Sunday, December 2, 2007

Burned on my brain

Before I had a child, I didn’t think of kids the same way, especially small ones. (I could spout poetic phrases here about “before I was a mom,” borrowed from several email forwards I’ve received, but I’ll refrain. I don’t want this to be about motherhood.)

So I was saying that before I had my own little person, I just didn’t think much about the human-ness of each and every small child. Especially babies—they’re so unformed much of the time, those new little people, sleeping and crying and pooping and doing it over and over again… Even older, more formed kids were, for many years, sort of a separate animal from me. I never had to consider in depth the fact that they’d grow up. You know that they do, of course they do, but unless you really see it happening every day, it just doesn’t impact you like having your own child in your own life will. I’m babbling. I’ll move on to my point.

I was driving back from church, where I’d dragged my croaking, nauseous self to “sing” (I use the word loosely) in choir. Boy, if I didn’t really enjoy choir, you couldn’t pay me to do it… So I was driving along seedy East Ohio Street on the North Side, and I was stopped at a streetlight in front of a bus kiosk. I’ve passed this kiosk so many times that I usually don’t even glance at it, except to make sure it’s not a current crime scene; but on this morning, it sat empty, and I was reminded of one memorable passing on an evening last winter, and the reminder made me sad.

On that particular evening, the weather was darned cold, it was snowing lightly, and I was sitting at the same darned light, looking around and making sure my doors were locked. I happened to look at the kiosk; there was one young black man standing there, clean cut, dressed for winter except for gloves, blowing on his hands a bit, obviously waiting for a bus. He looked to be 16 or 17, definitely not much older, and he checked his watch and looked up the street, probably hoping to catch sight of the warm bus approaching.

And then, I caught my breath in horror: sitting on the bench next to the boy was an infant carrier. And as I watched, the young man checked the baby inside, hopefully made sure he or she was covered snugly, and looked up the street again.

And then my light turned green, and I hit the accelerator, feeling slightly sick. My God, I was thinking, that boy is a child. How can he be in charge of a baby? Why does this happen? I know why it happens, children have sex and pregnancy occurs, but oh my Lord why why why? How can that kid be a decent parent when he’s still a kid himself? I worry about my own parenting now, and I’m an old woman compared to that youngster. What sort of parent would I have been at that age? Terrible, horrible. selfish and bitter, probably. And I would have had a car to borrow. I wouldn’t have had to catch a bus.

I’m haunted by that kid and his baby, if it even was his child. It’s highly likely it was. You’d be hard pressed to find a 17-year-old who’d catch a bus with someone else’s child on a freezing night. Where are they now? Why was he alone? Has he stumbled along and figured out how to care for a baby, as I did? Is he still involved in the baby’s life? Does he realize now that it can, indeed, happen to him, to anyone? Is he more responsible, or did he just become angry? And the scary thing is that he was only one of many children who are parents—more than I can count in that neighborhood alone. I pray that the baby is safe, well-cared for, loved—that he or she hasn’t become a headline, a tragic lead story on the news. I wouldn’t know if it has; I only saw them for a moment, and the baby was a mere bundle in a carrier. Besides, it’s those stories about harm to children that keep me from watching the news too often.

Each baby, a small person, forming, growing, learning, soaking up everything around him or her. Each child, precious and new and so, so vulnerable. Each one could be my own. Each one is someone’s miracle, or someone’s surprise, or someone’s burden and ticket to early adulthood. Each one will grow up, often in spite of the parenting received. Watching my own son mature means that I’ll never again be able to distance myself from those truths...and I’ll never be free of the unwelcome image of that boy with a baby at the bus stop.

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