“There is no Dulcinea, she’s made of flame and air, and yet how lovely life would seem, if every man had a secret dream to keep him from despair.” sings the Priest of Don Quixote’s dream girl in the classic Dale Wasserman musical, “Man of la Mancha.”
I live with a bear (and a blonde, but that comes later). And he’s not just any bear. He’s not a brown, black or grizzly bear. He doesn’t scoop salmon out of a stream. He’s about ten inches tall, gray, plush, stuffed with cotton and love. He is truly a magic bear. EVERYONE who meets him falls instantly in love with him.
His name is Guacamole (“Gwok” for short, but not for long), and he came into her life when she was three, so now he’s 32 years young (she called him “Guacamole” because that’s the biggest word she could say at three!)
Most people, at first glance, don’t know what he is, but often think he might be a mouse. Gwok doesn’t mind as he is a bear of many hats. He has (admittedly) brown mouse-like ears and brown pads on his back feet. He has a tiny red tip on his tongue, and little black threads for his nails and eyebrows. He has big white plastic eyes, though over the years the paint has been loved off, so he’s had blue, green, brown, purple and every color of the rainbow as his eye color. Whatever marker was at hand. Supermodel’s have nothing on him! He has a hunched back not unlike Quasimodo from the Victor Hugo masterpiece, but it only makes him more lovable, more endearing, and he is without flaws.
He is the companion of my partner, Melanie. Now, to my great fortune, they have chosen me to be their companion, too.
He’s been her friend, companion, advisor, mentor, comfort.
Gwok is famous in the worldwide “Bear Community.” His oldest friend is wise old Pooh Bear, and one of the ways I won myself into their hearts was by reading Pooh’s adventures to them. When I read them all, doing all the voices, Gwok and Melanie shivered and squealed with excitement. Gwok is also best friends with my stuffed bear, Benedict.
As a leader of the “Bears,” Gwok has his favorites and not so favorites. Like “Snuggle,” the animated bear who shamelessly hawks “Snuggle” fabric softener. Gwok thinks he’s a poser, but he’s too much of a gentleman ever to say that out loud.
Gwok loves meeting new people and the occasional squirrel or rabbit. From his point of view, every living creature is HIS SPECIES!! I once took Gwok along to a program where I was to address about 100 psychiatrists from the Wisconsin Psychiatric Association. I brought him in a black leather briefcase (like Elwood Blue’s handcuffed case holding his harp), and when I opened the briefcase and took Gwok out, 100 shrinks, male and female, old and young let out a massive:” “OHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” And yet again, Gwok charmed a room full of some of the toughest audiences one could ever face. People ask who are the toughest groups I speak to and guess gang kids, murderers, hard-bitten SWAT teams. Uh-uh. The toughest audience by far is a room of 8th grade girls. Lord spare me from the icy stares of 8th grade girls! Shudder! Of course, they have become Melanie’s specialty and she reaches them like no other. When she talks, they get real quiet, lean forward and hang on her every word.
Gwok loves to travel and has never left Melanie’s side, 24/7 in 32 years. Except once, when Melanie was working for some special needs adults. One of the women there took a fancy to Gwok (as is natural), and bear-napped him for three days. Melanie, frantic yet patient, made an impassioned plea to whoever had taken her best friend to return him, no questions asked. Gwok showed up nearby on one of the art tables, and Melanie breathed the biggest sigh of relief in her life.
