Carler, you might remember, was our first son -- the not made boy-child borne of E's imagination who spent many special moments with us. (That was her way of explaining that though he is real, none of us can see him.) We snuggled him when he felt ill and enjoyed tales of his adventures at summer camp and even baked him birthday cakes. He was first E's friend, then her big brother, then her kid, albeit one who has always been older than her. He is a veritable miracle of life. E loves him dearly.
Tonight after I turned out her light, E burst into tears. Mama, I have something to tell you and I'm scared to say it.
Carler is fake.
I knew I had to choose my words carefully.
"I don't care," I told her. "I've always loved him, just like I've always loved you." Her whole body was listening. She was completely still.
"He's important to you, and he comes from your imagination and your storytelling and your heart and those are all things that are wonderful about you and important to me. I don't care if Carler's real or fake like most people use those words. He's an important part of our family."
She relaxed into my arms and burst into a new explosion of tears.
I'm scared of growing up.
"Is this about Carler being real?" She nodded.
I'm scared big kids won't understand him. I'm scared they'll laugh at me.
We talked and talked. I told her that part of growing up is deciding for yourself what you believe, even if it's not what everyone else believes. I told her that another part of growing up is not giving all of yourself away to everybody (and won't that thought lay some important groundwork for later conversations) -- that she can believe in Carler without telling anybody that she believes in Carler.
I do believe in Carler! she cried hysterically into my elbow.
"It's okay," I shushed her. "It's okay..."
I rubbed her belly until the sobs abated and then I lifted her naked arm, resting on top of the blanket, into my right hand. With my left hand I gently squeezed her elbow.
"Being five is like standing on a bridge," I told her. I finger-walked from elbow to shoulder. "The little kid years: being four, being three, being two, being one...you did those already. You're not a little kid anymore, but all the things you did and saw and believed when you were a little kid are still somewhere inside you."
I squeezed her elbow again and finger-walked from elbow to wrist. "The big kid years: being six, being seven, being eight, being nine...you're not there yet, but you can see them. It's scary for lots of five-year-olds to see the big kid years in front of them. It's normal, honey."
She cried some more.
"But where you stand now, in the middle, it's pretty special -- because you can start to figure out what kind of big kid you want to be. If you want to stop believing in things like Carler, that's okay, but if you want to carry him some more in your heart, that's okay, too."
I want to keep him forever! But I don't want to talk about him. Tell Daddy and my family to forget about him.
"I will, love. Should I forget about him, too? or do you still want to talk to me about him?"
No, you should still know about him because sometimes he might need me to tell you stories, or he might need you to make him a snack.
"Okay, love. After tonight we'll talk about him but only when nobody else is around. Do you feel better now?" She nodded.
I kissed her on her cheek and I whispered in her ear. "I love you, love. Sweet dreams. And I love Carler, too, but don't tell anyone else I said that, okay?"
Out of the darkness came, like a pressure valve released, a marvelous giggle.
Protecting Carler's identity is tantamount to maintaining my daughter's trust, and so it is that we say goodbye here to his stories. I'm proud and grateful that she entrusts me with her secrets, but I'll miss Carler's presence in our daily activities and narrative. He's a good boy but it appears time that we give him some space to grow up.
Fare thee well, sweet Carler.