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Her husband, a white-haired man dressed in khaki pants and a flannel shirt, was small, alert and quite fit. He had pushed her wheelchair with relative ease and then knelt next to her. He pushed back the sleeve of his shirt, revealing a very old tattoo of a buxom young woman - maybe it was Betty Grable - and stroked his wife's hair. As he adjusted the plastic tubing for her oxygen supply, he spoke softly in his wife's ear. Whatever he said made her smile.
As I peeked over my magazine I became strangely jealous. Here she was, at the end of her life, physically debilitated and struggling. But she was not shy or embarrassed. Instead, she exuded a peaceful sense of certainty about who she was and her inherent value. It was clear that her husband adored her and cherished every moment they spent together. I considered his tattoo and thought of the time when he was young and probably quite obsessed with pretty women. And who knows, maybe his wife was once the girl who had fulfilled his fantasy. But in the moment I witnessed, what he loved was the true and essential person inside the body, the invisible beauty he may not have seen in younger years.
In the weeks after seeing that couple in the doctor's office I struggled to understand why I had been so envious. I had a husband who loved me. I felt good about my work and about my two children, Amy and Elizabeth. But I felt, deep in my heart, there was something that older woman possessed that I wanted. It was there in her face, and in the way she interacted with her husband, but I just couldn't name it.
The answers we need often come to us at unpredictable moments and from surprising sources. This happened to me on a summer evening as I prepared dinner. I was in the kitchen, taking vegetables out of the refrigerator and grabbing pots and pans from the cupboard while my daughters sat together reading on the sofa in the next room. Elizabeth, age six, was reading to two-year-old Amy. Amy had her favorite blanket in her hand, her best bear, Lauren, in her lap and her thumb in her mouth. Elizabeth's stuffed bear, Ted, was propped next to her. They had reached page sixteen of The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams's story, which was one of their favorites.
What is REAL asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?"
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don't matter at all, because once you are real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
A Realistic Point of View
Over the next few weeks I noticed that the message of The Velveteen Rabbit had stirred some long-standing and painful feelings. Even though my life was good, at least as other people might measure it, I didn't posses the confidence, the completeness, the self-awareness of that woman in the wheelchair. As a young woman, mother, wife and professional, I was filled with insecurity and self-doubt. Every day I wore the facade of being sure of myself, but deep inside, I wasn't sure of anything. I wasn't completely Real.