It was her birthday. There wasn’t going to be a party, because she wouldn’t be able to come.
“Sleep, sleep, my little fur child. Out of the windiness, out of the wild…” My mind chants these lines from my favorite Margaret Wise Brown book, a book which has offered a different sort of comfort with each child that I have held and rocked.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. I’m here with you. But what if I’m scared, too?
I saw a middle-aged woman walking into a downtown restaurant just the other day. I don’t remember which restaurant it was, but my memory of the woman is bright as the January snow on a sunny morning. Her name is Teresa, and I first met her when I was in college. My friend Amy and I were helping at a church that provided shelter for people in the community that had no place to sleep at night. We had to arrive sharply at the start of our shifts, as the doors were locked once everyone was accounted for, and no one could come or go until seven in the morning, at which time all the “guests” were sent forth into the shadows of the community until evening fell once again.
“Maybe you could do something with my hair.” I turned to find the source of the meek voice, and I was face-to-face with a girl, a woman, who looked to be about half a decade past my starry-eyed nineteen years. She was Teresa, and she had a sweetness and youthfulness about her that matched the lisp in her words. There was something, though, behind the wonder of her wide eyes, that led me to believe that her childhood had been met with circumstances which had tried to take some of that innocence away. As I french braided Teresa’s hair, I must have secretly wondered how she had come to be here, how she had come to be a “guest” at the shelter.
“I’m hungry for brownies!” The booming voice came from Frank, whose commanding presence and permanent scowl evoked fear from a place deep inside of me. “I want brownies,” he again caused my spine to stiffen. I peered toward Amy, and the collective decision was made. Frank was going to get brownies, because we were afraid of what would happen to us if we didn’t come through. There were no eggs, but the “person in charge,” perhaps also aware of the potential wrath of Frank, unlocked the basement door so we could venture into the darkness to buy a dozen eggs from the Hot Spot, which was just up the road. Frank, expressionless, devoured brownie after brownie as we looked on with a combination of terror and relief.
There is a man that walks to a rhythm. He takes some steps, spins to face the opposite direction on the sidewalk, takes some more steps, then spins to his original spot and continues along. I wonder where he is going; I wonder if he knows. He looks somehow familiar, like someone I may have known many years ago. I may wonder, but there really are no answers.
“In our little fur family, this is our song.” We have known all along. The darkness has gotten darker, and nobody can find the lights. Our girl needs more than we have to give. Sweet sixteen, and she is not home. She can’t be home. It wasn’t her; she wasn’t there.
I am so, so sorry.
I can hear those words again, and I think of my tiny book which is covered in fake fur. The words, even the thought of those words, stills my soul.
“Sleep, sleep, my little fur child.”
“You can bring me snacks to eat when you visit, but they have to be factory sealed. Nothing homemade.” Her request was somewhere between Teresa’s braids and Frank’s brownies on the continuum of insistence. Happy Birthday, indeed.
When she was very small, I took my baby girl to Oakbrook Mall. She was carrying on, and she did not need anything in particular (at least not anything that I could provide). “Take that baby home and put her to bed!” The words of a stranger bit through my being as tears welled in my eyes. I wanted to tell this person that my little girl doesn’t sleep, that she is never settled, and that I just thought we both needed a little time walking in the fresh air where the tulips were in full, perfect bloom. I stayed silent. I should have said what my friend had the courage to say when his young family was met with jeering and condescending stares from fellow restaurant patrons.
“You have no idea what they have been through.”
I have no idea what she, the girl that I have held and rocked, has been through. And I will never, ever know.
When I saw Teresa the other day, nearly thirty years from our last meeting, she was with another woman. It seemed that this woman was her friend, and they both looked happy, smiling and engaged in conversation as they entered the restaurant.
Braids, brownies, even a factory-sealed birthday cake for your sixteenth birthday…if it’s what you want, if it’s what will make you happy in this moment, then that is my wish for you, that we can overcome the fear.
I hope you get your wish, and I hope that one day, every day, you will be happy.