Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Toy Stories

The last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner begins, “Christopher Robin was going away.” In it, the animals in the Hundred Acre Wood throw Christopher Robin a going-away party, and when it’s over, he and Pooh find an enchanted place in the forest, a circle of trees where “they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky.” The boy, who is going away to boarding school, discusses all the things he’s learning, and the bear dimly tries to keep up. The boy, who loves to do Nothing, wistfully says that he won’t be doing Nothing as much anymore. “They don’t let you,” he says. He asks Pooh never to forget him, and hopes that whatever happens, Pooh will understand. But Pooh, of course, doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to understand. It ends:

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

I can’t get through this chapter without crying. I can’t even get through talking or writing about it without crying. The first (and only) time I read it out loud to Dante, I couldn’t hold my voice steady, and as soon as it was over, I fled the room, into Laura’s arms. It wasn’t just tears welling up — it was anguished, full-body sobs, a torrent of them. Lucky for me, Dante was awfully young, and I don’t think he could tell what was going on.

Why this intense reaction? I never understood it all that well, though I always vaguely assumed it had something to do with grief and loss. Recently, though, I gained a bit more insight, courtesy of a visit to the movies: the double feature of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. The latter movie has a similar moment, only slightly less heart-piercing than the Pooh chapter. In it, Sarah McLachlan sings a song called “When She Loved Me,” from the point of view of a toy who’s been outgrown by her owner. I was ready for it, having seen the movie before, but as I watched it, I felt those same aches, that same weeping flood, barely held in check.

At the end of the second movie, I understood it all a little better. It is, largely, about loss, a few different flavors of it. On top of the stack is the loss of my own childhood. It’s inevitable, of course, and many of the trade-offs that come with adulthood are fantastic, but for those of us whose childhoods were light on trauma, there’s a purity and joy back there that feel irretrievable. Pooh’s befuddlement goes hand in hand with his contentment, because the more sophistication creeps into our understanding of reality, the more compromised we are in our ability to hold the simple belief that everything is going to be okay. That’s innocence, and it gets obliterated by experience. Even when things are great, there is much to do: obligations to fulfill, relationships to navigate, maintenance to perform. The mind’s sky can never again be pure and cloudless in the way it once was.

Every toy in the Toy Story movies feels these clouds gathering. They live in fear of yard sales, or even simply being shelved. They don’t want to be outgrown. Kids invest a great deal of their psyches into favorite toys, but kids don’t stay kids. As the “When She Loved Me” montage so concisely shows, that psychic investment gets redirected into new things, until what once seemed so special sits neglected for years, or is discarded altogether. We’re in a rush to grow up as it’s happening, and it’s only from the vantage of adulthood that sentimental feelings begin to form around what those childhood toys represented: simplicity, innocence, an un-self-conscious sense of fun and happiness. They don’t let you do Nothing anymore. When adulthood is stressful and difficult, as it has been for me lately, those losses ache all the more.

A childhood toy is also a mirror held up to a kid’s capacity for unrestrained, uncomplicated love. Woody loves Andy like no person could love another. Woody belongs to Andy, truly belongs. I remember that feeling, that a toy loved me. I didn’t know then that it was my own ability to love, reflected back at me. The closest we ever get to that feeling again is with pets. Having just lost our cat of 14 years, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on how much that feeling means to me. Of course, a living animal is far different from a toy, but the feelings they evoke are at least close cousins. One of the notes of grief that Milne’s last chapter brings forth in me is about leaving that shade of love behind, the feeling of being loved by something that is yours completely, rather than belonging first to itself.

I don’t mean to enshrine this emotional echo chamber as somehow superior to love in adult relationships — the rewards of a richer, deeper, more complex attachment are enormous. However, those relationships are hard, much harder than anything ever gets for Pooh and Christopher Robin. For that reason, I don’t think anything can ever be as special to him as Pooh is, or at least certainly not special in the same way. When Christopher Robin knights him, Sir Pooh de Bear, that’s what he’s acknowledging.

