Imaginary friends

My second born has an imaginary friend who terrifies my sister. His name is Gongo, and they (Gongo and my child) met in the grocery store, where Gongo apparently approached and asked to be taken home. Over time, Gongo has inhabited many forms, and this is what terrifies my sister. He can be large or small, a yellow whale or a tall, formless character or–more recently–a baby hedgehog.

It’s normal enough for children to have imaginary friends. My sister had several herself. What makes Gongo creepy–other than his name–is that he adheres too strictly to the laws of physics. If he’s sleeping in one room, under no circumstances does he show up in another until he has woken up, been given a snack, and traveled there through actual, three-dimensional space. Conversely, if he’s riding his trash truck (the couch), it should go without saying that he is not in bed. Failure to keep track of Gongo’s whereabouts, and then attempting to integrate him into a play scenario in a different setting, raises my second born’s ire like nothing outside of spotting their syrup pouring.

Here’s an example: We once made stops at the grocery store and the brewery (yes, I took my three children to pick up beer after 6pm; it’s a craft brewery, in case snootiness makes this more acceptable), and en route from one to the other, SecondBorn announced that Gongo would be meeting us there. We arrived at the brewery, filled up several cups of water from the dispenser responsible for my kids’ love of the place, purchased the beer, and headed out. By the time we were back in the car and pulling out of the parking lot, it had been maybe a half hour since we had last spoken of Gongo.

The SecondBorn started screaming in the back seat.

What is it? I asked. What’s wrong?! I thought maybe there had been a physical altercation between siblings, or maybe the car seat straps were causing a bunchiness problem. No.

We had left Gongo.

He was sitting, alone and abandoned, at a table in the brewery, still waiting for us, with no way of getting home. The SecondBorn was distraught.

Now, adding to the Bad Parenting ledger already accounting for my brewery trip with three under-fives, I will admit that I did not go back. I did not, Reader, turn around and unbuckle three children from their carseats and walk them through the cold, back into the brewery, to retrieve a shapeshifting creature that only my child can see. I am not a saint; neither am I psychotic; and I prefer not to have child protective services called on me by a bartender because I’m roaming around a taproom with three kids at bedtime, looking for someone who is, by most accounts, not there.

So I did the only logical thing a person can do in cases involving a toddler and their imaginary friend: I reasoned.

How, I asked my child once they were calm enough to hear me, did Gongo get to the brewery in the first place?

My toddler gave that some thought. After a few moments, the FirstBorn–sib-splainer extraordinaire–supplied the logical answer: He drove.

Now, either because the logic was faultless or because the SecondBorn considers the First to be omniscient, it flew. Gongo had driven to the brewery. And if he had driven to the brewery, the FirstBorn continued, he must have a license.

And if he has a license, he must know to wear a seatbelt.

And if he knows to wear a seatbelt, then he must have a car.

And if he has a car–the SecondBorn chimed in, in a flurry of glee and relief–he can drive himself home.

We made it home that night in one piece and at a reasonable volume. And, for better or for worse, I can tell you that Gongo made it, too. He might have gotten in late. I didn’t hear him. But he was there in the morning–back to his usual napping and eating and trash-collecting schedule–and he’s with us still. The combination of napping and brewery-haunting has me a little concerned about his consumption, but I can’t speak to the alcohol metabolisms of shape shifting yellow-whale hedgehogs.

Maybe the takeaway here is that imaginary friends are as creepy as we feared, but not in the ways we thought. They spend their days with kids instead of grown-ups; they roam grocery store aisles with no apparent aim; some days they look a little sallow and others they sprout prickers; some days they need a midday nap, and others they like a bedtime IPA. They can’t be in two places at once. They’re not perfect; they’re just doing their best.

Here’s the thing, parents: Imaginary friends? They’re just like us. Creepy, but hoping that, at the end of the day, the kid still wants to take us home.

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