Today when we took the boys out for lunch at Sweet Tomatoes, I experienced a spark of genuine Christmas magic.
I had just gotten my umpteenth buffet refill and was heading back to the table when I had to stop and wait for a departing family to cross in front of me at a sort of intersection between aisles. They reminded me of a family of ducks – one adult at the front of the line, one at the rear, and the kids between the two, in perfect descending order by size. The mom had already passed, and I could have made a quick dash before the first son came through the intersection, but that would have violated several of my own rules.
The first is a law of nature – never come between a parent and their child. It’s just common sense. The second is my own personal “Yield” law; I always defer to the other party when there’s a question of right-of-way. The third is kind of tricky, and at least one person has raked me over the coals about it, although it didn’t affect him at all – I try to avoid accidental contact with other people’s children. Maybe my critic thought there’s something wrong with me. There’s not, apart from a sad sort of paranoia.
It’s partially due to having been a Cub Scout leader for more than seven years and having had the training ingrained; partially due to the accusatory nature of society; partially due to fear of false accusation; and partially due to me knowing I’m a big, ugly dude who probably looks pretty threatening to a small child. Comedian Bill Burr explains it in a less awkward way than I can; take a look. That’s how I feel sometimes.
Whatever the reason, I stood pat and let the ducklings pass by at a safe distance. There must have been about five of them, but I was more patient than I normally am about getting my food back to the table and into my belly. Had it been my first trip to the buffet, I might have been chomping at the bit, but as it was, I was content to stand back and watch the parade.
Then I noticed the last child – a tiny moppet of a girl, one I would have assumed to be about five if she hadn’t been the obvious victim of some developmental challenges. There was a bit of her mother in her face, but the look was offset by other factors that made her resemble a sort of wizened old elf. Her face was angular and gaunt, except for her wide-set eyes, which gave the illusion that her head was larger under her long, stringy brown hair. Those eyes had a distant gaze as she walked along with a shuffled gait, barely able to keep up with the sibling in front of her, but grasping the concept that she was expected to try.
The girl appeared to have some sort of chromosomal disorder, although it wasn’t Down syndrome. I’m not as familiar with others, and I’m not a developmental specialist, but chromosomal seemed like a reasonable guess. Also, I’m not trying to be judgmental, to make fun, nor to show any sort of derision/contempt. People who react like that, can rot.
Anyway, something interesting happened as she approached our intersection. Her seemingly blank gaze fell on me, and she reacted in a subtle way – she briefly raised her arm, then let it fall again. She didn’t exactly wave; her small, mittened hand never moved. But it appeared to be an attempt to be friendly, the way some men do that little head nod, minimizing their emotional investment in a greeting, but getting across the essential requirement. From her, though, it seemed huge.
Taken aback, I instinctively looked over my shoulder, to see if maybe she recognized someone behind me. But nobody was there. And as I turned my head back to face her, she did it again – just a brief lift of the arm toward me, with no change in her facial expression and no other motion save her shuffle. Still, the second attempt made it clear – she was definitely trying to wave to me. Furthermore, she seemed to have understood the need to confirm that; she recognized that I wasn’t sure she’d been waving to me, so she did it again, just to clue me in. I like to think maybe she’d even felt pity at my inability to understand her distinct communication, the way countless people have probably felt pity toward her throughout her young life.
Of course I immediately reciprocated, lifting my hand, wiggling the fingers in a childish wave, and flashing her a big grin. I hoped to get a smile out of her, but nothing doing. She kept on shuffling, returning her gaze to the distance in front of her instead of on this goofy guy to her left, and her facial expression continued to stay steadfastly blank. Her dad brought up the rear, but I wasn’t able to make eye contact with him to acknowledge what his sweet daughter had just done.
For all I know, it was the only means of non-verbal communication she’s able to use. She might not understand the concept of smiling at a stranger, or waving her hand. If that’s the case, I feel even more honored by her straight-armed acknowledgement. After all, there were other people around, but she chose me. Apart from that moment of two arm motions toward me, she hadn’t broken the formation that was surely a rote comfort to her. And I am touched that she made the effort for me, not once, but twice.
I’ll probably never see that family again, but if I could, I’d thank them for letting their daughter’s light shine. That forever-innocent little girl had a chance encounter with a cynical old curmudgeon – one who was sick and tired of the past week’s cold rain, and feeling more than a bit of post-holiday letdown – and as a result, she gave him an extreme case of the warm-and-fuzzies.
That was, and will remain, the best gift of the entire holiday season.