Dear Lily June,
He may look, to you, like any one of a number of cute stuffed monkeys you’ll see around the world (or even around our apartment). But Monkaroo is so much more. Like the “tamed” fox in The Little Prince or the “Real” rabbit from The Velveteen Rabbit or the bear “friend” from Corduroy (all books I have read and will read again to you, young lady), this monkey has a bit of magic mixed among the cotton and fluff.
You have to understand, Lily, what he’s done for you and me, for our whole family. You may not believe it, but it’s true: Monkaroo feels like our guardian monkey.
The summer before we knew I was pregnant with you was a very hard summer for me and my whole family. I’ve talked about it before so I won’t go into all the details again except for one part of the story: Your Aunt Loren and Sully.
When my sister, your Aunt Loren, was nine months pregnant, she was in a very serious car accident. Her husband wasn’t allowed to drive at the time, and so she’d been taking him into work when another driver tapped the back of their vehicle at eighty miles an hour. That driver sped away, but my sister’s car spun into the highway’s center median, and your unborn cousin Sully slammed into my sister’s belly as it banged off the steering wheel. It was, Lily June, a very scary time, as we didn’t know what would happen–with my sister or with Sully.
As it turned out, the accident taught our family many things. For one, my sister had to undergo scans to determine if she’d suffered any head trauma in the accident, and what a neurosurgeon ultimately found was a congenital condition in my sister’s brain where the two hemispheres weren’t fully aligned.
If it weren’t for the accident, no one would have known about it or seen it, but the scans revealed that a fluid-filled cyst had formed inside this gap, making it very dangerous for my sister to do the normal everyday tasks of living–crying, laughing, blinking, sneezing. In fact, upon learning something was wrong with her brain, the first thing the neurologist told her was that she wasn’t allowed to cry out of fear, because the crying itself might kill her. Imagine that, Lily–my sister quite literally had to fear her own fear.
It’s a good thing I was allowed to cry, because I was a total wreck. On the phone with Loren, I’d fake positivity, only to turn around and ask my mother tearfully, “Is Loren going to die?” My tough-as-nails mother said what my father and I were afraid to acknowledge: “Maybe.” And then even she would break down and cry, something I could count on one hand the number of times I’d been privy to.
Then I’d call your father, who was on vacation with his brother and mother in Seattle at the time, and I’d just repeat hysterically, “I can’t– I can’t– I can’t–” At the time, I couldn’t finish that sentence. If I’d been able to, I might have said something like, “I can’t live if my sister dies.”
She has, for as long as I’ve been alive, been the closest family member to me, even though our childhood relationship was incredibly strained and rocky. My heart was already breaking for her, but after a surgical consult, they learned there was nothing more the doctors needed to do. My sister’s cyst had shrunk on its own, draining when the swelling from the concussion she’d endured in the accident had gone down. It seemed, for a minute, my family could breathe a sigh of relief.
Sully was delivered normally–or so we all thought–and my sister went home with her newborn bundle of joy to her husband and family.
As they say, sometimes when it rains, it pours, Lily. And sometimes, when it pours, it practically drowns all those who get caught in the rain.
Finding out my sister was going to live despite the congenital condition and swelling in her brain was a short-lived victory, as, once released from the care of the hospital into the hands of her husband, he resumed his abuse of her full force. As if the fact that she was going to live was too stressful for him to take, he tried to push my sister out the window of the house they shared and close the sash on her back.
She was bruised, but didn’t fall out, so he pulled her back in, and when she rushed to grab their newborn baby, her pushed her down the porch stairs of their home, forcing her to stumble back and almost fall on Sully. She was able to cradle him so he didn’t receive any of the blow, but it was the last straw in a long line of straws that had been, for a long time, breaking the camel’s back. She packed her bags and her two other children–Dave and Sophie, both pre-kindergarten–and fled to another state to live with my mother.
We thought, finally, my sister would be safe, but the continued battles she’s had in order to wrest herself and her children free of her husband are another story entirely. What happened next concerned Sully specifically.
Some months removed from their home, my sister noticed that her youngest baby was only using one of his hands. The right he would reach and grip with, but the left remained always balled into an adorable, but disconcerting, fist. Again and again, she’d try to get him to use the left side of his body, but as more and more milestones were missed, it became clear there was a medical issue with Sully. When she took him in for examinations, first by a pediatrician, and then by a slew of specialists, the diagnosis was confirmed: Sully had cerebral palsy.
The most likely culprit may have been the trauma suffered in utero as the result of my sister’s accident. It may also have been related to Sully’s delivery, as it turned out my sister had had undiagnosed preeclampsia (which I would get with you, too, Lily).
Or it could have had something to do with a brain injury when my sister was pushed and both her and Sully suffered their, what seemed at the time to be physically minor, fall. Whatever the reason, what matters now, Lily, is that your Aunt Loren has sought every kind of treatment and therapy available for Sully, and that she is raising him to be like any other member of the family: loved.