I relate these feelings back to my own childhood, but now that I’m a parent, I get to watch them play out right in front of me as well. I see Dante’s reactions to loss, the total despair that seems to overwhelm him, even as he grasps at ideas for how the broken thing can be replaced, or how the lost thing can be memorialized. This was my first time watching the Toy Story movies as a parent, and they felt quite different to me. When Andy can’t find Woody and Buzz in the first film, I got a wholly unexpected pang, because I thought immediately of Dante and how distraught he would be (and has become) in the event that he couldn’t find his favorite companion bears, Benjamin and James.

There’s another moment in the movie that hit me even harder. The family van stops at a gas station on the way to Pizza Planet; Buzz and Woody fall out. The van drives away, leaving them stranded, and Woody says, “Doesn’t he realize that I’m not there?” And then, understanding what’s happened, he drops to his knees in utter devastation, wailing, “I’m lost! Oh, I’m a lost toy!”

Watching this scene, I found myself genuinely upset, in a way that went far beyond sympathy for the character. The movie swept me along, so I didn’t take the time to think about the feeling then, but afterwards, I was able to pinpoint exactly what I found so painfully poignant: the way Woody feels in that scene is exactly how I would feel if I lost Dante.

That’s what’s down at the bottom of these feelings. The deepest way these toy stories break my heart is that I am the toy. Sure, Pooh is a symbol for my own childhood, for innocent love, and so on, but most of all, he’s a symbol for me, as I watch my child discard his former selves, over and over. I absolutely adored 2-year-old Dante, and I’ll never, ever get another day with him. 3-year-old Dante is gone forever, and every day that passes is another goodbye to who he is now.

I have never been much of one to grasp at the fleeting preciousness of childhood like that. I am a firm believer in embracing the present and the future, and I’ve always found that the older Dante gets, the more I enjoy him. Still, I can’t deny the powerful grief that surfaces when I think that one day, I won’t ever get to feel his sweet, small arms wrapped around my neck. Like Woody with Andy, like Pooh with Christopher Robin, I belong to Dante in a way I never could with anyone else. Life with him is a hurricane, and I struggle all the time to stay balanced and functional. But at the center of the hurricane is an enchanted place, overflowing with moments of joy.

I know I can’t stop him from growing up, and I don’t want to. So when I feel the pain of a thousand tiny losses, I will cling to the belief that somewhere, in an enchanted place I keep safe in my mind, he and I will always be playing.


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  1. Oh Paul, that was beautifully articulated. I remember the Toy Story 2 scene quite well. Sarah McLachlan sure nails it.

    I know the deep emotion you are describing. I had the same experience reading the last chapter of Winnie The Pooh to my own son. Not just once, but each time.

    The earliest I remember feeling it was when I was very, very young. I think I was 4. The song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” was popular, and would play on the radio my mom listened to in the kitchen. The last verse:

    “A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
    Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
    One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
    And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.

    His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain,
    Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.
    Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave,
    So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave. Oh

    Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
    And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee
    Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
    And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee”

    I would get just inexplicably sad when I heard that verse. At the time, of course, I didn’t really understand it. It touched something so deep in me, but I couldn’t articulate it – it was just so painfully sad.

    Another time I remember it hitting me was in the show “Freaks and Geeks”. We see young 13 or 14 year old Sam bring his box of childhood toys out to the street for the trash pickup. We aren’t sure we’re ready for Sam to pass out of childhood. But pass out of it he will.

    It brings to mind the days when I studied Carl Jung. The fact that I seemed to resonate with the pain of Puff the dragon at such a young age makes me think that this stuff is ancient. A part of the collective unconscious, in Jungian terms.

    My son is now on the verge of “tween-hood”, and it rips my heart out on a daily basis. My daughter is 15, and the good news is, I can still see the innocent child in her, and know that, while we believe we have lost something precious, it is still there, albeit a slightly different form.

  2. Anonymous

    Paul — This is lovely — so beautifully articulated.
    Sian xxxx

  3. Anonymous

    (That’s funny — I didn’t realise I’d used the same phrase — I guess you know it really must be “beautifully articulated”!)
    Sian x

  4. My mom thought this was amazing. I’m not sure she knows how to post a comment, so I thought I’d pass it along. I was also very moved by it. I miss you!

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