There are experiences in life that you can never really prepare yourself for. When they happen, they become ‘Real’ and you find yourself touching the divine in some way…real joy or pain brings about a kind of wonder and awe that separates us from everyday life. As I get older, I find myself looking for those Real experiences, as they are the only things that help us move forward.
When my son was born, I experienced such a moment. I obviously knew I was having a baby, that he would be a boy, and that his name was Brian Thomas. We had clothes and gear and a room all set up, but somehow when they showed him to me that December evening, I found myself astonished that I actually had a baby, that he had lived inside me, that now he was ‘here’. It got real, fast.
When my mother died, it wasn’t unexpected. She had been sick for a while with cancer, and even before that, had struggled so much with COPD and emphysema, that anyone could have guessed her life would be on the shorter side. Any time I left her presence as an adult, I wondered if that would be the last time I would see her. Every holiday as we drove away from their house, I wondered aloud if that was the last Christmas, the last Thanksgiving. It seemed like I was well prepared, as I had rehearsed what that loss would feel like for years. I thought I had a head start on grief, but I was wrong. Again, that very Real experience did and continues to bring me to my knees.
I have had other Real moments in my life, too. I’ve experienced God in real ways, connected with my dear ones, had times of clarity and supernatural peace. Many of them caused me pain and then growth, and I can see so much of that in the rear view mirror. As I get older, I want more ‘Real’, though I know it might cost me.
I fear the time when my children leave home, so much so that I can’t rehearse it ahead of time. After all, ‘Real’ is about the present moment, as that is all we have, all we are given. That is a truth that is clearer to me, all the time.
The last gift I ever gave my mother was a storybook about the Velveteen Rabbit. It’s about this process of becoming ‘Real’, about the journey she had almost completed, and the road that I am currently traveling. I read it aloud to her two days before she died, and she smiled and nodded as I read. She knew where she was headed. I want the same deep, true, Real knowledge. Amen.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
It was light now, for the moon had risen. All the forest was beautiful, and the fronds of the bracken shone like frosted silver. In the open glade between the tree-trunks the wild rabbits danced with their shadows on the velvet grass, but when they saw the Fairy they all stopped dancing and stood round in a ring to stare at her.
“I’ve brought you a new playfellow,” the Fairy said. “You must be very kind to him and teach him all he needs to know in Rabbit-land, for he is going to live with you for ever and ever!”
And she kissed the little Rabbit again and put him down on the grass.
“Run and play, little Rabbit!” she said.
But the little Rabbit sat quite still for a moment and never moved. For when he saw all the wild rabbits dancing around him he suddenly remembered about his hind legs, and he didn’t want them to see that he was made all in one piece. He did not know that when the Fairy kissed him that last time she had changed him altogether. And he might have sat there a long time, too shy to move, if just then something hadn’t tickled his nose, and before he thought what he was doing he lifted his hind toe to scratch it.
And he found that he actually had hind legs! Instead of dingy velveteen he had brown fur, soft and shiny, his ears twitched by themselves, and his whiskers were so long that they brushed the grass. He gave one leap and the joy of using those hind legs was so great that he went springing about the turf on them, jumping sideways and whirling round as the others did, and he grew so excited that when at last he did stop to look for the Fairy she had gone.
He was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.