My father died on June 4th, 1993. 21 years ago. I could write about that, or the sort of man he was, or not write anything. I wasn’t going to write anything. But today I read a piece by Justin Webb (journalist, Today programme, Radio 4) about his daughter losing her beloved blue donkey in Switzerland, and how they eventually got it back.
My father died in the early hours of the morning. When we all got back to the family house, I sat up for the rest of the night holding a stuffed toy, a ring-tailed lemur handpuppet that he’d bought me because I love lemurs. Poppy the lemur became a sort of talisman from that night on, went with me everywhere, even around the world for a year, in tents and on trains, through a car crash, being chased by a hippo and getting malaria. Poppy was always there, stuffed in my backpack or down inside my sleeping bag.
And then I lost him, on a tour to Sydney with the London Symphony Chorus. We were there for New Year, it was brilliant. New Year’s Day on Bondi Beach, New Year’s Eve watching the fireworks from the Opera House after our concert. A couple of days later, I left Poppy on the hotel bed, instead of putting him in my bag as I usually did. When I got back that evening, he was gone. The sheets had been taken away and washed and Poppy with them.
I collapsed, hysterical. That’s not an exaggeration. My great friend and roomie totally understood what had happened – I’d lost my father all over again. Some of my other friends got it, some were embarrassed, awkward, lots of raised eyebrows. I begged the lovely hotel staff to check the laundry, the washing machines, anything. No sign of him. The rest of the trip was blurred and painful. My friend came back to our room one day with a furry opossum, which I still have. He wasn’t Poppy, but he represented kindness and care.
I was staying on for a week after the tour ended, and I left the phone number of my new guesthouse with the hotel, just in case. And they found Poppy. The manager phoned and said she was so pleased that she’d wanted to tell me herself. I rushed back to the hotel and there he was, looking a bit thinned out and very clean. I burst into tears again and the manager sort of did as well.
I’m delighted that Justin Webb’s little girl got her blue donkey back. In the article, he also talked about a charity called SAFE (Stuffed Animals for Emergencies), whose purpose is to bring soft toys to children who have seen trauma. He says this: “There is a big relief effort to help the millions of Syrians now living in refugee camps but I doubt that soft toys are at the top of anyone’s agenda. Perhaps they should be; if not at the top, then at least on it somewhere. Let us not be sentimental: Syrian children need all manner of things before they need stuffed animals, but still, to a child who has lost everything, a stuffed toy can be a step back from the brink of total despair.”
I still have Poppy and I still take him all over the place. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him again; it’s not something I want to consider. I’m sure there will be people reading this who think ‘how ridiculous,’. Perhaps it is. Responses to grief are not quantifiable. Until I lost Poppy, I had no idea how I would react, or even if I would. I no longer question it, and I certainly don’t care that other people may indeed think it’s ridiculous. (If I did, I wouldn’t be blogging about it now, would I?) Soft toy, photos, letters, gifts. Doesn’t matter. They mean what they mean. And I know what Poppy means.