Gwok is a very unique, one-of-a-kind bear, but once at a dinner party in Rochester, we saw another stuffed “Gwok” bear! The host of the party and his wife couldn’t believe it either when Melanie brought Gwok out of her bag. Their bear was pristine, and, even though they had a collection of dozens of other stuffed bears, their “Gwok” was also their favorite. They called him “Brucie Bear” and he sat in a place of honor in the living room. They even had “Brucie Bear” do the message on their answering machine (in falsetto: “Hi! This is Brucie Bear, and where we are I cannot tell, so leave your name or go to…BEEP!”) They even had a SPARE “Brucie Bear” in the closet in case they needed extra parts or whatever. “Gwok” was very gracious and even “Brucie Bear” had heard of the famous Gwok. Now if any of you are doubting Melanie’s and my sanity, understand this—the guy who owned “Brucie Bear” and his (shiver!) “organ donor” stashed in the closet, was the executive director of one of the biggest mental health units in Rochester, second only to Mayo! Sanity is a fluid thing, not so easily put into a drawer or file. And what could be more sane than to have such a wonderful friend, stuffed or not. Some of my best friends are Don Quixote, Hamlet, R. P. McMurphy. And they’re fictional. But nobody’s perfect.
Melanie had the proverbial evil stepfather. All in all not a bad guy if looks, brains and personality don’t count. He was also an alcoholic, suffered with untreated bipolar disorder, was a pedophile and a fiend. He sexually abused her from age five until she was 12.
She carries the scars, emotionally and physically, to this day. The damage he did to her took away her ability ever to have a child, and he gave her so many infections she even lost a kidney. But she had Gwok, her champion who never left her. She bathed him with her tears nightly.
But she, even at age five, never saw herself as a victim. She was a survivor, and had the incredible insight to tell herself that, if he was hurting her, maybe it was somehow saving her younger brother or another young girl. With Gwok’s wise help and unconditional love, she made it through those years of torture.
Melanie would share with Gwok her most secret dreams, her fears, her hopes. She’d make up adventures for him and act them out. She would make little clothes for Gwok to get him more “in character” on his “travels,” which he would afterwards return and share in perfect detail with Mel. Melanie would even draw Gwok in “snapshots” in all the wonderful places he traveled.
She kept most of them to this day, and they are so beautiful and so full of detail, insightful beyond her years—Gwok in a little beret and stripped shirt next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, manning a gondola with a plate of fresh spaghetti next to him as he expertly maneuvers through the canals of Venice, visiting the Coliseum and ancient Rome, strolling through the ancient capital in the most stylish washcloth toga. In a cowboy hat, chaps and boots, doing rope tricks while the “doggies” watch and applaud. Gwok in shining armor like a knight from King Arthur’s round table (or perhaps Don Quixote tilting at his windmills). As an orator in ancient Greece with an olive laurel around his forehead and posing questions that could cross Aristotle’s eyes. In Egypt on an archeological dig, wearing an Indiana Jones hat, and chatting up the Sphinx itself, learning its ancient secrets, the big lion wiser and older than even Pooh. Working with Galileo in his workshop, grinding lens all day so that at night they can discover the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus. Gwok helping Madam Curry in her lab (he’s the one cowering behind the lead shield away from the glowing rock. His Momma didn’t raise no fool!). Working a formula on Einstein’s chalkboard, something like E=MC2, and Albert looking over his shoulder saying, “Vat you vorking on dere, Mr. Bear?” Posing for the Mona Lisa with Leonardo dangling a tiny stuffed alligator tied to a stick in front of him and screaming,” BIGGER SMILE, BIGGER SMILE!!! Look at the Alligator!! FUNNY, YES??!! while Gwok simply gives him that famous enigmatic smile that says, “I have seen the years.” Gwok on the moon holding his American flag, peering through the great golden face shield, “One small paw for Bears, one giant paw print for Bear-kind!” while the blue, blue Earth turns in its sphere. One of Gwok caring for his dear friend, the depressed Vincent Van Gogh, bringing in a bouquet of fresh picked sunflowers while Vincent, pale and lean, leans up from his tiny pallet with a gleam in his eye and his fingers already reaching for his paints.
