Winter last year.
My friend and I spent a week in Des Moines with an Egyptian family who welcomed us with open arms: partly because they’re warm people who love visitors, partly because they have 6 children—the youngest of whom is 3 months old, and the eldest, 11. They’ll readily admit that they need all the baby-sitting help they can get.
One boy, Peter, is four. The last time I saw him, he was a happy, bouncy 1-year-old. Back then, he seemed attached to me; the family and I would sit around the den, and he’d waddle past everyone else, stop at where I was and—in clumsy footsteps—climb over my legs and onto my lap.
Now, three years later, he doesn’t remember me. “Peeta, do you remember Joo Yan?”
He shook his head shyly, and for the first day, all he did was stare at me curiously.
He watched me bake an imaginary strawberry cake with his sisters.
He stood around as I helped his brother turn a pile of pillows into a defense fort.
During dinner, he asked if I liked baked yam, and if I could spoon him some.
Then he brought me his favorite book, Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham”, and there I was, in a deep, booming voice, refusing to try green eggs and ham in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, as this tiny boy sits giggling on my lap.
Before I knew it, I was his best friend again.
On Sunday, we packed into the family van, all 10 of us, and drove off to attend service at a Greek Orthodox church.
As we were driving home, we passed a house that was having a garage sale. A large van was parked outside. Every inch of that van was covered in paint and multi-colored glitter. If ever there were a rainbow van, this was it. It was a little bit kitschy, and a lot of cute. The kids loved it.
The older children started shooting off questions at their dad. “Can we go out to touch it?” “Isn’t it preeedy?” “Can we do that to our van??”
The father fielded all questions with a single, less-than-enthusiastic, “Maybe. If we have the time.”
The response set off a volcano of further queries. “When?” “Really?!” “I want to ride in it!”
And as the torrent of questions let out by the older kids continued in escalating decibels, a small, soft voice next to me—one that has remained quiet all along—suddenly went, “Joo Yan, will you come into the van with us?”
I looked down at that 4-year-old. He looked down at his feet, which were sticking out over the edge of the car seat. Then he turned to me. The seat belt—a little too big for him—covered part of his face, and made him look tiny. His hands were clasped, his lips colored a glossy shade of baby pink by his mother’s lip balm, and his brows were furrowed.
He was concerned! He was concerned that I’d leave him.
And when the time came for me to really leave, because I could only stay in someone else’s place for so long, he grabbed my hand and tearfully asked, “Can’t you stay with me forever?”
Kids have bad memory. Little dude is not going to remember me a year later. Still, it broke my heart to have to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon, okay?”, knowing that it was more lie than truth.
Oh, as I’m writing this, the mother of this family has just given birth to a 7th child—a healthy baby girl!