On Archie’s first birthday I bought him a hardback copy of Corduroy by Don Freeman. The story about the teddy bear who lives in a department store and who is always passed up by children choosing a toy because he’s missing a button on his overalls was one of my favorite books when I was a child. I remember searching for it in basement of the Bosler Library where the children’s books were kept, and I remember sitting next to my mom on the bench beside the bookshelves while she read it to me over and over again.
Back then I liked the story because I liked Corduroy. The simple, water-colored illustrations in the book made that bear look fuzzy and soft, and I was compelled by the way his straightforward expressions concisely conveyed his emotions.
I think I also remember feeling a little sorry for Corduroy when he realized he’d lost a button and wondered if that was the reason why no one ever wanted to take him home, but I don’t think it occurred to me until I was much older that the most admirable quality of the book is it’s theme that even flawed things are worthy of love. “There’s the very bear I’ve always wanted,” proclaims Lisa, the girl in the story who discovers Corduroy in the department store’s glass display case, as she points at him with a gloved finger and looks at him with wide, hopeful eyes.
In Archie’s copy of the book I penned the date inside the front cover and wrote, Happy First Birthday, Archie! We love you very much. I remember wrapping that book up in colorful paper and deciding then to always give Archie a special book on his birthday. I’ve done that for Kit and Jack as well as Archie, and it always make me feel good to touch the books’ spines, all lined up straight and tall on the shelves in my children’s bedrooms, and remember picking out each book for each child because it felt as if that story was just right for this boy or for that girl for this instance in time.
Archie graduated from Kindergarten on Thursday morning. On his diploma, below his name, the phrase “in recognition of outstanding participation in classrooms and therapies” is printed in blackletter calligraphy. That’s a cursory description of Archie’s years spent at the Meyer Center, and even though those words are an apt account of his time there they don’t say a thing about the heart and bones of the five years Archie’s been a student.
But during the commencement program Archie and his classmates performed an adaptation of Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could,” and under the direction of Traysie Amick, a teacher and actor from the South Carolina Children’s Theatre, those children reminded us parents about the significance of their graduation.
Chug, chug. Puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong, Archie’s classmates sang out as they entered the room bedecked in costumes, and marched along the meandering train track laid down across the linoleum tiles in blue painter’s tape. When Burke, the happy little train, stopped with a jerk, Chantz, Elijah and Ryan, the funny little toy clowns, Kaylee, the doll with blue eyes and yellow curls, Shyla, the doll with brown eyes and a brown bobbed head, and the rest of the red train’s jolly load recited their lines enthusiastically. “Won’t you help us get ooooohhhhh-ver the mountain?” they asked again and again, their plea punctuated with exaggerated arm movements.
Mary Sullivan, the Shiny New Engine accustomed to pulling fine big trains filled with passengers, refused to help the little train and all the dolls and toys. Katherine, the Big Strong Engine who was used to hauling important loads filled with things for grown-ups, wouldn’t help the little train either. All of Archie’s classmates looked forlorn until Traysie declared, “Here is another engine coming, a little blue engine, a very little one, maybe he will help us.”
And that’s when Archie walked to the center of the room. He came chug, chugging merrily along and after he greeted John with an excited, “Hi, Dad!” he agreed to help the little engine and all the dolls and toys. With Traysie’s help Archie, the Little Blue Engine, hooked himself up to Burke and began to make his way down the train track, around the room.
“I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can,” the children chanted together as they marched down the track. Soon Traysie urged them to march faster until they climbed to the top of their imaginary mountain and when they did they cheered and thanked Archie, the Little Blue Engine, who chugged away from his classmates toward the corner of the room while slowly turning his hands over top of each other in repeating circles, whispering like he does when he’s reciting something alone and doesn’t want to make a mistake, “I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought could. I thought I could.”
I’ve thought a lot about the performance put on by Archie and his classmates on Thursday morning, assigning all sorts of metaphorical meanings to the characters in the play. I know when Archie was a baby, before he was even born, I felt like the red train, happy and doing my own thing until everything changed and I was unable to move forward another inch no matter how hard I tried. My mountain may have been Archie’s disability, or his heart defect, or his leukemia, or his delays, or any number of things separated or stuffed together. While I thought about the play, I imagined that the gold and black engines were all the things that didn’t or couldn’t help me get where I needed to be, and then I started imagining that the Meyer Center was our blue engine that helped Archie and me reach the top of that mountain when we most needed assistance.
If I follow this metaphor all the way out to its end, then I’d have to conclude that we’re at the top of the mountain now, Archie and me. There’s a city ahead of us, down in the valley, and together we’re moving forward and completing a journey we started a long time ago. Only I know this isn’t the end. We hitched a tow when we needed it most, but we still have to keep moving. The mountain pass will slip into stones and we’ll push forward, no matter what because that’s what we do, Archie and me.
This morning I stood in front of the bookshelf in Archie’s bedroom. I ran my fingers across his books’ spines, all lined up straight and tall on the white-washed shelves against the wall, until I found the one I’d been looking for. I pulled the book from the shelf and looked inside its cover. I held in my hands the book I’d picked for Archie on the occasion of his second birthday. I’d given this one to him in the hospital when I left Kit and Jack, who were infants then, at home with a friend and brought a cake and presents to the fifth floor pediatric oncology ward where Archie was receiving his fourth or fifth round of chemotherapy treatments.
When I looked inside that book today I saw what I’d written then, Archie, you’re our little engine that could! We love you!. Seeing that sentiment penned by my own hand made me see what I’ve always suspected but was afraid to wholeheartedly believe, what Archie’s teachers and therapists at the Meyer Center have been trying to show me all along. I may be that little red engine filled with hopes and dreams that’s traveling toward tomorrow, but it’s Archie, the little blue engine meant for switching trains in the yard whose never before been over the mountain himself, who is going to help me get where I need to be before he sets out on his own, proud and confident and smiling all the way.