When I started college at 17, with all the usual fears and insecurities, I thought I knew myself somewhat well. I soon discovered I had many hard and painful lessons to learn. Aside from the typical guilt and shame of knowing I was gay, there was terrible sadness at the thought I would never have children of my own. I always loved children and grew up in an enormous family where there were always babies and toddlers. I did a lot of babysitting in those days.
So, when I accepted that children would never be a part of my personal life, I decided that I could be involved in other ways i.e. teaching. I was quickly discouraged by a poor excuse of a guidance counselor ("too many teachers, not enough jobs", he said), so social work was the way to go, I decided.
Painful lesson #1:
Freshman year of college I was asked to be part of a group that would be involved with a home for children with mental disabilities. Perfect, I thought. We were to provide music, stories, activities and one-to-one interaction with the children. Our first day there, we entered into the large common area filled with children all wanting to touch us and be near us. We were surrounded by little bodies, all clutching at us, all very needy. Some had expressionless faces, many showing physical signs of their mental disabilities. Suddenly, I was overcome with repulsion. I didn't want them to touch me, I didn't want to make eye contact with them and they were all so hungry for affection. I wanted only to run away. There children were white, black, asian, latino. They had runny noses and drooling mouths. Their fingers were sticky and the smell was not good.
Somehow, we managed to get through the morning and left. Before I could get out the door, an elderly woman with snow white hair, a deeply wrinkled face and kind brown eyes, shook my hand and thanked me for coming. She said something very peculiar to me. "Don't be afraid of their eyes", she said. I wasn't sure what she meant at the time, but it cut me like a knife.
In the car ride back to school, everyone talked about how difficult the experience was, but that they wanted to continue it. I sat in silence, vowing never to come back.
When I got to my room, I ran into the bathroom and laid on the floor, as if to debase myself. With my face flat on the floor. I sobbed. I hated myself. Could it be I only I only cared about beautiful children, perfect children, white children? For days after that, I couldn't eat, sleep or study. I knew I needed to go back there and I knew I needed to talk to the old woman.
Late one afternoon, I used what little courage I had and went back to the facility. Most of the children had gone for the day and it was fairly quiet there. The old woman with the kind eyes saw me and recognized me. I could have sworn she was expecting me by the look on her face. I asked to speak privately with her. I could barely get the words out of my mouth. We sat in the empty dining room where she gave me a glass of milk and a warm chocolate chip cookie. What kindness she was showing me and it only made me feel worse. I choked up and I felt tears running down my face. My nose started to run. She gave me some tissues and said "Just relax, baby. It's alright". In her grandmotherly way, she knew me. She understood my pain and shame. She told me I was a beautiful boy with a tender heart. All I could do was to shake my head in disagreement. I sat there and she did the talking. Her words were like a balm to my wounded spirit. Finally, I was able to tell her how I felt. I didn't hold back or try to make myself look better. I wanted her to see my true ugliness. But she smiled at me, she reassured me with her gentleness and compassion. I told her I didn't deserve it, that I deserved to be treated the same way I felt about the children.
She placed her hand on my face and wiped my tears away. She smelled like nutmeg.
She spoke truth to me that day. She told me I could run away and harden my heart but that would only damage me in my other relationships. She told me I could face myself by facing "the babies" again. She spoke to me with such kindness, but also strength. She did not tell me just what I wanted to hear, but she told me what I needed to hear.
When I took a deep sigh, she asked me what the sigh meant. I told her she would see me again.
She said "I knew I would, baby".
I won't lie, the next time we went back, it was still not easy. But this time, I knelt down amongst the children and let them grab me and hug me. They still smelled bad, still had sticky fingers, still so needy. But after seeing ugliness in myself, I began to feel love rise up in me for these little ones. Over time, it became my great joy to serve these them, to get dirty with them, to be on their level, which I learned was much higher than who I thought I was.
I often wonder what has become of these little ones. I'm sure some have not survived to adulthood. Others are probably in group homes and functioning in their worlds. They probably don't remember me, but I will never forget them.
I kept in touch with Grace, the old woman with the appropriate name, until her death.
Red and yellow, black and white. they are precious in His sight!