Wade Whimsies Figurines (image courtesy of Leah Angstman)

When my best friend died in a car accident of which I still can’t openly speak to this day, I began collecting those little ceramic Wade Whimsies figurines that you get in Red Rose Tea boxes. My mother was absent, overseas somewhere, and my father—the sort to slice into a block of Spam and call it dinner—wasn’t the best confidant for a grieving teenager. His only sibling had died when he was in his thirties, and I didn’t hear the name pass his lips but what could be counted on a single hand. I was alone with Dad’s Spam and a fistful of ceramic miniatures I’d found in an attic box.

At first I only collected them on the good days. The days I spent ten minutes without thinking of Chris’s lifeless body or his head going through the passenger window or the limp melt of him in our hands as we waited for the ambulance—those were the start of the good days. Ten minutes at a time. And if I went the full ten minutes, then I’d reward myself with a walk down to the antiques district on the other side of the railroad tracks to barter for a Wade figurine out of the “cheap bin.” It’d be years before I’d paw through the actual antique selection with my forklift-operator-in-local-warehouse paychecks, but as a gateway drug, I was content with the bin of innumerable replicates and ugly botched paint jobs.

Because we were young when Chris died, we mourning students were easy to gather for a memorial. Carrying a ceramic raccoon from the Wade Animals II Series, I walked from my house to the church where his casket was closed next to the piano at which I would have to play and sing wrenching songs like “Tears in Heaven” and Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You”—how we choir kids could manage doing this to ourselves, I’ll never quite comprehend. I even gave a eulogy full of inside jokes toward disparate audience cliques, with the aim of making people forget their pain for a minute and laugh, and I managed not to crack until the very end. But there was something false in all of it, too. He was my best friend; he wasn’t their best friend. And yet, there they all were—people who’d hardly known him, playing a grief card I just couldn’t imagine was really in their hands to play.

Wade Whimsies are not adorable objects. They come from a cheaply made mold and are churned out by the thousands in an industrial kiln, and then smothered in a grossly uneven pottery glaze. Most of them are animals, stamped on the butt with a tiny, somewhat indistinguishable WADE. In 1967, the Canadian tea company, Red Rose, began putting the famous English miniatures in their tea boxes as free premiums, which was fashionable in the food and beverage industry at the time. I can’t even tell what some of the animals are, and others look to be recycled from earlier sets with merely a different glaze color. The Canadian sets are always glazed prettier than the American sets, and harder to find, with the 1970s Canadian Nursery Rhyme Series going for a small fortune. I can’t say for sure what it was with these miniatures that triggered my interest; it could simply have been that, once you have two of something and realize more exist, there is a secret joy in following the Xs of a treasure map. The pieces, the clues. A chest full of something desirable and valuable to be found at the end.

I somehow found my way into someone’s car in the long processional—always so long for young people—placed like a limp doll in the front seat by a person kinder than I felt, staring through the windshield at the little orange funeral flag on the antenna. I think I was numb, but I remember silly things: congratulating myself on not crying, spots of dirt on my new shoes, wondering what the afterparty might have for food because I wasn’t getting enough to eat with Mom gone. It was the summer I stopped eating, the summer I stopped doing everything: living, breathing, telling any truths when someone asked. It was the summer I stopped answering questions, combing my hair, wearing clothes that fit, coming home at a reasonable hour, coming home at all. Beyond the funeral flag, the mound of dirt looked enormous when we pulled up to the site. He was only a boy—did they know he was only a boy?

When I see this scene now, I can see it for the idyllic Midwestern countryside it is. Chris is  buried far off from the main drag, in a place where no dust kicks up, where cars have to be destined specifically in order to traverse. Robins sing, and the summer heat is oppressive and muggy and full of mosquitoes, but the land is resilient and holds it in well. The green remains, despite the sun’s attempt to scorch it. There’s an apple blossom in one corner that retains its blooms like it’s winning a dare, and you can hardly see that paces away is another grave of a student we lost the following year to an equestrian accident. But on this day, back when I didn’t notice these things, all I saw was Dee, draped over the resting coffin like a discarded stole, weeping in histrionics that I could hear from the car before I could see them. Dee, whom he didn’t even like, wailing and clutching his coffin like a leech. I wanted to tear her from it and cast her into the hole, not least of which because I wished I’d had the bravery to furl myself around his casket. Had she even sat beside him in a class? Did she know his middle name? James. His middle name was James. His favorite color was blue. He hated bananas. He was going to DePaul University. She didn’t know. She didn’t know him like I did. I, who’d figure-skated with him, danced with him in the rain, sent messages in bottles with him down Sycamore Creek, walked arm in arm with him down the railroad tracks like some outtake from Stand by Me. Funeral-goers patted her arms and cooed to her like mourning doves, and why didn’t I have the courage to fall over his casket and let the dirt kick in on me? Why did I feel such an urge to tell her he had never liked her, to ruin her moment of this? And who was I to speak for the dead?

I was the dead myself, is what I was. I was so desperate for any communication from him that I made up his voice, as if I could speak for him. I congratulated myself again on not crying. I stroked the raccoon in my pocket. I made it through the day. And then, for a while, I stopped making it.

