Some Birds Are Like That

Have you ever ignored a child? A child who was grinning and waving at you? I’m not sure. I think I might have, in black days past when I was fuming at something or other and I didn’t want to be cheerful to anyone, for anyone. But I’d like to hope that I didn’t ignore a child’s beckoning glance. That I cracked a miniature smile, looked back into small, trusting eyes.

Owen is a pretty gregarious kid – he grins and waves at everyone, soliciting grins and waves back (most of the time). But it was strange and kind of sad to see one woman who, on the S-Bahn back from Bad Homburg, ignored Owen’s multiple attempts at communication. He didn’t seem fazed by it at all. It looked like he thought she mustn’t have seen him yet, so he kept trying – every five or ten minutes or so – to make her crack a smile. And she wouldn’t! For almost an hour she stared in our general direction but without a glimmer of recognition for the little boy trying so hard to make friends. She looked to be in her late twenties, was well put together, quite pretty. And I guess I keep thinking about her because I remember a time (not too long ago) when I was a little like her. When I didn’t really get kids. When I was broody and self-absorbed.

My former roommate Janet used to tell me that when I was feeling miserable, the best cure was to smile. And I hated hearing that when I was moping and glowering – but of course she was right. And I think that is part of why Owen has cured so many of my bad moods – because I can’t help but smile when he’s around (especially at his latest trick, which involves pointing at Duncan or me and then applauding vigorously: “Hooray for Daddies!” or “Hooray for Mummies!” we shout).

One of our favourite books lately is called Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers. It’s about a boy who finds a penguin on his doorstep and tries to bring him “home” to the South Pole. In a way, though, it’s also a classic tale of misunderstanding, misreading, and miscommunication. When the boy is trying to figure out where the penguin comes from, he asks some birds – but they don’t answer him. “Some birds are like that,” comments the narrator. Indeed. His rubber ducky is similarly silent. All the while, the penguin follows the boy around trying (silently) to make friends, while the boy is so intent on returning his new friend to the South Pole, that he fails to notice that the penguin just wants some attention. Isn’t that clever? The boy is a little like those birds! Fortunately, the boy realizes his mistake and the book has a happy ending.

And then they hug.

I guess all this to say that I think we all risk ignoring each others’ wants and needs, when sometimes that need is just a smile, an acknowledgment, a nod. And I hope I will never again be one of those birds – you know – the ones who are like that.

Fear

When I had Owen, the one thing I was not prepared for was the fear that something bad would happen to him. I guess I knew on an intellectual level that I would love him, but I did not realize how much his limbs would become an extension of my limbs, and that I would almost feel his pain in my body (or heart?). Not quite daily, but often, I find myself terrified that something will go wrong, and when things happen that could have been worse (like he falls down two stairs and cuts his lip, or I let go of the stroller and it almost rolls off the front porch), they run through my mind for days.

For example, last week I was mowing the lawn. We have a manual mower that can’t even cut through a twig (or a dandelion stem, if it’s at the wrong angle). And I had Owen standing at a bench with some toys on the other side of the lawn. He was smiling at me, and I said hi periodically, checking in with him to make sure he was OK. And I mowed that lawn! But then, for some reason, all evening long, I had visions of his limbs caught in lawnmower blades. I had to shut my brain off, but for days, this image kept creeping in.

Before we had Owen, Duncan and I both had our fair share of cynicism. We didn’t understand why children were presumed to be more important than adults. We would roll our eyes at certain (fictional) shows where children were always the victims of crimes (think: CSI Miami). And the bad guys were worse guys because they did bad things to children. OK – I can still muster an eye roll at that show, but I have also become one of those people who can no longer watch bad things happen to a child. I wasn’t before. It hurts me now to see a child separated from a parent. Last night, I was reading a wonderful book (small spoiler alert if you click on the link). And when the mother’s child is taken away from her, possibly forever,  I had to put the book down. I couldn’t go back to it until the next day. When I hear news reports of children who have gone missing, who have drowned, who have been hit by cars, I crumple inside. For me, having a child has opened up a connection with humanity. Owen has been an antidote to cynicism.

The other day, we were out walking with Owen (in his big, fancy, expensive stroller) and a teenager came up to us to ask first for a cigarette (we don’t smoke) and then for some change (we’d left the house without our wallets). The boy could have been anywhere from 14-19. He was slight, had sores on his face, and looked like he was having a really rough time. I realized then, as I’ve acknowledged so many times since Owen was born, that we need so much from our parents, from society, and from life. Owen is so so lucky to be loved and held and laughed with. When he was just starting to smile, I remember thinking: what would happen to a baby who didn’t get a smile back? What would happen if a baby kept flashing toothless grins and no one was there to mirror those smiles? I know that people can surmount all kinds of difficulties, and I’m certainly not trying to draw any easy conclusions here. I don’t know how long our lucky streak will last. And I can’t keep Owen from hurt. Life is full of hurts, small and big.

So all I can do is hug him and love him and smile back … and hope we stay lucky. I am so scared of the alternative.