Things Jack Said
Imaginary friends are the best kind of friends
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about imaginary friends. Do kids still have them? Or have they been replaced by little screens? Maybe they’re more common than ever in these isolated, distanced times.
The kids I currently know are either babies or young adults; I don’t know anyone in the imaginary friend demo. As tempted as I’ve been at times, something tells me this is not a topic I can just walk up to a kid in a grocery store to ask about.
My brother, Rickie, had an imaginary friend named Jack. Jack was very smart. The story of how Jack saved my brother’s life was told for many years in my family and is something I think about still.
Rickie was the oldest child. This is apparently who most often has an imaginary friend: firstborns and onlys. One can fall into both categories for a time, as Rickie did. He was almost four when my sister Cindy came along, so he had three whole years to himself—and, for a time, Jack.
Like Jack, Rickie was also very smart. How smart? Well, when he was tested for IQ—which 1950s public education enthusiastically used as a Sorting Hat—he scored 185. In those days, anything over 180 was considered “genius.” Now, in the post everyone-gets-a-trophy era, the designation is “profoundly gifted.” This is probably not a bad revision, since telling a kid he’s a genius is a fantastic way to create an insufferable asshole. Had things turned out differently for Rickie, had he lived past age 29, he might have turned into one of those horny middle aged dudes always trying to enlist smart pretty girls into Mensa.
Possessing such intelligence, it is no surprise that Rickie was early to talk. He pretty much skipped baby talk in favor of complete, adult-like sentences before he could walk. (I, on the other hand, was so late to talk that they thought something was wrong with me—the first in a long series of them wondering if something was wrong with me’s—while I wondered what was wrong with them. Families: amirite?)
Speaking of thinking something’s wrong with a kid: in preparation for writing this piece, I did some looking around on the Internet for information on imaginary friends. I was hoping to find hints of the paranormal or satisfying metaphysical explanations or scholarly papers on fairies and wood nymphs—something, anything. Instead I found lots of pop psychology articles saying it’s Perfectly Normal for a kid to have an imaginary friend… to a point. That point seems to be around age nine, according to “experts.” Then you must gently shame them out of it—errr—reward them for the more grownup behavior of letting that friend go. If that doesn’t work, it might be time to talk about therapy and medication. Having an imaginary friend past age nine, experts say, could signal, you know, deeper problems.
None of these articles told me what I wanted to know, which is what was Jack exactly? Was he a product of Rickie’s imagination? An entity from another dimension? An angel? Because, by all accounts, Jack was pretty extraordinary.
As soon as Rickie started to talk, the story goes, he gave my parents memos from Jack. There was the usual imaginary friend chatter, of course, but every now and then Rickie would say things like, “Jack says I shouldn’t eat candy.” “Jack says it’s not good for me to skip lunch.” “Jack says I need juice.”
Finally, one day Rickie said, “Jack says you need to take me to the doctor and have them check my sugar. Now!” This was so odd and so specific, that my parents listened. They’d noticed their kid hadn’t been feeling well, but had no idea what was wrong with him.
At the children’s hospital in Pittsburgh, they found out he had juvenile diabetes, now called Type 1. His blood sugar level was just a few points shy of a coma.
This photo of Rickie was taken the day they went to the hospital. It’s clear that he was just miserable.
Once Rickie’s condition was diagnosed and his insulin stabilized, Jack was no longer needed. One day, he rode away on the roof of a school bus full of kids.
I talked about this story with my sister, Sue, this week. She said, “Don’t forget the ending, that’s the best part.”
“That is the ending,” I said. “Jack rode off on the roof of a school bus so he could help other kids.”
”Right,” she said. “The reason they knew Jack rode away on a school bus was because they were talking about a school bus crash that day and Rickie told them how Jack had left.”
I’d never heard that ending, but the beauty of family lore is there are as many versions of a story as there are surviving family members to tell them.