The Rise and Fall of Big Bird

First published on March 5, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.


            “I saw you on TV today, Big Bird.”

            “Really?” asked Big Bird.

            “Yeah,” Christopher said.

            Big Bird was sitting on the edge of the tub. For two years it had been his job to watch my son take his bedtime bath. I was Big Bird’s voice.

            “I liked the singer,” Christopher said.

            I had no idea who’d been on “Sesame Street” that day.
            “That was a good song,” Big Bird said.

             “Yeah,” Christopher said.

            There were two more participants in this nightly ritual: Elmo and Cookie Monster. Christopher’s attention now turned to them. They were in his hands, wrestling beneath the water, locked in an ongoing death battle at the bottom of the tub.
Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster had been a gift to my son when he was 18 months old. When the present was opened, Christopher immediately reached for Elmo and Cookie Monster. He must have been drawn to the bright red and blue, because Big Bird remained in the box, untouched. At the end of the day, it fell to me to take him out of the package and upstairs to the bath.
            That night, and every night after, Christopher played with Elmo and Cookie Monster. Big Bird was in the bath, too, but he floated, face down in the water, alone and ignored. Finally, to amuse myself, and because I felt sorry for Big Bird, I picked him up. I started walking him up and down along the edge of the tub, talking in my best Big Bird voice. And as Christopher learned to talk, he started talking to Big Bird.
In a matter of months, without my intending it, Big Bird became as real to Christopher as I was. When we entered the bathroom at night, he shouted, “Hey, Big Bird!” Then, as he took off his clothes, he’d tell Big Bird about his day; where he’d been and what he’d seen. Big Bird was excited, too, happy to see my boy. He listened to Christopher and asked him questions.
            The strangest thing was, Christopher told Big Bird things he wouldn’t tell me.
Once, when my son was having a bad day, I asked him how he was doing.
             “Okay,” he said.

            Later, in the sanctuary of the tub, Big Bird asked the same question.

            “Not so good, Big Bird.”

            Big Bird was surprised: “Oh, no!  What happened?”

            Quietly, Christopher answered: “I had a fight with Mama.”

            “No!” said Big Bird.

            “She started it,”  Christopher said.

            “Oh my,” said Big Bird, “what can we do?”

            For two full years, Big Bird did his best to calm the waters. The wars between Elmo and Cookie Monster raged, and they both started to age. Big Bird, however, remained in his prime, bright yellow and confident, strolling along the porcelain each night, offering kindness and wisdom.
            It couldn’t last.

            When Christopher was 3 ½, he had his first swimming lesson. He learned to put his face in the water and blow bubbles. It was exciting, and anything exciting was worth sharing with Big Bird. That night in the tub he rolled over on his stomach. “Watch this, Big Bird!” he said. He put his face in the water, blew bubbles, and came up, proud and sputtering. Big Bird was mightily impressed.
            “Can you do that, Big Bird?” he asked.

            Well, no, Big Bird couldn’t blow bubbles. The world’s greatest ventriloquists at the peak of their powers couldn’t have made Big Bird blow bubbles in the bathtub.
            “Try, Big Bird,” Christopher said, “you have to try.”

            I placed him in the water, face down, next to my son. I pursed my lips and blew air through them, trying to make a nice, wet, blub-blub sound. I thought I’d done well. I pulled Big Bird from the water and put him on the edge of the tub.
            “I did it!” said Big Bird.

            Christopher rolled over and sat up. He was silent, and he looked hard at Big Bird.

            I’d always known that one day Big Bird’s stay in the real world would end, but I thought it would fade away, unmentioned and unnoticed. Instead, the end was swift.
            “You didn’t make that noise, Big Bird,” Christopher said.

            Big Bird didn’t move.

            “Yes, I did,” he said.
            Christopher shook his head. Big Bird was either lying, or he didn’t know, and Christopher wasn’t going to allow it. “No, you didn’t, Big Bird,” he said, “Daddy made that noise.”
              Armed with the truth, my son spoke the truth. It was, perhaps, a truth he’d suspected for some time. He placed his hand across Big Bird’s lap and said what he had to say, plainly.
            “You can’t make that noise, Big Bird,” he said. “You don’t have a mouth.”

            There was a pause. Big Bird was frozen, unable to speak, unable to move, unable to save himself. Christopher’s eyes remained, unwavering, on his friend’s face.      
            “You’re a toy, Big Bird,” he said. Then, finally, “You’re pretend.”
            Christopher was done. He removed his hand from Big Bird’s lap, and looked away. He picked up Elmo and Cookie Monster and crashed them together, without his usual energy. Meanwhile, the life in Big Bird had come to an end. I set him down at the end of the tub, in a sitting position, with his back to the tiles, staring at the wall.
            Bath time was over, and I opened the drain.

            I helped Christopher out of the tub and dried him off. I got him in his pajamas and brushed his teeth. On an ordinary night there would have been a running stream of conversation between the two, and our last act would been to lay Big Bird on the bottom of the tub, cover him with a warm wash cloth, and say “Good night,” Big Bird,” “I love you, Big Bird.”
            Not this night. On this night Christopher was deep in 3 ½ year-old thought. The truth-letting had taken something out of him. Maybe he felt that Big Bird had betrayed him. Or that I had. When we left the bathroom I asked him if he was going to say good night. He did, tossing the words over his shoulder, lifelessly.
            The next night, Big Bird joined the other toys at the bottom of the tub. Elmo and Cookie Monster took turns beating him senseless.
In his glory days, advising from his porcelain perch, Big Bird had been the peacemaker. Now, down in the trenches, he had no choice: He joined the fight, giving as good as he got.
            Big Bird’s long reign was over.

            Several years later, when Christopher was 5, he was in the tub, complaining that he had nothing to play with. Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster had long been put away. They rested in a basket, along with many other toys, on a shelf in the bathroom. I brought it down and set it on the floor. Christopher leaned over and looked at the ancient squeeze toys, rubber rings and rattles. Then he saw his old friends. This time it was his hand that reached down and lifted Big Bird up, and mine that brought out Elmo and Cookie Monster.
“Hey,” Christopher said, “can we play that game where you’re Big Bird?”

I was surprised he remembered. I put Elmo and Cookie Monster in the water and took Big Bird from Christopher. I sat him down on the rim of the tub.
Under the water, Elmo and Cookie Monster were already in my son’s hands, eyeing each other.
“Hey, Big Bird,” Christopher said, “did you know I’m in kindergarten?”
Big Bird was stunned.
“No,” he said, “I didn’t!”
“I am,” Christopher said.
“That’s wonderful,” said Big Bird.
Christopher’s attention turned to Elmo and Cookie Monster. They were quiet down there at the bottom of the sea, too quiet, and suddenly they rose from beneath the waves and crashed together.
Big Bird was old now, and his legs were stiff, but he knew what had to be done – he stood up and walked along the edge of the tub, full of kindness and wisdom, counseling peace.