Josh has a favorite blanket. He’s had it since he was a baby. In fact, it was my favorite blanket when I was a baby. It was handmade by my Grandma, who has made some of the most beautiful quilts and blankets in the world – all by hand, they way her grandma made them. Even though he doesn’t sleep with it every night anymore, it’s still very special to him. It’s become a kind of family tradition, and he talks about how he’ll someday pass it on to his kids. And it’s not the only tradition we’re working on in the Key household, either.
You see, I have a rat.
Okay, before you squeamish people start getting antsy, it’s not a real rat. It’s a bean bag. Well, actually I call it a bean bag, but I think it’s really filled with sand. Either that or an awful lot of really, really tiny beans. Anyway, it’s not a real rat. The funny thing is, it doesn’t even look like a rat. It has two shiny black button eyes. It has a black nose that is held on by some kind of glue that the space program should look into, because Rat has been through a lot and still has his nose.
Unfortunately, Rat has no ears.
And Rat is a yellowish-tan color that does not now, nor has ever, existed in the natural world of rats (or any other kind of rodent or marsupial).
Come to think of it, unless I told you that Rat was a rat, you’d probably never guess it. You’d probably wonder what the heck that bizarre looking…thing…is, and why the heck I have it. You might assume it was a dog toy, or maybe even a prop from a horror movie. Perhaps you’d just keep quiet, knowing that I’m a bit of an odd duck and prone to various eccentricities (this same knowledge might also cause you to refrain from ever touching Rat).
But your silence might just cause you to miss out on something very important to me.
You see, when I was three years old, my Dad had an opportunity to take a job transfer that would move us from St. Louis, Missouri to San Jose, California. And for all you Horace Greely fans out there, he heeded the call to “Go West, young man, go West!” So the whole family packed into the family roadster, with all of our worldly possesions and our chihuahua, Count Dracula (Drackie for short).
With very keen parental insight (translate: knowing that my brother and I would try to kill each other at each and every opportunity), my parents knew that driving across the country with a three year old, a five year old and a chihuahua was not going to be without its share of, shall we say…moments. So to mark the beginning of this family adventure, they bought us each something to keep us occupied.
My brother got a neat little camping mess kit. I’m not sure if it was a cheap plastic toy, or if it was a genuine military issue survival kit (somehow I lean toward the former), but to us it was amazing. I’m not sure exactly where or how, or at least to maintain my innocence I’ve blocked it from my memory, but I know that the “canteen” never made the trip back to St. Louis.
By this time you’ve guessed that I got a rat. I don’t know what made my parents look at Rat and say “That’s the thing for Shawn,” but I do know that it was a good choice. How do I know? Because now, more than thirty years later, and as stated above, I have a rat.
Rat has been with me nearly my entire life. Through thick and thin, through sunny days and dark nights, through good and bad, Rat was there. From the coast of California to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Rat has been there.
When a van full of students and leaders on its way from St. Louis to Mobile on a summer mission trip broke down in the middle of rural Georgia (in recent years I have come to fully realize that every one of those leaders deserves a medal), Rat was there. In that same van – did I mention that the air conditioner was broken – on the return trip, when someone’s younger sister (not naming any names, but did you know I only have one sister?) threw up on the floor five hundred miles from home (in recent years I have come to fully realize that every student and leader in that van deserves a medal), Rat was there.
When I stood at the bedside of my Grandpa, who had raised his family in a house he built, fed with food he grew, and who for as long as I could remember had chopped wood nearly every day – but now because of the cancer spreading through his body couldn’t find the strength to lift even one hand, Rat was there.
When the doctor said “It’s a boy!” and lifted my son up for the first time, and I swear I heard angels singing, Rat was there.
When she said “I called a lawyer today, I want out of this,” and the sun quit shining and the air turned bitter, Rat was there.
When I finally realized that the sun actually was still shining, and the air was still crisp and fresh, and that no wounds are off limits for the Healer, Rat was there.
When I found the courage to trust again, and to walk out on a stage and ask THE question, and she said yes!, and again the angels were singing, Rat was there.
Rat has always been there.
The thing is, Rat is just a handful of material, some buttons, and some beans. Or sand. Or beany sand. Whatever. Rat has no real power. No life. None of the events above was made any better or worse by Rat being there. If I had gotten the mess kit instead of the Rat, my life would have still been okay. In the grand scheme of things, Rat really doesn’t matter a whole lot.
But I love that dern thing. And someday I’ll pass Rat on, too. Rat is more or less a Shawn tradition, and therein lies the power of the Rat. We find comfort in our traditions, don’t we? They signify a constant in an ever-changing, often scary world. An anchor of sorts. That’s what the favorite blanket is for Josh, and what Rat is for me. A reminder that no matter what happens, some things are constant. Not going anywhere. I think that’s something worth holding on to. And as long as we remember that a blanket is just a blanket, and Rat is just Rat – reminders of who we are and where we’ve been – I think we’ll all be okay.