A Letter to Ash, My Imaginary Friend
Once upon a time there was a man with shaggy blonde hair and piercing blue eyes; a dimple in one cheek. He was always smiling and every day was just a page in a chapter of the never-ending book he was writing. His creativity nourished the eternal sense of optimism that made others crowd near him. When he wasn’t laughing, he was telling a story. It was a different one every time but , whether the story was about a bear helping a wounded deer or how the ghost of a girl helped a Civil War soldier, the stories captivated listeners of every age. He was a well-spring of ideas, curiosity and boyish charm. He could climb trees faster than anyone and once he taught a little girl how to fly a kite. His favorite spot in town was a spot on the floor in a hidden corner of a small bookstore. He’d sit there for hours, sweeping his listeners into a world without harsh realities and where there was no room for tears. He gave the best hugs. And, once upon a time, he helped a little girl survive by making her believe she was special.
I knew this man for right at six months, when I wrote his friend’s story. The resulting book was published in February 2010 but I still think of him almost daily. His name has been on my heart a lot the past five months, as I wrote a devastating story about a little girl who desperately needed a friend like him. I cannot go to an ice cream parlor now without thinking of how he coaxed his reserved little friend into asking for multiple taste tests, saying he needed to try all 32 flavors before he could decide on one. When his friend, Anna, chastised him, he replied, “Sometimes it’s fun just to have fun.” And when her stories were about to be burned, he rescued them. He ate with her at lunch so that she didn’t have to eat alone. And when all was said and done, when his friend grew up, he came to see her again. This time, he came not because she needed him but because he was proud of her. Beneath all his carefree smiles and boyish pasttimes, his heart was tender and sincere. And he loved his friend. He loved her in spite of what she’d been through. He loved her even though she had to be taught how to relax, how to have fun. He loved her even though she was sad. He loved her when she didn’t know how to give anything to anyone anymore. He loved her when thinking for herself was impossible and all she could do was obey. He loved her even though when he tried to teach her how to fly a kite, she froze in fear because she felt not her friend behind her but a man instead. But he didn’t care. He didn’t stop telling her the stories or teaching her how to laugh. And he didn’t leave.
Ash, I’ve had your name on my heart and mind for months now. During the writing of a particularly agonizing chapter of the new book, I remember stopping, with tears rolling down my face, and saying to Maelea (I talk best to fictional people): “We need Ash.” And need you, we did. I did. You are fictional. This means you do not really exist, except in my head. But the gifts you’ve offered my life are innumerable, still. The stories bring me hope to this day. Hope is almost tangible when I write. As I write, I see it. Even in really rough chapters, every letter brings me one word closer to the end of the book, one word closer to hope. The stories have given me friends. The stories have given me confidence. The stories have given me a voice. The stories made me feel cared for and protected. Every night, I thank God Almighty for the gift of the written word. I don’t know why He gave it to me, but I know that I would not be the same person without it. Over the years, I’ve written about hundreds of characters. Hundreds of characters have come to tell their stories to me. Happy ones and sad ones alike. And each of them are special to me. Each of them matter and hold the memory of a unique story, place and time. But none of them are you.
It’s been three years since Anna’s story was written. Three years. You are the only character I’ve ever had to haunt me for three years after the conclusion of a book. You are the only one I find myself missing years later. You represent all the characters I’ve written about, and I know this, but there’s something precious about your character that tugs at my heart strings and makes me melt. I can’t tell you how much I want to write a book entitled, The Storyteller, and have it be yours. I don’t know how to do that, since Anna is grown, you are imaginary and I’m too selfish to give your unique blend of compassion and creativity and awe to another character. I want to. I wanted to give you to Maelea and, before her, I really wanted to introduce you to Taya. But Anna is the one you chose; Anna is the friend you loved the most. And so you’re stuck within the pages of The Character. Except you’re not, really. You’re with me when I write about really bad things. You’re the voice that pushes me to finish chapters I don’t think I can write. You’re the one who convinced me I could write a book on sex trafficking when I didn’t think I could do it justice. You’re the one character I can’t release to the pages. Perhaps that’s because you’re really not just one character. You’re the hope offered by all.
You taught me a lot in about 200 pages. You taught me that hope is in laughter. You taught me that sometimes you just have to be silly, even if you don’t feel like being silly at all, because it’s in the unexpected that the reluctant smile becomes genuine. You reminded me that writing is still worthwhile and important and needed—if in no one else’s life but mine. God’s grace can look and feel like a whole lot of things. It can feel like a gentle breeze lapping across your face. It can be the smell of a particular flower. Sometimes grace is a special, unexpected gift that just shatters all your walls. Sometimes God sends His grace in the form of a letter. Other times, a conversation is the catalyst by which grace is delivered. In my life, there have been many things through which His grace has warmed my heart—all of the above instances included. But the biggest way God reminds me of His power to heal and restore, and His grace, is through writing and characters like you. When I prayed not to be alone, I wasn’t, because one of you were always there. When I prayed for a way out, words came to my rescue. When I was writing one of the rawest and most personal scenes of The Character, and I needed a way to keep from drowning in sadness, you called a cloud an “airplane pretzel bird” and made me laugh through the tears.
Healing doesn’t happen overnight. Oh, in fact, it doesn’t happen in a week, a month, even a year. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a woman who had just finished reading about you and she said, “I’m 65 years old and still struggling with the effects of child abuse….” Healing is a lifelong process because there are so many ways the heart can break—ways you don’t even know about until someone says something or asks for something or picking out a romantic card turns you to stone and you have to remember why. I am the furthest along in the journey than I have ever been. And I’m probably the happiest I’ve been in forever. I’m testing the boundaries of those cages and finding the doors aren’t locked anymore. I’m still trying to gather the courage to walk out of the cage but at least I know now it’s open. Every time I write something I don’t think I can write, a piece of the shattered past is glued back together. Every time I write, I take a small step toward the door, toward remembering that the only thing that really matters is that I have tomorrow to look forward to.
You’ve been a constant companion the last three years. Or, really, the last 25 or so years. I remember the characters I wrote as children. Mickey was the leader. Victoria was shy; she was more like me. Michael was the hero. Reese loved practical jokes. Chayla was bossy. Abrielle was wounded, Clayton was compassionate. Landon was a cowboy, Jessie was silent. Aria was defiant, Mary Beth was scared. Taya was hopeless, Anna was hopeful. And you. Everything about you—from your propensity for laughter to your love of books to your loyalty to your selection of orange sherbet ice cream—makes my heart swell with tenderness and love. You epitomize hope and friendship and security and dreams.
Thank you for trusting your story to me. Thank you for being the kind of friend Anna most needed. Thank you for the stories: those you told Anna in The Character and those you’ve cheered on since I was a little girl. I have no idea why I’m writing a letter to a fictional character. Except that the gifts you’ve shared with me since I was a little girl have always been, are now and will always remain so much more than fiction. You’re just about the best friend I’ve ever known.