“Mommy, who is that?”
She pointed to a picture slid into the fold of a service booklet of a boy with an enormous piece of chocolate sheet cake half-shoved into his mouth with the fork still stabbed into the top.
My mind hiccuped for a moment, trying to make sense of how she didn’t already know the child from the picture, and then realizing that those two only existed in the same spheres in my mind: both safely tucked into the same envelope labeled ‘Momma Bear’.
Of course, she doesn’t know him, they occupied my heart years away from one another.
And yet they seemed so close.
I opened my mouth to answer her, but everything that boiled to the surface sounded too sterile of a description for the slanted and mischief-filled eyes that shimmered over that piece of chocolate cake. Eyes I just saw closed for their final rest. Eyes I can pull from my memory in seconds like no time had passed at all.
Client. Participant. They were accurate but empty.
I wanted to tell her how I met him the day I came in to interview for a college job. He shot down the breezeway squealing, a woman following him called his named sternly, but her mouth turned up at the corners as she picked up her pace to catch him. He ran directly to me, a complete stranger, grabbed both my hands and hid his face behind them as if concealing himself fully from the woman who followed. I could feel his hot breath against my palms as he snickered, his head bobbing against my belly as he squirmed. When she reached us, she playfully chimed, “Where did he go? He just disappeared!”
He screamed a laugh that could have made the electricity in the room lose connection and ran toward her, throwing his noodle-thin arms around her as she picked him up and twirled him.
“It’s time for lunch,” she stated calmly after placing him on the floor. “Let’s go wash up.”
She held his hand and led him back down the breezeway, but he turned, looking at me as he walked back down the hall.
He tipped his curious, bald head to the side and pointed at me.
“My friend?” he asked with his eyebrows raised to his non-existent hairline.
I smiled and nodded at his sweet, questioning face and he placed his hand on his small chest and nodded back.
“My friend?” he repeated, again and again, nodding as he was lead away and out of sight.
He was the reason I accepted the job offer I received that day.
He was the reason I came back.
It would be months that added to two and a half years of seeing him almost every day. I helped potty-train him. At least twice. I helped him wake up in the mornings and changed the sheets he wet no matter how many Spiderman pull-ups I put on him the night before. I sat in an upholstered chair by his bed and waited for him to lay still and to hear his soft rhythmic snoring before collecting my things and heading back to my college apartment. I watched him rip open Christmas gifts and hold each object to him like a precious treasure. A stuffed Spiderman, a toy truck, a package of superhero underwear, he hugged each one and tucked them safely under his bed covers. I swung him in swings as he squealed “higher!” and laughed with mouth wide open and eyes squeezed shut. I read him stories. I helped him with his schoolwork. I helped teach him so many things.
But he taught me more.
He was a child with so much growth and life ahead of him, and so was I.
“Just a baby leading another baby through life,” as our program director would say.
I didn’t realize then how true those words were.
He taught me how to love without conditions, and to see each person as an opportunity to make a new friend. He taught me how to remain calm when small people are filled with chaos, and how simply sitting and waiting for the storm to pass with arms ready to hug and soothe was far more effective than trying to stop the winds and quiet the thunder. He taught me the vast wonder of how to connect with a person who did not communicate like I did. He taught me the comic value of a well-timed toot. He taught me to laugh from my toes. He taught me what light looked like personified. He taught me that persistence and a well-placed “please” could persuade almost anyone. He exercised muscles I had never used, the ones that loved, protected, and nurtured another person. He stretched my heart from the thin, self-focused bubble of a college student, to the vast diversity of humanity in all of its beauty and complexity with one simple phrase he repeated day in and day out: “You see me?”
“You see me?” as he proudly brushed his teeth.
“You see me?” as he dribbled a basketball, his foot turned in and tripping him with each step.
“You see me?” as he chewed a giant bite of a peanut butter and honey sandwich.
“You see me?” as he lay in my arms with fever.
“You see me?” as he peed on fruit loops in the toilet.
“You see me?” as he ran on the bridge that crossed over the fishing pond.
“You see me?” as he peeked out from under his covers at night.
I looked at Scout’s face, her eyebrows furrowed in a question I still had yet to render an answer to. I dropped to a knee and held the picture out in front of us.
“You see him?” I asked her. “He’s my friend.”
I see you now, dear boy. I see you running over hills with two feet facing forward so you almost fly from the ground, but never fall. I see you whole, your body healed, your hair grown in, light ash brown. I hear you laughing. I see you playing. I feel your small hand in mine. I see you like this forever. I see you, friend, I see you.