As we were getting just out of earshot of the woman who had taken our money, and passing on towards the next window that would magically open to give my children their nutrition-devoid lunch, my son said, “Did you hear her voice? It was so weirdly scratchy.” He said this loudly, in his ‘outside voice’, delivered in a way that only 11 year olds possess.
“No.” I said, firmly. “No. We don’t do that. We don’t make fun of people, or judge them, or put them down. That woman has a job. She is doing her best. And she was kind.” I said. I paused at the red stop sign, long enough to make sure that both our minivan and my words would make it out safely into the traffic we were about to enter. I needed this to be a crossroads for my 11 year old. I needed him to hear me. I needed this to be a conversation that he would remember, if not forever, then at least the next time that careless words rose to the top of his consciousness. Giving them a hurdle or a speed bump, that would slow their exit from his mouth.
As our van turned left, joining the throngs of other errand runners, I proceeded. “Jonah, I need you to hear me, honey. There is a saying that I always try to live by. I’m not always good at it, and I fail at it all the time. But I keep trying, because it’s important. The saying is this: Be Kind. Always. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. Do you understand that?” He answered that he kind of understood, but I could tell he was listening, so I continued. “Honey, you can never tell what somebody’s life is like just by looking at them. Unless they have had a really hard life, then sometimes you can tell. But you still don’t know everything that a person has gone through, or what they might be going through right now. Look around us.”
“We don’t know where all of those people are going, or where they came from. Some might be going to the hospital to see their family member, some of them have probably lost a son or daughter. Even the kids at my work, they usually look just like every other kid. You couldn’t tell by looking at them that some of their parents beat them, or that maybe some of their moms and dads don’t want them—“ He gasped, interrupting me. It was a terrible sound. The sound of the wrong kind of enlightenment.
“What?!” He asked, incredulously, “some kids have parents who beat them?!” And I broke. Not audibly, or visually. I kept a calm veneer over my crest fallen face. But, silently, the customary soundtrack to heartbreak.
Now, he knew.
He knew, and I was the one who had told him. I was the messenger with ugly feet, in ripped up shoes. The harbinger of hurt, the bringer of bad news. “But why would anyone beat a child, ‘speciallly their own child?” He asked. Dang. Which is not what I was thinking, but I try not to swear on my blog. So, dang.
Dang, because I didn’t want my children to know how ugly things can be. Dang, because things can happen to children that are much, much worse than being hit, and if this hurts so much to say, how will I ever explain the harder things. And dang, because I didn’t mean to let my words be the hammer that struck a blow into the happy bubble he lives in.
We kept talking, wading deeper into the murky waters we now found ourselves in. Holding onto hope, like the life preserver that it is, though we were only ankles deep into the enormity of our conversation. “Wow,” he said, “wow. I never knew all that. That makes me feel a bit sad. But like I can do better. I can be nicer.” He said, finally, signaling that he was done with this particular conversation. And then he sighed, as if letting out all the air that he had been holding since he first gasped several minutes before. Out, but different. My sprouting little seedling, absorbing, taking from his environment, then processing, and releasing what he doesn’t need, back to where it came from.
Except this time, it came from me.
How long did I think it would last? This innocence and naïveté of youth? Longer. I thought I had longer.
Because childhood is brief, and adulthood is long. Because, except for math formulas, once you know something, you cannot un-know it. Because knowledge changes us. And I wanted so badly for my children to remain the same, just for a while longer.
But also, because I have worked with foster children for almost 11 years, and it still breaks me. It has changed me. It affects the ways I look at others in the grocery store, or at the park, or at my children’s school. It means that I know too much, and have at times felt the weight of that knowledge around my neck like an anvil of the cruelest construction. People were not meant to suffer. Children were not meant to suffer. And yet, they do.
They come to us, perfect skin blotted by bruises. Little mouths repeating the meanest things that have been uttered by lips that once kissed their newborn heads. Heavy little hearts, in the hands of strangers.
And we take them in.
We offer warmth and hope, and a semblance of the healthy love that they should have been experiencing their whole lives. We hold them. We read, and we sing, we tuck them in, and we rest in the fact that for now, these little ones are safe. We clock off, and we go home to the ones we love most, and we try to release the breath that we have been holding since we were handed their case file, and told that we were going to need to brace ourselves for what we were about to read.
I still cry. Not at work. Sometimes not for days. But eventually, it comes out. A chink in my armor, a soft spot shown, and I am done. Whether it be dandelions in the chubby fist of my own toddler, her arms and body the perfect, unblemished, shade of taupe. Or perhaps, my twins arguing over who’s turn it is to use the backyard swing, and suddenly I am thinking that they will never know how blessed they are. (Which both delights and exhausts me.)
No. My children will never know firsthand the kind of human suffering that I have born witness to. They won’t know how it feels to grope around for love in places that dark. But, hopefully, I will teach them to live in their own light generously, in ways that say to others, there is room enough for you here. They may never fully understand the how’s and the why’s, but I will try with everything inside of me to teach them to focus on the who’s. And always, always, to be kind.