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March 3, 2020

A Blanket Worth Losing

My grandmother knit a blanket for each of her grandchildren. A delicate labor of love made with soft fabric, smooth edges, and a unique pattern. Though Gram understandably relented to the torrent of 26 grandchildren and reused a pattern or two.

My grandmother knit a blanket for each of her grandchildren. A delicate labor of love made with soft fabric, smooth edges, and a unique pattern. Though Gram understandably relented to the torrent of 26 grandchildren and reused a pattern or two.

For some, the blanket was used as a swaddle then tucked away as a keepsake. For others, like myself, the blanket was inseparable from the child. In my infinite creativity I dubbed my grandmother’s gift,“Night Night.”

Night Night was with me for better – as a blanket, pillow, and cape – and for worse – as a tissue, towel, and self-defense weapon against my older brother. Over time, the soft weave succumbed to holes, tears, and repeated trips through the washing machine until it was little more than a tangled ball of fabric.

I never outgrew my grandmother’s gift. Like a dying star, Night Night collapsed and went supernova in the dryer, sending its component parts into the universe/lint trap. 

Two decades later I again found myself in need of a blanket. It was puppy pickup day for Eko and I had read you should bring a blanket to share with the litter. The idea is that the familiar scent will offer comfort and reassurance during the transition to a new home. That I didn’t have a blanket was the least of ways I was unprepared, but it seemed like the most important thing at the time. 

I’ve begun to think I might have been right. In the only way I ever am – accidentally. 

I reached for the softest blanket I could find, but my fingers barely touched it before I heard my mom say, “No, not that one. That’s the good one!” 

I let the blanket go but then heard her voice again. “Wait. Pick it up. Take that one.” 

In my excitement I didn’t give my mom’s swift change of mind much thought. Even if I had, I couldn’t have understood what happened in that moment. Not yet.

The green blanket became as inseparable from Eko as Night Night was from me. As a puppy it was his bed and his chew toy. When we traveled the country and moved cities weekly, Eko came to know that wherever I lay that blanket was home. When we settled in Chicago, that blanket was always the one I tucked him in with each night.

I carried Penny home in that same blanket. Before she met Eko I wanted my new puppy to know the comfort and warmth of his love. The two spent years sharing the blanket, burrowing under it in the winters and basking on it in the summers. We owned many blankets, but none so well loved.

When Eko died, I hid the blanket away. I couldn’t bear washing away his lingering scent. When hurting the most, I would hold the blanket close and breathe deeply to remember him, then quietly tuck it back where no one else could reach.

I thought my little shrine was a testament of my love for Eko, but in time I understood it was really the manifestation of my fear. I was terrified that losing the blanket would mean losing the last connection to my puppy.

Fortunately, another puppy helped me realize my error.

I picked up Zero on my way back to Chicago from a road trip east. In preparation, I purchased a new blanket for my new puppy. A fresh start for a fresh start.  But as I went to pack it, the soft blanket simply didn’t feel right in my hands.

I walked to the closet, touched Eko’s blanket, and a conversation replayed itself in my head.

“No, not that one. That’s the good one!”

“Wait, pick it up. Take that one.”

And I understood. Why my grandmother gave me a delicate blanket, though I would inevitably mangle it. Why my mother insisted I take the blanket she liked best, though any other might do for a dog.

Love is not protecting what we value, it is offering it up freely for another to use as they need. I put the new blanket aside and packed the one which was worn, coarse, and invaluable.

I spent the night before pickup at a friend’s house that happened to be along the way. In lieu of the pillow he offered, I laid my head on Eko’s blanket. A faint but familiar scent made its way from my nose to my heart. I could still put the blanket away and hold onto it, and I felt the impulse to do just that. But I remembered the examples of those who loved me most and slept peacefully knowing what I needed to do.

