Leo, Augustine and Theodore

5:12:00 PM

We have a number of family birthdays in September, October and November.

"What shall I buy everyone?" I asked.

"Well, Thomas will be easy," said Imogen. "He always gets a teddy bear and some flowers. Do you think he minds getting the same thing every year?"

I don't suppose he does. Here is the story of Thomas' birthday presents:

He arrived in the centre of a funeral wreath and I did not like him. He was blue and soft and fluffy and any child would have adored him. But my child was dead. He had no need of a bear and so I didn’t want him. We hid him away. And there he remained for a year, forgotten as I grieved for our son.

Thomas’ first birthday arrived after a very, very long year of sorrow. And despite the very long year, his birthday arrived much too quickly. I didn’t want to celebrate. I wanted to forget. But our children had other ideas. They wanted to celebrate the birth of their little brother and so I bought a birthday cake. And I ordered flowers: a posy of lavender, baby’s breath and exquisite miniature roses. As I was paying for them, I caught sight of a little brown bear sitting on the florist counter looking at me with sad eyes. “Take me home,” he seemed to beg as I picked him up. He felt good in my hand and then I made an instant decision. “I’ll have the bear too.” I bought the small, soft bear for Thomas. I don’t know why. I just did it.

Later at home, I arranged the bear next to a photo of Thomas, together with the flowers and a candle. We called the bear Leo. He became part of Thomas’ first ever memorial display, and a birthday tradition was created.

A birthday is a sad, empty occasion when there is no birthday boy around to celebrate with. There are no squeals of excitement, no hugs and kisses, no presents… no presents? Yes, I did have a present for my son… the bear.

And then I remembered that other bear, the soft blue bear that had arrived on the day of Thomas’ funeral. The bear I didn’t like. I hunted it out. And then I realised something. All our other children had been given a bear to celebrate their births. They all had a special, soft, furry, huggable friend that they show off proudly: “That’s my birthday bear. He was given to me when I was a baby.” And Thomas, although he hadn’t needed a bear, had been given his very own birthday bear just like his siblings. He hadn’t been left out but instead had been treated like all my other children. I looked at the blue bear with new eyes. He was given the name Augustine, Thomas’ middle name and he became special.

A few weeks after Thomas’ birthday, it was Christmas. Felicity decided to make a bear for her brother as her gift. Theodore was created: a soft, long-haired, floppy bear that likes to put his nose on his toes. Theodore took his place beside Leo and Augustine.

Now on every birthday, and at Christmas, we buy Thomas a new bear to add to his collection. Sometimes we buy more than one. I feel quite excited as I set out on my quest for a cute and adorable new friend. I come home with my purchase and everyone wants to see what I have chosen. “What will you call him, Mum?” For the naming of the bear is my privilege and I have chosen saints’ names for them all. And after I have shown everyone the new addition to Thomas’ collection, I hide the bear away. I know the birthday boy isn’t here and there really is no need to hide away his presents until the big day, but I do it anyway. Perhaps I hide it away for my own sake so I can anticipate pulling it out on Thomas’ birthday and sitting it on the table in the lounge as part of his memorial display. Yes, this is one of the pleasures of celebrating a sorrowful day.

When my friend Sarah heard I’d started a collection of teddies for Thomas, she laughed in her gentle way. “But Sue, where will you put all the bears? Think of how many bears you will collect.” But I brushed aside Sarah’s question. I’d find room somewhere.

Sarah’s words re-echo in my mind as I look around my bedroom. There are bears on the top of the bookshelf, bears in a basket, and bears squashed on top of my chest of drawers. Bears lie on my bed and bears stand guard on my bedside chest. The Cardinal and Newman, who joined the family last Christmas, have invaded my desk. Yes, there are a lot of bears in my room. And we have only celebrated Thomas’ 11th birthday. They’ll be a lot more birthdays and a lot more bears.

I wonder if I should have chosen something smaller to collect and then I remember I didn’t consciously choose to collect bears. Leo just looked mournfully up at me and it happened. And now it is too late. I can’t stop now: “Thomas I can’t collect any more bears for you, they’re getting in the way.” No, I can’t say that. I guess the bears are going to keep multiplying and I have to find a way of displaying them, while at the same time, retaining the use of my bedroom. But how?

I think about when I am no longer here, when I have left this earth and have been reunited with Thomas. What will happen to all his bears? Will anyone treasure them like I do? Or will they end up on a shelf at a St Vincent de Paul shop? I don’t suppose it really matters. I won’t be around to see it happen. But wouldn’t it be nice if the bears were handed down through the family? Maybe a granddaughter will treasure them, then a great granddaughter… And maybe all our memories of Thomas will be handed down too.

And although he only lived for a single day, all our love for our little son will be passed on from generation to generation. “That bear belonged to Thomas. Her name is Mary MacKillop. Thomas must have got that bear in 2010 when Australia got her first saint. How much my great grandmother must have loved Thomas! Look at all the bears she collected for him. She never forgot.” 

No, I will never forget.

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