Monday, March 10, 2014

The Extraordinary Friend

When I was little, like many kids I had an imaginary friend. Actually, I had a gaggle of imaginary friends. There were Cha-Chow and Chee-Chow (don't ask me how I came up with those names) and Amy, Pamy, and Tamy. In typical fashion, I liked to blame them for my wrongdoings. I'll never forget the day my uncle called pretending to be one of them. That totally blew my four-year-old mind. I remember a part of me thinking, But you're pretend! And another thinking, Well, maybe you're not!

Anna had imaginary friends from a very early age. First there were Sarah and Fishy, but I'm not sure if those count because they were actually her hands, which she'd make talk, kind of like puppets. Then there were the dwarfs (as in Snow White). I don't know how she came up with that one, because I'm not even sure she'd heard the fairy tale. There were Jamie and Naney, and there was Tulip. Anna went so overboard with Tulip she actually created a scrapbook for her complete with drawings of the two of them doing various activities together. Tulip had long straight brown hair, and for awhile Anna called her "my best friend."

I wasn't surprised that Ethan didn't say a word about an imaginary friend for the longest time. This is a boy who, honestly, struggles with imagination. He prefers what's right in front of him and has been challenged at times with envisioning something that hasn't existed first in real life. For awhile, he surprised me by coming up with names for his hands just like Anna did (albeit about three years older than when she came up with the idea). He called them Tico and Petey, and mostly they would have competitions with each other, like who could hit the most golf balls with a screwdriver in the tub (one of Ethan's bizarre games; it's kind of his version of pinball -- when I think about it, it's actually quite imaginative!).

Then, just in the past week, he has started talking about Mouse. Why the name Mouse? Who knows. Mouse, depending on when you ask him, is either seven years old or "older than God."

In typical Ethan fashion, Mouse doesn't exist to serve as a best friend, or to take the blame if Ethan does something wrong. No. Mouse has joined us to play Stratego and other games with Ethan when no one else is available.

"Me and Mouse are going to play now," he'll say if I tell him I can't play at the moment. I'll hear a murmur of conversation between the two of them, and then Ethan usually wants me to come over and admire the way he's set up his pieces, and critique the way Mouse has done his.

"Mouse always has bad strategies when we play Stratego," Ethan said matter-of-factly the other day. No surprise -- he's beaten Mouse every time they've played. Imagine that. Somehow, even if Mouse gets close to eeking out a win, Ethan manages to make a move to defeat him.

So far Ethan and Mouse have also played bowling and Go Fish. I'm glad Mouse has served as a great coping mechanism during these days when it's really hard for us to just drop everything and play with Ethan all the time.

The other day Anna and I tried to get a few more details about Mouse out of Ethan. "What's his last name?" Anna asked.

"I don't know," Ethan replied.

"Well, what does he look like?" I wondered aloud.

"Mom, I don't know that because he's an extraordinary friend," Ethan protested.

"Do you mean imaginary?" I asked, trying to stifle a giggle.

"Yeah, he's an imaginary friend," he said, annoyed. "I haven't thought of what he looks like."

Of course. For Ethan, coming up with the details of his imaginary friend is a bit like work. Imaginary, extraordinary. Maybe he had the word right after all. Little by little, in his own way and in his own time, Ethan does things we didn't think he'd do. Like have an imaginary friend.

Extraordinary, indeed.

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