This morning, as I was driving into work, listening to nonsense sports radio, I happened to see a young mother walking along the sidewalk with her little boy, who was maybe three. I don't know what led to it but I saw her lean down to his ear as they walked.
His arms shot rigidly forward and he started sobbing in terrorized distress, totally overwhelmed even as he continued to totter forward. She must have been shouting or hissing some terrible threat.
I wanted to throw open my car door and sweep him in my arms and tell him he was safe, that it was okay. Of course, given what I saw, that would be a lie. I wanted to shout out the window "Lady, you can't talk to him like that! You shouldn't treat him like that!" Of course such a random one-time intervention would not change the situation of their lives, which I had to admit I knew nothing about, except that they were poor.
As he sobbed, her face remained mean and hard, she continued to speak what could only be harsh words ("stop crying you little faggot" or the like). Remarkably quickly, he was no longer crying. His face was stiff and mean now too.
I know this moment crushed me not just because I witnessed this little boy get crushed, but because I felt the 30-plus-year-old echoes of when my mother would crush me. I still remember clearly the time, when I was about five, and she was yelling at me as she often did, and I could not stop myself from crying. Once the tears began, surely she would see how she was hurting me and comfort me. Instead, her face twisted in contempt: "stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about." Leaving aside the threat of further abuse, her denial of the validity of my tears seemed outrageous and impossible to me. Wasn't it obvious that she had already given me something to cry about?
Something hard and mean began to form in me then. That fundamental rage grew and sharpened every time I willed myself to become a stone that her reproofs would crash against and every time she told me "life isn't fair" as she punished me unfairly. Funny that she didn't bother to deny that she was not being even handed. How a mother could blast her helpless son into terrified oblivion and then tell him to pick himself up and put himself back together is, luckily, beyond my ken.
Which brings me to the other reason seeing the little boy abused on the street wrecked me: my son. My job as a parent is to comfort him when he is frightened, not to become a vector of terror. It's impossible for me to imagine doing anything but. When I got home, as I tend to do when I see some intolerably cruel thing in the world, I held him close. And I told him, whenever you're scared, you can tell mommy and daddy, and we'll help you. And if mommy or daddy ever scares you, you can tell us, and we'll stop and make it better. He was happily trying to get me to put him down at the table for dinner, so he did not seem to hear it, and even if he had, I'm not sure how much he understood, but I needed to say it nevertheless.
I hope that little boy on the street can find that love, compassion, and respect for his personal integrity as well.
For what it's worth I had intended to let this blog die, but I could not figure out where else to post this . . .