Today, I finished reading Jennifer Weiner’s new book, “The Next Best Thing.” When I interviewed the author this afternoon, I semi-gushed over some aspects of the book: the lead character, Ruth, and how everyone can relate to her; the manner in which Weiner connects readers to the story; and how Ruth’s grandmother is so wonderfully crafted.
But one point where I stopped myself from gushing was in regards to a scene in the book where Ruth is 8 years old. She’s sitting in a hospital room, in between surgeries to repair her in the wake of the car accident that killed her parents. Ruth and her grandmother are curled up in the bed watching “The Golden Girls,” and Ruth imagines she can make the screen melt away, that she can crawl into a world where we pick our families and everyone can be a hero in her own way.
The moment reminded me of my own hospital scene: I was young, I think 5 or 6 years old, and in my own hospital bed at a children’s facility in Massachusetts. Doctors were working to determine why I, a seemingly healthy little girl, was suffering from grand mal seizures. (It would be determined later that I had a kidney infection so awful that I would spike very high fevers, which would bring on the seizures.)
My mother was at my bedside most of the time, and my father would join us after or before work, and he would sit with me and make me laugh. We would watch cartoons and TV shows, reruns mostly, and I would lose myself in the world on the screen.
When I was in the hospital that time, I had been rushed and admitted. Silently, I lamented the absence of my stuffed animals; oh, wouldn’t it be so nice to have something to cuddle? My parents asked me if they should bring anything from the house. Bravely — or so I thought — I told them no, that I was just fine without my stuffed animals.
The next thing I remember is my father walking into the hospital room with a bag. My mother looked up, he nodded to her, and she walked to him. They conferred quietly by the door, and I saw a smile spread across my mother’s face. She looked at me, and I could see the faintest hint of tears behind her wide-rimmed glasses.
My father, meanwhile, looked like the cat that ate the canary. He came over to me, and from the bag he pulled two new stuffed animals.
The first was a shaggy sheepdog-looking thing, with white and gray hair sticking up all over the place. This I named Fluffette. In the coming days, my father made up a theme song for her that he would sing while vigorously shaking Fluffette until her hair spiked out in all directions: “She can fluff up the room, she can make the room dark, she can flutter with her tail!” It made no sense, but it sent me into gales of laughter.
The second was a blue whale, whose name I can’t remember at the moment. My father handed it to me carefully and told me to unzip the whale’s belly. From inside spilled two tiny whales, identical fuzzy replicas of their parent. I enjoyed playing with the whale, but I really loved to cuddle it. There was something about holding it close, squishing it near me and feeling the two little whale babies inside the larger one. Now I realize this probably was a better gift for a woman who’d just birthed twins, but at the time I thought it was so special.
Later that day, my mother left the bedside for a few minutes (why, I can’t recall; probably a bathroom break or to stretch her legs). When she walked out of the room, my father turned to me.
“You really seem to like the whale,” he said.
“I do,” I replied quietly, hugging the whale to my stomach.
“Do you know why I got it for you?” he asked, to which I shook my head no.
“The big whale is me,” he said slowly, pointing to the creature I held in my hands. “And the babies are you and Candice (my older sister). I’m always here to protect you.”
I looked solemnly at the whale before asking, “Does that mean Fluffette is Mom?”
My father began laughing uncontrollably, and it was then that my mom walked back into the room.
I never got to talk to my dad about how special that toy was to me from that moment on. I still have it; it’s hiding in a bin in my bedroom. Every once in awhile I take it out, hold it close to me and remember how loved I felt, how special that toy made me feel in the middle of everything.
Today, after talking to Jennifer Weiner, I thought about taking the whale out of the bin. But I realized it would be too much. My emotions would be too strong. If I had to look at that whale, I don’t think I’d have been able to go to work. I think I’d just want to lay in bed, holding it close and thinking of all the wonderful times I spent with my father, who passed away June 6.
The experience made me realize the value of a book like “The Next Best Thing.” There’s a magic gifted authors have: They can take you to a time and place in your life where, although you may not have realized it, you had everything you would ever need. It isn’t enough to simply lose yourself in a novel; you have to be able to find yourself there, as well.