Today, I saw the depth of your little almost-3-year-old heart, and it took my breath away. And I want you to know what it felt like.
Before we got in the school car line to pick up Charlie, we parked down by the playground. It was teeming with big kids — older kids — and I knew you would feel shy.
“How about we sit here and watch the kids play for awhile?” I offered. “OK!” came your quick reply. Liam was awake in the row between us, and I knew he would want to eat soon. Quicker than I expected, you were ready to go on the playground. You insisted I hold your hand (when usually it’s the other way around), and as we got closer, you said hopefully, “I can make new friends!”
We walked onto the overlapping turf and mulch, feeling the sponge beneath our feet. You usually do a little jump there, just to test the turf, but you didn’t today.
A girl of about 12 lay belly-down on the ground, just in front of us, inspecting something . I cringed because her backside was up in the air and a solid three inches of underwear was in plain view. She either didn’t know or didn’t care.
You didn’t care, either. You noticed what she was doing.
“Look, Mommy!” you breathed. “She has rocks!” The girl was carefully picking rocks from the mulch and lining them on the more solid turf. You’ve loved holding little things in your hands since you were a baby, and rocks are no exception. I reminded myself at least three times today to check your sweater pockets for rocks before washing it.
As I sat down on the bench and began to feed Liam, you hovered and leaned against my leg, never taking your eyes off this young girl.
By this time, I had noticed that the class enjoying the playground was 11- and 12-year-olds with various special needs.
Of course I thought of our Charlie, and I tried to imagine what he will do at a playground when he is 12. Part of that thinking made me sad, because I wanted someone to pull that young girl up, cover her backside and engage with her somewhere other than belly-down on the ground. I imagined Charlie, lining rocks up just like the girl (whose name we learned was Janae).
My heart hurt. I didn’t want Charlie to be off on his own, lining up rocks. Not when he is 12! I thought.
You began to look for rocks of your own. Timidly, you headed toward the end of the slide, where some of the older kids were being “really loud, Mommy.”
You came dashing back in no time, with a beautiful little rock in your hand. “I want to give this to my friend,” you said proudly. “You can do that, Emma!”
“No, it’s too hard.”
“What’s too hard, punkin?”
“It’s too hard to make new friends.”
My breath caught. There’s something about watching you discover an emotion that cinches my chest. In a nanosecond, images of new friendships formed and old friendships lost flew through my head. It was like watching you take the first step onto a lifelong road of forging friendships. And yes, it is hard to make new friends.
When I told you it wasn’t hard, that you just had to say, “Hi, my name is Emma,” I was lying. Because the truth is, revealing your vulnerability to someone can be the scariest thing on earth. And you were so determined that she would be your friend. I recognized that feeling. I remembered how it has enveloped me at times, too. How there just seemed to be wires connecting and sparking into a burst of energy and friendship but then — no, maybe not.
Suddenly, it was time for the class to return to school. I watched you watch the teacher who came to get Janae. I watched you start to feel panicked.
“I want to give my friend this rock!” you half-whispered to me. “OK, honey. You can do that.”
Janae stood up in response to the teacher’s coaxing. Her eyes had no light. She moved toward the school, glancing briefly at Liam.
“Baby,” she said.
I know the joy of hearing a distinct word from a voice usually silent. I can’t help but celebrate when that happens anywhere. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “Baby! This is Liam!”
Janae had already continued on. “But mommy!” you cried.
The teacher was still beside us. “Oh, wait, Janae, can you come back?” I asked, making eye contact with the teacher and trying to send all the subliminal messages I could.
I wanted to scream, “WAIT! This is important! My beautiful, sweet, kind little girl has just reached out to someone who could be her brother one day, and I desperately need her to have this moment!”
Janae returned, completely focused on Liam, peering at him a bit too closely in his stroller. I felt the undercurrent of unpredictability but trusted that Janae’s teacher would anticipate any rough response.
You moved closer to Janae, with your hand outreached and a perfect rock in the middle of your palm. You beamed at Janae so very hopefully. All you wanted in that moment was for this beautiful girl to take your beautiful rock from your beautiful hand.
And she pushed your hand away. No words. Just a gentle push as she peered into Liam’s stroller again.
The teacher and I scrambled to make amends as Janae walked away, done with us and our conversation and our baby and our rock.
“Oh, wow!” the teacher said awkwardly. “Can I look at your rock?” You held out your hand again to show him, and he marveled at it, again rather awkwardly.
Then they were gone, and you stood before me, with tears in your eyes, and I wanted to inhale you, comfort every inch of you and then breathe you back onto the playground, full of confidence and love and light again.
“My friend didn’t want to take my rock…” you said softly, with the most forlorn look upon your face.
“Oh, honey, it’s OK,” I said, pulling you into my arms and looking up at the sky over your shoulder. I wanted to cry. I felt so heartbroken for you — so protective of your tiny little, still learning heart. I wanted to protect you from random, meaningless rejection and restore your confidence so you would never hesitate to offer someone a rock again.
I also felt my own heart ache, because I was so filled with love for you and pride in who you are becoming. You are a good girl. You are such a kind girl. Today, I saw how lovely you are becoming. Inside and out.
I love you, Mary Emma.