The next morning I tossed Eko’s blanket into a tempest of Ridgeback puppies. Zero and his ten siblings pawed and pulled at it, their little piranha teeth slashing and scoring the fabric. My most prized possession torn apart before my eyes and I couldn’t have been happier to see it happen. This was where Eko’s love belonged. This was where my love belonged. Not packed away and quiet, but out in the world – wild and joyful and shared.

I carried Zero home in the newly scarred blanket. Eko’s scent gone, but his connection to my heart and my family’s future stronger than ever. Each time I saw Zero sleep on that blanket, or share it with Penny, or drag it around like a cape my capacity for love would grow.  The blanket was a physical reminder of how our hearts only have room to grow once we find the courage to give away the parts we treasure most.

When it was time to carry Lincoln home from the hospital, there was no question about which blanket to swaddle him in. A most precious child wrapped in a most precious blanket. Love wrapped in love. An inheritance he couldn’t possibly appreciate.

But like my grandmother and mother before me, I learned that love is not meant to be carefully venerated. I didn’t want Lincoln to appreciate the gift, I wanted him to use it.

Llike his father’s dogs before him, Lincoln had no qualms about doing exactly that. He napped with the blanket, he threw up on it, and when it was anchored underneath a sleeping dog he would use it as a rope to climb onto the couch. 

Lincoln’s arrival accelerated the blanket’s decay but I did not mourn the loss. Because blankets are like stars, using themselves up to radiate warmth and life into the space around them. And basking in that love, Lincoln thrived.

Just as it takes time for a star’s light to reach us, so too does it take generations for love to traverse its way to our hearts. A thread stretching back from Lincoln, to me, to my mother, to my grandmother and beyond, woven through innumerable hearts along the way. No gift could ever possibly capture the cosmic scope of this love, but a blanket seems a fitting tribute.

That is why we welcomed home our newest addition, Quinn, with our oldest blanket. As is now tradition, I wrapped her in the ragged green fabric. Not as soft as it once was, but all the more comforting for it’s rough edges. 

Love is never worse for wear. It is always best well-worn. Children and dogs seem to know this truth is self-evident, but the rest of us need reminders.

One of our extended Ridgeback-family members, Heather, owns gooddogbeds.com. Last year, she generously gifted us one of her favorite blankets. Despite the name of the company, Emily and I quickly claimed the blanket as our own. It was “too good” to give to the dogs. We shared everything else with them, surely this one blanket could be just ours.

For a short time, it was. We’d use the blanket then tuck it away. Shedding dogs and sticky children were kept at arm’s length in the hope we could preserve the pristine comfort for ourselves. But when a head rested on our shoulders, whether it was Zero’s large one or Quinn’s tiny one, we remembered there is no comfort greater than a shared one.

Which is why on most Saturday mornings you can find Zero and Penny tucked on either side of Emily under the blanket, Quinn resting against one of their curled forms as she nurses, Lincoln squirming his way amongst the spaces between them while holding a familiar green blanket of his own.

Sometimes Quinn spits up on the blanket. Sometimes Lincoln wipes his nose on it. Ridgeback hair is now inextricably woven into its fabric. It comforts me better than it ever did tucked away.

Like my childhood blanket, Eko’s blanket will one day go supernova. As will our blanket from Heather, and whatever blanket we replace it with. As dying stars send the seeds of life back into the universe, I think dying blankets scatter their accumulated love across space and time, reborn in whatever blanket comes next. 

How else to explain why the immeasurable comfort I felt with Night Night is the exact same feeling I have when cozying under a crowded blanket with my family today? The fabric may be different, but the loving thread is one and the same. 

It took me a few decades, a few dogs, a few blankets, and a few generations of love to understand this bounty, so allow me to offer a small recommendation.

The next time you need a gift for a puppy or a baby or a friend, buy a blanket. A good one. In the card, insist the blanket is loved and shared and tangled and torn until the day it goes supernova. 

The recipient  may not understand the significance that day, but in no more than thirty years they’ll be thanking you for the most wonderful gift!  

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