Yesterday I walked my son to school with our asshole dog, Madeline Albright the puppy (you guys, I KNOW, but you don’t know her. And yes, those of you that have suggested that I might be the asshole, definitely. You are on to something).
Anyhow, I got the standard brush off from my ten-year-old. He stopped letting me hug him over a year ago, and Maddie and I continued around the perimeter of the school.
Its a daily walk, and I have my regulars — kids who say hi, ask the pet the dog (no, definitely no), lots kids.
Of course, I have a favorite — Annie. I’m not sure how old Annie is, but younger than 10. She is often running (literally) late but always says, “Hi nice lady with the dog!” as she whizzes by. We both laugh.
I met Annie at the start of this school year. I had turned a crooked corner and heard her before I saw her. Huge aching sobs coming from farther up the street.
As Annie walked toward me she made no effort to stop crying. Tears, streaming down her face, snot dribbling down her nose. She was sort of marching determinedly. I’d initially quickened my pace, as I think any adult would at the sound of a child in such obvious distress, but her posture implied she wasn’t physically hurt.
She approached. It was just me, Annie and the dog.
“Hey, kiddo are you okay? Do you want me to get you some help?” I asked her.
“Nope.” She wiped her nose. “I’m okay.”
“You don’t really look okay.”
“Oh, I just really hate school. I’m just getting my cries out before I get there. I’m really good at it. I can stop right before I get to the door.” She paused in front of me.
I not sure why, but I leaned over and squeezed her hand. Annie gave me a smile that looked a little like a wince and kept going.
That kid’s courage took my breath away. She was just walking down the street, all in her feelings, getting the job DONE.
Because here’s what I know:
Feelings need to be felt.
And feelings pass.
I saw Annie over the following few days — never again sobbing. She didn’t always look happy, but she was always friendly. Eventually, we exchanged names, talked a bit about the dog, and school and how much it can suck.
Yesterday, (because the dog decided to try and eat a plastic bottle top) I was behind myself in my walk by a few minutes. I met Annie closer to the school than our typical, private mid-street rendezvous.
Before I had a chance to take her in fully and wave, a little girl crossing guard (crossing guards are supposed to be the responsible leaders of fifth grade) behind me yelled, “Hey Annie…Why are you wearing high heeled shoes, are you going to the PROM?” and a host of other voices boisterously laughed.
UM, EXCUSE ME?
Because NO. JUST NO. Because I, and I bet YOU were Annie at one point in our lives. I was Annie way back in the early 80’s when teachers and grownups didn’t understand they were supposed to help kids grow up to be good people. They left us like the Lord of the Flies to humiliate each other in the name of competition. And lest you feel too bad for me, I need you to know that BEFORE I was Annie, I was the crossing guard. I was a jerk before I was picked on. What goes around comes around, and I remember both.
Reflexively I said loudly in Annie’s direction. “Oh PLEASE, She is just jealous. Everyone knows a kid brave enough to rock a cowboy boot in grade school is going on to live an extraordinary life…”
Annie put her hand up as she passed me, gave me a huge smile, and high five.
And I came home and cried.
Look, tears are at my surface nearly all the time these days…but this time was different. I cried for my pudgy ten-year-old self who heard comments about her shoes, her hair, her weight nearly every day with no grown-up in sight. I cried for the mean kid I once was, so uncomfortable in my own skin I took it out on the kids around me.
And I cried out of deep gratitude for whoever is raising this extraordinary little kid. Annie is fierce in a way I never could have been at her age. Emotionally resilient in a way I wouldn’t discover for years, Annie is herself in a way I swear I am still working to discover at age forty-five.
And I cried in relief.
My little kid, who still very much lives inside me, got to hear what it would have sounded like if an adult had ever offered her support, gotten involved and helped.
It wasn’t perfect, but I had the corrective experience of BEING the adult who showed up for my miserable little kid self — and it felt amazing.
And yes, because you asked, I DID also go over and speak to a teacher and I made sure the little crossing guard saw me. Oh, I didn’t say a word about her. We talked about the schedule of upcoming testing. But the mean girl didn’t know that, did she?
A few days ago my friend Ray wrote to me. “I hope you will write about the smoking hole kind of grief” we live with. Grief over relationships and experiences that never were and never will be what we wanted or deserved. Stick with me Ray, there is more to come.
Grief comes in all shapes and sizes and the kind Ray is describing is some of the hardest. There are relationships that are lifelong losses that we carry. For some of us, the heartbreak is not when our father dies, but that there is no heartbreak. For some, the tragedy isn’t that they didn’t make it to their mother’s bedside before she died, but that they did and found nothing but resentment and pain, just as there had always been.
The truth is that the work of grief is still the work no matter how or why you carry it. Some of us carry our grief as a lifelong burden, others are slammed with it expectedly on a random Tuesday in June.
And here’s the work:
Show up for the part of you that is wounded, brokenhearted, grieving.
Show up whether she is age 8 or age 80.
Don’t tell her, you are sorry for her loss and send her in the other room to get herself together.
Don’t gently encourage her to talk less about her loss because it’s been four months and shouldn’t she be feeling better?
Don’t remind her of another person’s terrible story so she’ll feel grateful her story isn’t worse.
Don’t tell her kids will be kids.
Just go sit with her. Ask what she needs. Listen.
Imagine the part of you who is hurt, confused, isolated, numb, angry, heartsick.
And be the adult she needs but never had.