When I was a little girl my dad worked every summer as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. He’d be gone for three months, and return with a full beard, a few presents, and the extra money we relied on to get through one more year on the salaries of a part time ESL teacher and a home day care provider with two small kids. I’m sure I missed him. My dad was such a fixture in my day to day life throughout the year that suddenly having three months without him must have been difficult. There was no Skype back then, no email, he would write us letters, a few of which have survived.
I do remember, or think I remember, going to pick him up at the airport on his return. It was always a bit of an event. With my sister and I in new dresses or hats (the hats were once famously were left on the roof of the car as we drove away from the airport and lost forever.) And this being the age before super-sized airport security, it was also back when you could go all the way to the gate and wait with baited breath for the passengers to deplane, craning your neck and jumping up and down to try and catch sight of the one you were waiting for.
The summer when I was four years old, my dad brought me a stuffed beluga whale back from his annual Alaska trip. I loved Raffi music, especially the song “baby beluga”, so it was an appropriate gift. The whale was a simple design with a satin lined open mouth, a stitched black eye, two fins and a tail. The whale was as long as I was tall and the story goes that when he presented it to me in the airport I wrapped both arms around her and pressed my face into her soft side, absolutely enraptured with her sudden presence in my life. I named her Whaldy. I was in a very literal phase in the naming of my toys.
Whaldy went everywhere with me. I slept with her every night, she was perfect for sleeping with, being about the size and shape of a four year old body pillow with fins. When we started the yearly flights to and from Japan, Whaldy would fly too. She was too big to fit in a suitcase, so the first few years I carried her through the airport, or used one of my stretchy headbands as a belt to attach her to my side. Later my mom made a special carry-on bag for me. It was like a duffel bag, the perfect size for Whaldy to ride in, and lined with pockets for all my books and games and snacks.
My dad was pretty fond of Whaldy too, he would often borrow her and take a nap on the floor with my whale for a pillow. When I was in college, my mom found a stuffed orca whale and got it suggesting I might want to give it to my dad so he’d finally have his own whale to sleep with. But the orca, while large and lovely and plush, wasn’t structured in quite the same body pillow like proportions, and so I just kept her, and let her and Whaldy hang out together on top of my dresser.
As I grew up I would sometimes pretend to be an adult and not sleep with my whale anymore, especially If I had company. I would move Whaldy off the bed and pretend that she always stayed on the dresser with the orca, looking on. After all, it was silly to still take a stuffed animal to bed, and I could sleep just fine without her, so she’d often stay on the dresser for months at a time.
The day my dad died I came home to an empty house. My roommates and I were in the middle of moving, and they had already started sleeping at the new place. I was a numb, slow moving, shadow of a human being. I’d spent the day moving from one room of my dad and stepmom’s house to another, drinking water whenever anyone gave it to me and trying to come to terms with this being my life. I thought I might go spend the night with my sister, but once I got home I couldn’t face leaving again, not even to drive what amounted to around the corner and climb the stairs to her apartment. Instead I took Whaldy off the dresser, wrapped by arms around her, pressed my face into her side and cried until I fell asleep. I didn’t sleep well that first night, but it was only by holding tightly to the stuffed whale that had been by my side for the last twenty eight years, that I managed to sleep at all.