It had a red handle and a fake, round plastic blade—bright yellow—affixed by a small pin in the center so it could rotate like a pizza cutter. It would leave subtle perforations when dragged across my hand-flattened sheets of play dough. Even after play dough was dried out (and repurposed into swanky dollhouse furniture) I continued to worship this pizza cutter. I planned to fiddle with it unto eternity. I cherished this plastic play dough pizza cutter up until the very last second of its existence.
When I noticed that it was missing, I became dry-mouthed with disbelief. I upturned every carpet and napkin, excavated every pillowcase and purse. I could not comprehend the loss. I imagined, so vividly, dragging the dull blade tip across deli meats and delicate fabrics, seeing the soft surfaces fold to the pressures of my four-year-old arm strength. How could this solid, plastic object, which sits so vividly in my replayed reality of yesterday, be gone?
This is my first memory—the experience of losing. Ever since the onset of object permanence, I continued to awe myself (and frustrated babysitters) by how easily I inadvertently made objects disappear. My Ms. Piggy lunch box (on the M102 bus), my Pokemon card collection (in a bank, I think), my first ever purse (in the dentist waiting room), my mom’s cardigan with a sparrow on it (8th grade Spanish class).
Losses are lonely. They leave you grasping at the memories of entities that may never grace your fingertips again. Friends may offer “where did you last see it?” or even briefly join your search team. But when the search team tires of trying to undo your mistake, you’re all alone. The consequences of your actions—the shame, the anxiety, the grief—are felt only by you.
We can use the word “loss” to encompass a remarkable range of human experience. We lose possessions, competitions, or loved ones. We can even lose bits of ourselves: teeth, illusions, or memories. Though profoundly different, we apply the word loss to these experiences because they all can leave us with the same general sensations: confusion, denial, emptiness.
The loss of objects, though ostensibly trivial, prepares us for what lies ahead. From birth to age two, we believe that when an object is hidden it ceases to exist. We then learn, through trial and error I suppose, that solid objects are real—they persist, even when we’re not around to experience them. And this is how we have come to understand the world—we are surrounded by parents, pets, and play dough pizza cutters, all of which we believe follow this same rule-set. Had I lost the pizza cutter before this developmental milestone, I would not care—I could not experience loss, because I could not yet comprehend gain.
Through experience with loss, we unlearn this understanding of permanence. We lose sentimental objects, pet birds, even people. We lose ourselves—in flurries of to-do lists, traumas, expectations. And though permanence is fleeting, we constantly search for new sources of it, for stability—we proclaim that the girl with the cool monkey shirt is our “best friend,” and bestow enormous sentimental value upon manmade chunks of plastic. We tell ourselves that they will be in our lives “forever.” But through oversights and outgrowth, we can lose these too.
Object permanence and loss afflicts us with a longing, but also an echo of what was once there. We’re left digging between couch pillows, retracing our steps, slicing and re-slicing the play dough pizzas in our mind until they dry. I still remember the plastic pizza dough cutter—the red, the bright yellow blade. If I had remembered where I left it that day, by now I would not remember it at all.