Last week I was sitting on a park bench, reading a book, taking in the rich, warmth of an early springtime day. A child kept moving around me, making noises, puttering, going back and forth. I tried to pay no attention, but the intrusion was getting irritating. There was no one else around, and this child seemed intent upon either annoying me or getting my attention.
Finally, a bit exasperated, I looked up. A young boy of maybe 10 or 12 was straddling the bar of his dirt bike, staring at me. He was small for his age, and had a kind of indeterminate retardation that made me feel ashamed for my annoyance. His hair was black and stringy, his eyes wide apart, and his teeth crooked and ill-cared for. When he saw me looking, he grinned and waved. His movements were stiff and jerky, as if his muscles were a beat behind his intentions. But his look had the innocence of angels.
He said something to me, but it was unintelligible.
"Excuse me?" I said, hoping now to engage him in conversation since he so clearly wanted my attention. His eyes darted quickly. My inability to understand him had reinforced his sense of isolation.
"Nothing," he said clumsily, and looked down.
My mind raced back over the unintelligible syllables, trying to reconstruct them. There had been three, mumbled in a kind of singsong way that faded out at the end.
I took a chance.
"Did you say, "What’s my name?" I asked. His grin opened like the sun. He waved his hand in ecstatic affirmation and nodded his head vigorously.
"It’s ‘Kent’," I said.
He laughed, and nodded wildly.
"Kent," he repeated. "Kent."
Then he said it again, more quietly, as if savoring it, as if it were some sort of magical incantation.
"My bike," he said proudly, pointing at the dented, rusty dirt bike he was riding. It was his pride, his self-worth, his closest and perhaps only friend.
I was about to ask him his name when he pushed on one of the pedals and went wobbling off down the sidewalk.
He circled once to make sure I was watching.
"Kent," he said, waving and watching. "Kent."
In his lonely world, he had made what passed for a friend.
I watched as he rode happily down the street. His track was straight and true. Somehow the bike gave him a steadiness his own hands and feet could not provide.
He rode to the middle of the next block, turned his bike abruptly, jumped the curb, and slid to a perfect stop in the middle of a yard.
A woman was standing on the steps, waiting for him. She gathered him to her, pulling him close, as if he had been gone too far, or too long.
They stood there in the afternoon sun. She stroked his hair like one strokes the hair of a toddler, or an infant. He leaned against her, making no effort to pull away, resting in his mother’s embrace like a peaceful and weary child.
I thought of my own son, only a few years older than this boy and increasingly uncomfortable with parental touch as he seeks to separate and define himself in an autonomous adult world. How much his mother and I would love to receive a hug of this purity and innocence. But those days are gone now. He is a child breaking away into his own private manhood, and his love is expressed with more caution and circumspection.
I glanced back at the woman and her child. It was a tableau to melt the hardest heart. There, in the gentle grace of the afternoon sun, a mother and child stood, comfortable in each other’s embrace, framed by the glowing springtime light.
How lucky you are, I thought, to know such guileless love. What a gift you have been given, to know a child who will never grow beyond childhood innocence.
How blind we often are to life’s hidden gifts. This boy, who looks for all the world like a burden to be born, is, truly, a blessing to be cherished. In his childish joy, his simple life in the present tense, he offers the gift of a pure and unmediated heart to those who are lucky enough to look up and meet his gaze.
I sat back on the bench and returned to my book. The day seemed gentler, the sun, warmer. A young boy and his mother had given me a glimpse into life’s hidden beauty, and I, on that day, had been blessed enough to see it.
I hope that I will keep this understanding, and not turn my eyes back only to the sadness and difficulty that is everywhere around us. For there are blessings in the shadows, beauty in life’s most ordinary moments.
The greatest gift we can give to ourselves and others is to learn to see these blessings, then to pass that gift along.