Grief is a cunning thing. It eats into you in ways that feel so apart from your body that you don’t really believe it’s you who’s feeling it. You think the problem lies with the outside world, and you’re the only one who can see it, sense it, identify it for what it is. For the first month, I slept in Chris’s room, curled up on his bed, listening to his Rage and Sinatra CDs and draping shirts from his closet over my face. His mother would bring me Red Rose Tea, and together we’d hunt for the figurine in the box. I remember promising her that I’d leave when I couldn’t smell him any longer, and her love for me was so great that she held herself together like royalty, and even though I knew she was hurting, her grief was one more reality I couldn’t see. For days and weeks and years, I was angry when I thought of his casket, tried to picture the harrowing day, the forced stillness, and could only conjure Dee’s body—sprawling, wailing, pounding her fists into his black box. By then I had become useless to the world, a sour and sorry copy of myself who sat in my room and read books, didn’t look up when anyone spoke to me, and got a hall pass for the counselor’s office whenever I had a math test I didn’t want to take. I was unbearable because no one else’s grief could possibly equal mine.

With all collections, there are rules. We give ourselves parameters for what will make us happy. First, it was a good day when I’d go the ten minutes, then when I was no longer afraid to attempt doing the things I’d once done with my best friend. When I first set foot on the ice with my figure skates again, it was such a feat that I rewarded myself with three miniatures. As my collection developed, so, too, did my rules. The desire to get the pieces from anywhere and anyone by any means necessary morphed into getting them only from the antiques district in my hometown, where hundreds could be found, but most were replicates, so my eye grew discerning. The current collection—the Circus Series at the time I started collecting, and the American Heritage Series at the time you’re reading this now—could only come from the purchase of Red Rose Tea boxes at the store. I’d buy two boxes at a time and pull one from the front of the shelf and one from the back, convinced my chances of getting different figurines would decrease with their closer proximity to each other. Once eBay became a thing that people did, I made a new rule that I couldn’t buy online. There are some expensive pieces available now on antique sites that would complete my collections of each series in the span of a single mail delivery, but I cannot order them; I have to find them. In this way, it is finding pieces of myself. It is the treasure map. And because of this stubborn hunt for all my pieces, I have most of the figurines from every individual series, Canadian and American, since 1967, but I still don’t have a single complete series. Just as I’m learning that I will never be a complete person, I’m learning to be okay with never having a full set.

Six years after the funeral, I went with my brother to his first high school reunion because—at his being one year, one month, and one day older than I am—we had a lot of mutual friends across our two consecutive grades. Chris would have been in my brother’s graduating class had he lived to graduate, and also in his grade was Dee. When I saw her at the picnic, meanness conquered my composure, as if—like on the day in the graveyard six years prior, when she’d made a blubbering fool of herself—she didn’t have any right to be there, either. I was in a circle of old friends, lamenting the fact that wine coolers being free didn’t make them taste any better, when she walked up to me. Conversation ceased, and the friends sensed a cue to disband until it was just the two of us.

She asked if I remembered Chris’s funeral, and I tried not to make any guttural horse sounds. She told me a bully had once knocked her books from her hand, and Chris had picked them up. She told me she knew he didn’t care for her like that, but she’d been in love with him since middle school. She told me she’d been jealous of my friendship with him, but that had all changed the day of the funeral when she’d seen my stoic grief, when she’d been glad we’d had each other for our short time. She told me she’d been all right during the funeral but that she lost it when my eulogy mentioned a particular drama club incident to which she’d been privy. She told me her cousin had died a week before Chris, all of us the same age, and she couldn’t get it out of her mind, how close it had all been. She told me it was my eulogy that made her cry so violently at the gravesite, that she’d wanted him to come back, for me. For me. Her grief had not been only for herself, as mine had been; hers had been for the others around her who were hurting. We can never know what we don’t know; only once we know it, is it known.

That conversation ended in an embrace. I hadn’t truly known who I was until someone else pointed it out. Dee never knew about my past resentment toward her behavior, and I’m glad I kept that constitution, but knowing what I’d internalized still floors me. How blind a suffering person can be to the suffering of others. We like to assume our own suffering would make us more compassionate creatures, but it can also make us stubborn and selfish and unbending. I wasn’t being truthful with my own pain, my own loneliness, so I couldn’t be open to anyone else’s. I had to let myself hurt, and I had to let others hurt. Forget the game of who could love the best, the most, and be loved the most in return; love is not a finite measure, and in claiming to be the only one with rights to feel it, I cheated others of their chance to love what I also loved, and cheated myself of the chance to partake in that combined love, which should have been celebratory, not competitive. I don’t have a corner on grief. I don’t even understand the thing, let alone make any claims to it. But it took truly knowing someone else’s grief for me to drop those claims I believed I had, and the permission to let myself grieve—the permission to let someone else grieve.

My collection rules have changed since then. Now that it’s been two decades and most days are good days, I don’t reward myself for the happy thoughts anymore, or I’d have a hundred full collections a hundred times over. Instead, I reward myself for the grief, for the allowance of it, and for my grief at other people’s grief, which through the towns and the miles and the years and the loves, I have learned—like Dee who’d been so much wiser before me—to feel more strongly than my own. My mother’s cancer, my friend’s cousin’s overdose, a brother’s divorce: grief comes at us in waves and is constantly changing, never complete, as cunning as ever. But on the days when I feel it—when I have to let them all feel it for themselves—I take myself down to the Saturday flea market and hunt and peck for the pieces that will never add up to a complete set.

Leah Angstman