It was early on a Sunday morning in Spring, and I was wandering around on Houston St near First Ave. As I passed a small playground, a girl ran past me. She was at least fourteen, I'd guess, but her giggle, and the awkwardness of her running immediately told me she was emotionally much younger. She raced over to a bench in the park, and sat down, laughing, like this was the most fun a person could have. An older woman and a young boy came up to join her, and they began to coax her over to sit on a swing. When they did this, she looked flabbergasted, like this was a joy beyond anything she could have imagined. She took some extra coaxing actually, moving in awe, like she simply couldn't believe what was happening, but eventually she sat down on a swing. I never heard her speak, I don't know if she was capable of it, but her laughter was eloquent, her face rapturous.
The boy was probably no more than ten, voice and movement suggesting a rough-and-tumble kid, someone who races about causing a ruckus that is usually cheerful and harmless, but can be self-absorbed in the way of young boys. I imagined that had circumstances been different, he might even have been one of those boys who made fun of girls like that, not in any sustained way, just horsing around with his friends. Yet here he was, being very sweet and tender with her (though still in a playful way), very aware of how much she loved his attention, and this ride. To my eye, he had long ago accepted his role as the older protective brother; it rested easily on him.
I walked away from this scene overwhelmed and confused. I was choked by the love I felt pouring off the woman and boy for this teenage girl, and by the open, guileless look on her face. But there was also something more troubled in my reaction. I had instantly evolved a whole back-story for this family (even the idea they were a family was an assumption, after all). I pictured them coming to this park often for the boy's sake, giving him a chance to run off high spirits and play with other kids. When they came during normal hours though, it was crowded with kids, and the girl had been taught to sit quietly on the bench. The other kids were frightened of her, you see, or fond of ridiculing her, or both, and more than one parent had suggested that the swings weren't meant for a fourteen to sixteen year old, no matter what her emotional age. Maybe they too were a bit uncomfortable around her, and just preferred she not interact with their children. She couldn't be left at home alone, so she sat on the bench with her mother, and that was okay, she loved it; getting to watch other kids run around, slide on slides and swing on swings was one of the highlights of her day. But that morning, either the boy or mother -I like to imagine it was his idea- decided to go to the park when no one else was likely to be around, and give her a surprise.
What I saw in her face was a joy heart-stopping in its purity. She held nothing back, I'm not sure she would have known how to. I immediately thought about how vulnerable that made her. It's not unusual for people to be casually cruel to people like her, but the damage could come from carelessness or neglect as easily as from deliberate cruelty. Yet here she was, having the time of her life on a swing in a little city park.
I witnessed this about eleven years ago. Who knows if my back-story is true? Perhaps I'm slandering an entire neighborhood. Periodically though, the event springs up to haunt me, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Today is one of those days. She has come to symbolize a specific vulnerability, I think, a total lack of emotional armor. While she might not get to swing every day (and that thought certainly breaks my heart), it looked to me like she always felt free to be the happy child she was. This made me feel such gratitude to that woman and boy. Not only had they made the time to give her an overwhelming treat, they made a safe space for her to be this vulnerably happy, and it was clear they did this all the time. Nor did they seem to think they were doing anything exceptional or arduous. Life with her must have involved difficulties of some kind, financial, emotional, physical, but all I saw that morning was their kindness, their love for her, and they joy they took in making her happy.