None of us knows how long Sully will get, as the extent of the damage to his brain has caused terrifying side effects, like life-threatening seizures and difficulty eating and gaining weight. And yet, he is a beautiful, smiling creature who takes great pleasure in, and emits loud laughter at, smacking and biting and attacking his older brother and sister and even their mother. He’s like the most adorable sadist you’ve ever met.
What does all this have to do with Monkaroo? I’m glad you asked, Lily. It wasn’t too far into the pregnancy that your dad had bought this monkey for me, but his true calling became obvious some months later.
Because of my mental illness, I can be incredibly selfish, so I know how this will sound, but I was terrified, riddled with anxiety from that point on, to get into, let alone drive, a car. By October, I knew that I was pregnant with you, and by December, your dad and I had to take a cross-country drive to see my sister–whose kids were by then forcibly returned to their dad by police on the basis of a small-town court system driven by lies and rumors.
My sister was, by that point, living a six+ hour drive away at my father’s. The mood of the holiday was absolute gloom, but I promised to come and see them both and to make them Christmas dinner while her two older kids, Martin and Natalia, came over.
The drive, Lily, was an absolute nightmare. I was only just cresting into the second trimester, and my anxiety ramped up to the point where I was practically clawing at the windows to escape the car. Add to that the fact that it was pouring rain, and your dad and I at one point got stuck for hours on the highway at a sight of a major accident (leading to a very unfortunate incident with urine and a bottle that we will never speak of again), and your poor father really had to survive, not just that trip, but that trip with me.
Every mile or two, I constantly begged him to go slower (regardless of the fact that he was already cruising at or below the speed limit), and I criticized and critiqued his every turn as if it were a deadly swerve. That your dad put up with me was only by the grace of you being in my belly, I think. You gave us both the incentive to be extra safe, and the inspiration for Ryan to grit his teeth and bear me. And we got to our destination safely.
The whole time, whenever things got so bad I was ready to pull my own eyelids across the length of my face to hide, I would give Monkaroo a squeeze. The gift from your dad, a reference to both my nickname “Monkey” and his love for both of us (see the heart), somehow strangely calmed me like nothing else. When I was holding Monkaroo in the car, I was able to breathe, Lily.
From then on, Monkaroo was a perpetual passenger.
Shortly after our holiday disaster, your dad, though he’d pretty much been already, became the family’s sole driver, taking us on many trips that would become scary–like the whiteout we got caught in during Valentine’s Day, when we’d gone to the bed and breakfast where we’d gotten married and ended up having to stay a night with your Granny Gramma Alison because we couldn’t even see, let alone drive, through blinding blowing blankets of snow and sheets of ice.
What kept me sane through that blizzard, despite the frozen roads and the near non-existent visibility, were the squeezes I delivered to that monkey. It’s like Monkaroo took all my fear that we, too, would end up in an accident, that anything beyond our control or imagination could happen to you–like Sully’s CP–and he absorbed it into the heart on his belly. Trip after trip through brutal winter weather saw me gripping that monkey over my ever-expanding belly.
And nothing did end up happening to you, though the preeclampsia that hit my sister after delivery ended up getting me earlier, and we had to deliver you by a C-section that led to an infection for me. Bad things can’t all be prevented, Lily, but, through it all, watching over you, there was Monkaroo.
I drive again now, and he lives, not in the car anymore, by on top of your changing table where he can keep those big cartoon eyes on you. I know, Lily, you might think me silly or strange or blasphemous or what have you to put such stock into a totem, a stuffed monkey given out of love and carried during terrifying times. Maybe you were really watched over by a Creator–though I can only believe that if that were true, he’d be watching over Sully, too, even through the accident and after the diagnosis of CP.
Maybe life is made up of tragic chances or fortune’s folly, like the tornado I lived through, where some homes got hit and crumpled like paper, and others barely ever felt the slamming of their window’s shutters. As with Sully’s CP, I guess when it comes to hard times, the causes don’t really matter so much as the love–and the squeezes–we give each other during and after.
Can Monkaroo prevent anything bad from happening to you?
As much as I wish it were true, I don’t think any monkey, no matter how large and knowing his big pooling purple eyes seem to be, can have that much magic. Monkaroo, Lily, doesn’t exactly protect you; that’s a job for your father and me. What he does do, though, is give you a soft place to squeeze your sharp fears into. I like that I can see him each day as I change your diaper, and he reminds me that you and Sully are no different–you were both born to mothers who want nothing but the best for you.
We could learn, at any moment of your development, that there’s something different or special about you. It’s my biggest fear, Lily, not that you won’t be “normal,” but that, if you have your own “disability,” that I won’t know how to help you. And I’ll have to turn to my sister, as I’ve always done, and beg her to tell me what to do. And she will share some anecdote or advice she’s learned from raising Sully, as she once told me, as I was terrified early on that you weren’t putting on weight, “Sometimes I still worry about Sully, too, Alyssa, and about what his quality of life will be. But I look at him, and he’s alive right now. He’s here. He’s here with me.”
And no matter what the future may hold for you or Sully, Lily, you’ll always be, like the heart that Monkaroo’s stitched paws hold, a part of us, your mothers who love you with fierce fear and pride and love and a healthy dose of insanity.