Image from Shel Silverstein’s “Hug-Of-War”
I don’t know how people see me in general. I cannot look with another’s eyes to see the external me, and this has always been a sort of frustration for me. Because I am inwardly-driven.
Questioning to the point of self-frustration. Sometimes even to the point of self-loathing. This idea. . .how do people see me? Am I doing enough to project a likable, trustworthy personae? Am I okay?
It’s not this way with small children, however. Never has been. If a small child sees me in a restaurant, it is little time at all before there are peeks around a high chair or a small face peering over the top of a booth. Sometimes, I create trouble for a child by proximity. Small children. Small animals. Do they see something I do not see?
It’s no time at all before we are engaged in some kind of quiet play. Smiles. Silly faces. A finger wave. There’s a connection. Sometimes, you just have to accept that to some other person in this world, you are seen as a viable playmate.
I’m the last person you would expect such a reciprocal expression from. . .I’m 6’3, 250. I’m quite foreboding having spent some time in the gym as a younger person. But there is no fear in these small children. . .none.
It’s really quite humbling. But it does invite and afford glimpses into a self that I don’t recognize in passing. And it almost always happens in passing.
Today was Maddie’s 12th birthday. The plan was to go to The Olive Garden for lunch. Maddie would sit with a friend and Noah and I would sit at a near-by table to allow for some girl-conversation without the intrusion of Daddy and Big Brother. Before we took our seats at a table, this small child turned in his chair to squeal at me. Big toothy grin, delightful squeal. Hands out-stretched. It’s not my first time. This happens.
And then IT happened.
The mother of this child in response to his outburst slapped him across the mouth and turned him in his chair to face his own group.
And I was struck in the moment. I turned red about my lips. My mouth. I could feel my face on fire. And something broke within me.
I know it was not my head, because if it were, I would have been over that seat taking matters into my own hands (please see the description above–I also see myself as being strong enough to defend myself and others if need be).
It was my heart. I am not always aware of my heart and the multitudes it might contain. Not in public moments like this anyway. Oh, sure, I can be moved to tears by human moments captured in film. I do cry openly at the endings of books. I am moved by read-alouds in front of students when they are moved by something they are experiencing for the first time even if I have experienced it over seventy times.
My heart was slapped. And the reverberation came of Noah’s having witnessed the slap. His teenage head shaking from side to side. The look upon his face that read, “Did you see that, Daddy? Did you see what happened to that baby?” And my return look that must have read, “Yes. I saw. Go ahead. Eat your salad. It will be okay.”
Since, we were seated back-to-back, I could have written the whole event off as a chance event that we just happened to witness. We are here to celebrate. We are here to enjoy a meal that we don’t always get to have.
But a slap just doesn’t go away. Slaps are processed. Especially by the inward. The introspective. The clumsy oafs who grab daisies by the petals and lack the understanding of brokenness.
The group behind us left before we finished our meal. But the mother left with baby carrier with a smaller child leaving a grandmother to tend the toddler.
When the toddler passed my chair, he playfully grabbed my shirt hem. I turned to him. I looked at him and I smiled. He smiled back. Big toothy grin. Chubby toddler fingers. Brown skin. Beautiful.
His grandmother called him by name, but I didn’t catch it. Perhaps this is better for me in the end. He becomes archetypal. Any child.
Any child reaching out. It’s a moment one cannot afford to lose.
The little boy immediately gestured “Up.” You’ve seen children do this, right? “Up.” It’s a universal gesture.
The grandmother smiled and said, “Baby, this gentleman doesn’t want to pick you up.”
And I said. “Yes. Yes I do. I want to pick him up.”
I turned my chair and let that little brown baby sit right on my lap. Wouldn’t you know that close cut brown-haired head found itself nuzzled right into my chest and armpit.
What are you going to do? I kissed him on the forehead. I told him he was a good boy. That I believed that he was a really good, good boy. Beautiful boy.
And that was it.
Taking his grandmother’s hand, he walked out of the restaurant. And into the world outside of restaurants. Outside. Where the world presents equal parts slaps and equal parts hugs. But. . .every now and then. . .a chance encounter with a person who reads the heart of others better than he may read his own will come your way.
We cannot lose the chance to express a little bit of love in this world we live in. We are in this together, kid. Who knows. . .one day we might run into each other again. You will read my heart and remember. And you’ll want to hug me. I can do that. I’ll be ready. And you’ll tell me, “You said I was a good, good boy. You’ll told me I was beautiful.”
And I’ll reply, “I remember. I did. You are.”
That’s it. No reading connection here, unless we might count our hearts as a kind of text. And for this, we are led to stories we share. And the connections we invite via the books we share. A close-reading of the heart. The names of the people we meet. . .and we touch. . .and we love. . .inscribed in the margins.