One of the last decisions we had to make when my father was in hospice care was whether we wanted a teddy bear made out of one of his shirts. It was just a day or two before he died, and we didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but it was clear he was getting close to the end. The hospice nurse, on one of his regular visits, asked us if we wanted this free service, as it was included in the hospice fees. (If we wanted extra bears, we could order them for $60 each, but the first one was free.)
I imagine there are people for whom this kind of thing would be a great comfort. But for anyone who’s in this situation and doesn’t already have a clear sense of how to answer, my advice is simple: Do not request a teddy bear made out of the shirt of your deceased loved one.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to let them do this. I was grieving, my father was dying, and I was so focused on his and the family’s needs that I could hardly be bothered with something as remotely relevant and tacky as deciding whether or not we wanted a bear. Or what to do with his body — another awful question the hospice nurse asked us during the same visit. The man is still alive, and he’s lying right there between us, I wanted to shout. And you’re asking whether we want his body cremated or embalmed? Fortunately, my stepmother K. knew how to answer this question.
But for the hospice shirt bear, nobody knew what to say. K. joked about it, because it reminded her of an old Car Talk episode that she and my dad had a good laugh over. In this episode, a caller had described a shared office building in his town that housed both a veterinarian and a taxidermist. Click and Clack had suggested that the two could buy a shared billboard with the slogan “Either way, you get your pet back!”
This hospice shirt bear offer was the equivalent of this veterinarian-taxidermist joke: Either way, you get your loved one back.
But while we chuckled about it, there were looks going back and forth between K., my brother, me, and my wife — and nobody seemed to be actually making a decision. So I said to the hospice nurse: OK, we want the bear. Better to have it and not want it than not have it and wish we did. So K. gave the nurse one of my dad’s blue checked button-up shortsleeve shirts, the kind of shirt he had a dozen of in his closet and which he always seemed to be wearing, with a couple pens and other stuff in the pocket. And I filled out the shirt-bear request form, and gave it to the hospice nurse.
And then my father died, and I forgot all about the bear.
Eventually, though, it arrived. The hospice nurse had to mail it to me because K. refused it. So it arrived wrapped up in tissue paper one day, lovingly packed into a box, along with some sentimental printed notes from the hospice shirt bear maker. And the maker’s business card (in case we wanted more, I suppose).
It was ghastly.
This bear was made out of Dad’s shirt, all right. It had two little button eyes, a button heart, and a ridiculous pair of ribbons tied around its neck. It was just like a child’s teddy bear, except, horribly, made out of my dad’s old shirt.
Nobody would want a bear like this. Those who loved my dad would not be able to see past the absurdity of his shirt being made into a teddy bear. (Not a big teddy bear guy, my dad.) Anyone who didn’t know him wouldn’t want a weird blue bear made out of biology-teacher plaid. There are no small children in our family at the moment and at any rate, with those buttons, it is probably not safe for babies or toddlers. And would you really want your baby snuggling and drooling on a bear made out of Grandpa’s old shirt anyway?
The only member of our family who seemed interested in the bear was our dog Lucy, who was eager to tear apart a new stuffed toy. I wasn’t letting that happen either.
So I set the bear on a shelf next to the stairs, out of reach of the dog. And every time I went up or down the stairs for the next two weeks I saw the bear, and sighed.
Then the shelter in place order came down and we all started living at home all the time. I saw the bear about twenty times a day now. It was really getting to be too much.
Fortunately, the solution soon arrived. My brother pointed out an article from Australia about how people are putting stuffed bears in windows (and hanging them from fences, roofs, etc) so that children who are out on walks with their parents can spot them, as a kind of find-the-bear quarantine game. A few days later, I saw a similar headline in the Chronicle, which confirmed that it was a thing here, too.
So now I knew just what to do. I got some string, and an index card, and a Sharpie, and I put the bear in the window.
It solved the problem. The bear has found its purpose. It makes me laugh, now, instead of grimace. And it’s still out of reach of the dog.