I thought I was going to be late for my hair appointment – and I really, really needed a haircut. So, to make up for the lost time I had squandered that morning, I found myself barreling along on a road pretty much devoid of traffic at that time of day, only to come up over a rise and be confronted by a school bus ahead of me that was stopped in front of a house that looked on the verge of collapse from dereliction and neglect. I admit that I felt great annoyance. Getting stuck behind that bus would add to my time crunch…though I had no one to blame for that but myself. So I was fuming, at the bus, at its driver and at the kids I waited impatiently to see disembark so I could get going.
But sitting in the car I noticed printed on the bus GISD, identifying it as one that transports kids who attend Genesee Intermediate School District – in other words, special education students. My own son, who suffers from diverse disabilities, had ridden one of those buses when he was in elementary school at Durant-Tuuri-Mott until he was later mainstreamed for the rest of his public education. He was ambulatory, but I knew that many other students riding that kind of bus were not, some being bound to wheelchairs or using either walkers or crutches. And so, as I waited for the drop-off of a special needs child to be completed, a flood of memories came rushing at me, ones of all the other “special” kids I had known over the years because of my son’s associations…some of whom were heartbreakingly no longer part of this world. Their little faces floated past me in “pale battalions,” and my annoyance and impatience blew away like dust in the wind.
Let down by her body, cheated, perhaps,
by the physical environment in which
she dwelt, love could still take root
Just then, an adult male emerged from the shabby house and crossed the muddy, car-littered front yard to the bus door, I supposed to collect the child being safely returned to home and family. He was young looking and skinny, with longish, lanky hair, and dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved T-shirt, though the weather was early-Michigan spring: cold and wet. He entered the bus, and from the amount of time that passed, I fully expected to see the large door on the side open and the lift to descend with its precious cargo so the man could maneuver a wheelchair across the scarred and rutted yard…but no.
With my attention now fully engaged, I was caught off guard when the man stepped out of the bus door carrying a little girl who appeared to be 6 to perhaps 8 years of age. There was no wheelchair, just his arms, which held her tightly as the two of them moved toward the door of the house, its only front window covered by either a sheet or tablecloth standing in for a curtain. Her arms wrapped around her “rescuer’s” neck and her little legs dangled limply, while he held her firmly, navigating the puddles and mud in his path. But the most remarkable, even extraordinary, thing that held me rapt was the look I saw on the child’s face, which I will never forget. Her whole visage expressed a look of pure joy as her head lay in comfort and safety on the man’s shoulder.
She had a sweet, pretty face and at that moment, a smile broke out upon her lips as I imagined – no, I was quite sure – I was seeing the face of an angel, suffused with a look of love that transcended the physical conditions in which she found herself. Let down by her body, cheated, perhaps, by the physical environment in which she dwelt, love could still take root and flourish, I thought. And the way in which she was being held by someone who obviously meant “home” to her put me in mind of the work done by Mother Teresa with the poor in Calcutta, where, amidst squalor and despair, her love and compassion made a special light to shine through it all. I think there exist in this world people who know things that the rest of us may not be privy to…unless we cultivate a willingness to see inside the human heart and learn the essence of caring in its true sense.
By the time the pair had reached the door and vanished into the house, I admit, there were tears in my eyes. I had witnessed the tender mercies of a child that seemed to distill to its essence the meaning of our lives…that of caring for and loving one another, especially in times or circumstances of need. I sat quietly in the car for what seemed a long time but actually was only minutes, feeling awe at what I had observed and consternation at the mundane, transitory things that seem so important to us and which distract us from the real stuff of life. The cliché to “stop and smell the roses” does not do justice to the need for us to actually make ourselves aware of others – of their joys and their sorrows, their successes and their failures, their wants and their yearnings or their hopes and their fears – all part of the daily struggles of their lives.
The house stands empty now, abandoned, I imagine, because of an official white paper fastened to the front door. Condemned, that must be it. I pass it often but no one comes to tear it down. Of course, I wonder what has become of that angelic child who made such an impression on me. I pray she is well and happy, wherever she finds herself, and that the thread that binds her to those she loves, and them to her, is strong and everlasting. I went on to my hair appointment that morning, considering myself blessed to have been behind that bus on that cold and dreary day to see the light that emanated from that lovely countenance, that face of an angel with an oh-too-human heart.
When I got to the salon, I told my hairdresser, Lyndsey, who herself has a very special needs child, what I had seen that had made me late. I don’t usually cry in public, but then I had someone with whom to share the tears that kept coming intermittently, although they were not tears of sorrow. They were, in fact, more like tears of understanding and gratitude, born of knowing what it is like to love, to care for and to try and brighten the world of children in need. For, despite all the stress and the strife, the disappointments and the fears, to say nothing of the heartaches we sometimes suffer, those of us who are tasked with the mission of caring for these precious charges know that it is this undertaking which makes life real, special and ultimately worthwhile – that and their angelic smiles.