Now, 32 year later, Melanie and Gwok travel the world again, this time together, speaking to wounded children in Central America, the Middle East, all over America, in prisons, juvenile detentions, workhouses, gangs, kids with PTSD, on the Reservation, in the toughest sections of the toughest cities in America. She speaks on average to over 64,000 troubled kids a year. She tells them, when they come to her in tears, in despair, feeling broken, toxic, like damaged goods, unlovable, unwanted, abused, forgotten, that they are NOT alone, that they have received insights into the human condition far beyond their years, that they’ve paid a terrible price for those wisdoms, wisdoms NO ONE should have to pay for with their hearts, minds, blood and bone. But she also tells them that down the road, if they can make it through this hard time, and nothing will be harder, they potentially have a map through Hell, a map that MAY help other wounded ones find their own way through their Hell. What an incredible gift that is! Now everything is simple. They don’t have to make a million dollars or have a huge house to watch reality TV, wearing fluffy slippers and eat Bon Bons. Their job from this day forward is to try to make the world just a tiny bit better for whoever passes their path each day. That’s it. A smile, akind word, an ear to listen or a hand to hold. The pain, humiliation, fear and loneliness was not a gift, but the real heart and soul of them. The BEST of them is hermetically sealed in a golden box deep within their hearts, and what they have to do is find the courage to lay their burdens down and to open that wonderful box that contains all their hopes and dreams and happiness. Now start to live their lives again.
Last year Melanie slipped into a terrible life-threatening depression, and she was assigned a new doctor. Thinking she may have been misdiagnosed, he took her off all her meds and replaced them with a handful of drugs for bipolar disorder. I have never seen a person go psychotic so quickly. Within 24 hours she was a paranoid, raving, Fury! She ran away from the group home where she was living, even past extra security, outran all the attendants, and ran until she couldn’t run another step. She hid herself under a huge pine tree in a park where no one could see her, and overdosed on a bottle full of pills. She called me on her cell after she had done this. She told me how much she loved me, how sorry she was, but that I and the world would be better off and she and Gwok were going to get some rest now. I pleaded, screamed, begged her to dial 911, to get up, to yell for help, to attract a car or passerby, but as her words faded to gibberish, I actually heard her pass out and the phone and then her head hit the ground.
Please God, no more nights like that. Everyone was looking for her, but it wasn’t until 12 hours later that a passerby saw her and called 911. Doctors said it was a miracle her heart didn’t explode or she didn’t stroke out. Somewhere deep inside, she wanted to live, and her heart took all that poison and, even though her pulse was well over 150 when they found her, it was still beating.
In the intensive care unit, what she most worried about was that the ambulance folks didn’t see Gwok there and he was still in the park under that big pine, alone. She was frantic in the midst of her terrible hallucinations and pain. Her mom rushed out, went straight to the park, found the tree, and there was faithful Gwok, looking up at her, just waiting to be returned to her Melanie. He helped her recover, again, never leaving her side (the hospital staff also fell in love with Gwok and even got him his own little wrist band with his name on it and hers so everyone would know that he was with Melanie).
Melanie and Gwok HAVE “seen the years,” as that old Irish proverb says. And there are no complaints, no bitterness, no “why me?” There’s pain, of course, and fear from her terrible PTSD, but even though she can’t sleep without all the lights on and can’t talk on the phone, she still gets up, travels to the far ends of the earth if need be, and she and Gwok keep on doing their work. The thing that keeps them going is the cause that gives their pain meaning—bringing comfort to other wounded people with their humor, wisdom, and unconditional love.
Melanie often says, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone on earth had a Gwok to hold, to love, to talk to, be comforted by, to cry with and to give unconditional love and companionship for the rest of their life?”
I am proud to say that I am now part of this little family, and I, too, will be with Melanie, trying to learn from Gwok, until the end of my days.
I think Pooh once asked Christopher Robin how long he thought he’d live. Christopher Robin said he was going to live 100 years, and Pooh replied, “I want to live for 100 years minus a day, because I don’t want to live a day without you.” That’s how I feel about Melanie and Gwok.
Something tells me we have many more wonderful adventures to come.