Having been born with a cleft palate, I regularly found myself in hospital as a child, typically to have my nth set of grommetts installed. I was not usually troubled by hospital stays. My mother is a nurse, the ward and hospital were familiar to me and I was very well looked after. But, of course, there were small anxieties and the bed was not my own, so "Raggy" always travelled with me to provide reassurance. This slightly odd, pastel tartan, acrylic baby blanket from Mothercare was my childhood comforter.
I say "Raggy": it should really be "Raggy 2.0".
After all these years, the memories of my stays in hospital are hazy. I can remember getting little white plastic cups of squash from the nurses' station when I couldn't sleep at night. I remember the sickly sweet smell of the anaesthetic gas, and the sting of the cannula in the back of my hand, but not much else.
During one particular hospital stay, I left my bed. Most probably I had been wheeled away on a trolley bed, down the chilly corridors to the operating theatre. When I returned, my bed linen had been changed and Raggy was gone. I don't remember the specifics of the event, just the overwhelming absence of Raggy that followed. My whole body sparkled with a new baseline of nervous energy, as if the absence had been registered on a physiological level*. My mind skirted around a shiny, black hole signposted "It's gone", knowing better than to willingly engage with the unthinkable. Every now and then, I would misstep and fall into the black hole. My heart would beat loud and hollow, sending a lump to my throat.
And then something magical occurred. Mum and I were staying with a friend of hers. I had been settled into the spare bed, and as I lay there, sleepy, in the soft bedtime glow, I spotted something familiar on top of the wardrobe. Raggy! Full of joy, I rushed to tell Mum and I was reunited with my precious Raggy. In later years I learned that the blanket was there, carefully folded on top of the wardrobe, because Mum's friend had endured years of struggle to conceive and the loss of an infant. "Raggy" had been intended for her own child. It still moves me to think that she allowed me to keep the blanket, rather than having Mum explain that it was just a Raggy look-alike.
I think I knew it wasn't The Original Raggy. It wasn't worn and soft. It didn't smell the same, and I recognised that the discovery, far away from the hospital, was anomalous. But sufficient time had passed for me to allow this understudy blanket to take the spotlight. I was not at all surprised with the results of this lovely scientific study, which showed that children typically think that their comforter is imbued with special essence, so will not accept even an identical substitute. Of course.
Is there a familial pattern to comfort objects? Both our two boys are also resolute blanket dependents. They each have/had a simple cotton, garter stitch blanket called "Blanket" (cream for Spike and light blue for Oscar). Ben tells me he also had a blanket as a boy. His was a light, child-sized duvet called "Little Cover". Our blanket genes are strong!
It seems apt that even before they were born, I had idly considered the name Linus for our boys. That smart little boy, who took 35 years to outgrow his blanket, was my favourite Peanuts character**. Oscar, in particular, has taken on a Linus mantle, even if he ultimately avoided the appellation. Outlandishly bright and wise, he is also the peacemaker in our family, just like little Linus.
We did not steer Spike and Oscar towards blankets. Comforters are a child's first possession. The first object that exists meaningfully, sentimentally outside of the parent-child relationship. Of course, they must be self-chosen. I half-hoped they would gravitate towards the hand-knitted blankets I made before Spike was born, or the smooth poplin and double-gauze blanket I painstakingly sewed for Oscar, or any of the numerous sweet, soft toys they were gifted in their early years. But they both chose the plain blankets we covered them with at night.
Spike's blanket held extra-special significance. It was with him, always. Day and night. He drew courage and reassurance from its woolly threads. It was also responsible for helping to forge early relationships with important others, where other more conventional approaches would fail. He would chuckle gleefully when an ABA tutor's head would pop out from behind it, or when a nursery teacher would throw the blanket high into the air for him. Spike's blanket helped draw him towards us; it calmed stormy meltdowns; it transitioned him from over-stimulation, to relaxation, to sleep.
And so, when it was lost, we were devastated.
It was a hard-working blanket and had dropped stitches and unravelling trim. It was an uncolour, its former milky creaminess lost to intense amounts of loving. To the untrained eye, it did not look like a vital object, but rather an old rag. We should not have been surprised that an untrained eye (a cleaner at a friend's house we were staying at) threw it, without ceremony, in the bin.
It is no exaggeration to say that the loss of the blanket struck like physical pain to both Ben and I. I cried. Ben might have done, too. We both felt guilty - culpable! It was ten times worse than losing Raggy. We should have taken better care. We both had to draw a shutter down on our feelings, because how would they help Spike, who was without his beloved blanket?
We discussed how best to handle it. We couldn't lie to Spike. Should we just tell him and ride out the emotional consequences? It was a particularly difficult question, because Spike was still young with significant speech and language delays. It seemed harsh to deal him a significant emotional blow, when he did not have the tools to articulate his feelings and navigate this hurt.
In the end, we decided that Spike sought out his blanket for comfort, and so when he asked for it, we would meet that need. So for weeks afterwards, when Spike called out for his blanket, we would drop everything and we would cuddle and squeeze and love him until all was well. I do not recall any crisis and Spike quite quickly stopped asking for his blanket. I still don't know if it was the right thing to do, but it felt right.
A few nights ago, we had a pre-bedtime scrabble in the corners and underneaths of our home, trying to locate Oscar's blanket. Ben and I knew it would turn up. The blanket had not left the house (it rarely does since Spike's blanket was lost) and no one had visited. It did, though, take an unnerving amount of time to locate***. Oscar was not so certain that it would be found, and I could see him beginning to process Life After Blanket. His typical chatter continued, but the pauses between thoughts lengthened, and his tone flattened. He was composed, uttering the verbal equivalent of matter-of-fact shrugs. "It's ok". "Things get lost". He even planned ahead, saying "If we can't find my blanket, I can sleep with one of my other blankets" but then his words trailed off. I was struck with how brave he was, but I knew that look in his wide eyes.
Been there, little boy.
* And perhaps it had. Blanket or comfort object-attached children frequently show reduced physiological measures of stress when provided with access to those objects.
** Linus described his omnipresent comforter as his "security and happiness blanket", helping to cement the expression "security blanket" in the public lexicon.
*** We found it, stuffed in a sleeping bag.