a hospital there for Debulking Surgery, a term that makes it sound like she spontaneously decided to have some liposuction done or excessively huge biceps shaved down, and not what it actually was, which was the cutting out and disposing of all the organs in her reproductive system, plus some stragglers, in the name of improving her chances of staying in remission. What do the fallopian tubes look like as they come out of the body? Does a surgeon lift out the uterus out in one piece? Does the formidable apparatus that created complete human beings from a tiny collection of cells go into a bucket on the floor, or is there a laser that destroys everything on the spot? Does the hospital burn everything once a day in one big whoosh, or do they have to burn like with like, everybody’s ovaries one day, bad kidneys the next, testes on Tuesday? And while you have a woman’s body open under bright lights, noticing that there are no apparent tumors in the ovaries you’re removing (an absence later tests will confirm), would you not notice that the adjacent digestive system looks kind of…lumpy? Like maybe there’s some kind of out-of-control growth blocking it and the woman isn’t actually in remission? I wasn’t in Seattle. I have no idea what a digestive system looks like during a Debulking Surgery, or if it is even visible. All I know is that parts of my mother were gone when she came back, but not the parts that were killing her. It was all for nothing. Or, no: it was all for further suffering. Was Cocoa there? I’d like to think so, but of course I would.

Sometime after she died, a year or so after the last time our family was a complete unit and together in Bozeman, my brother and his wife visited again, now with two daughters. Ruby remembered the bear. Addie met him for the first time. I wasn’t there, and no one who was knew or remembered he was a bear on loan to the dying and not a permanent resident of the household, not a childhood toy left behind decades earlier like all the other toys in the house. They thought he’d been there all along, because of course that would be the normal thing. When they returned to Hawaii, he went with them. How do you tell your three-year-old niece that her 35-year-old aunt needs her teddy bear back? What does that phone call sound like? There’s no sane-sounding way to explain this bear is not a toy but something alive, with powers very similar to those of the thunder shirt the three-year-old's neighbor’s dog wears during storms. That despite its size, this very particular bear has the ability to absorb trauma from the body holding it, for as long as the trauma continues, even when the trauma is invisible to other people. That it is because of this amount of holding and absorbing that the bear is so very pancake shaped when viewed in profile. That he was held tightly long past the point at which such bears are usually let go painlessly, maybe even absentmindedly, by people who have formed or perhaps always had a sense of their own identity. Ruby, Aunty Heidi needs this bear so she doesn't have to sit on the floor and rock back and forth with a pillow, which is very unbecoming and also disturbing, and so what you do is you just go get another bear so Aunty Heidi can stop holding pillows and hiding a tiny tin of xanax in her purse. That’s what that phone call sounds like, so you do not have that phone call. Instead you wait for your nieces to outgrow the bear, because they will and you won’t, and you can wait. (You may find yourself needing to repeat this part. You can wait, you can wait, you can wait.)

I think 2018 is the year of the Return of the Bear; I think the nieces have outgrown Cocoa. Ruby and Addie have had a sense of self and worth from the get-go. They are being raised far beyond the reaches of the cult church their father and aunts grew up in; their sense of God is of a vague but loving, semi-mythological figure "similar to Santa but less realistic," as Addie puts it. The churches and religions they know all have names; they have shared language, a general lexicon and context. Ruby and Addie love the world and understand the world to love them. That is their context. They are used to hopping on a plane on the spur of the moment in Honolulu and stepping off in Melbourne or Tokyo or Portland or Montana. They experience the world as their home and inhabit it with reckless ease, unintimidated by falling or failing. I rehearse conversations to request the bear’s return with all this in mind. I turn the angle of my perception so that the story becomes funny, and calibrate the tone of my voice to match. I play this over and over in my head.

I miss the bear in Honolulu in a way I can’t talk about without sounding crazy, without giving myself away. If you could see how much this bear looks like me. If you could see us side by side. If you could see the way I do not wake up whimpering when this bear is in the room. If you could see us at six. At eight. At 25. At 33. I miss the bear in Honolulu as if it were my twin, my self, an internal organ gone missing.