I’ve been volunteering on and off at the Crisis Nursery for more than 18 years. I’ve dealt with happy kids and poopy kids and kids with felonies in their future and kids who want to hear “Cat in the Hat” seventeen times in a row – in other words, the works. Some shifts are easy, and some are hard. And there is one thing they tell me that breaks my heart, every time.
It always happens the same way – never shouted, always secret. They whisper it to me, when no one else is around, as if it’s a longing so strange and rare that it can only be confessed in complete privacy. The child sidles up to me, or pulls down on my neck during story time, or leans in close to let out this great heart-held secret: “I miss my mom.” It is always said with urgency, and a measure of despair, as if admitting such a thing is to admit to a great and unfixable weakness of character.
It’s hard to know what to say in those moments. After all these years, though, I’ve got a standard routine that I trot out for just such occasions. “I know you miss her,” I whisper back, right away, aiming to turn that shame-filled confession inside out, to let it air itself in the sunlight, so that we both see it as the most commonplace desire in the world.
And then, because I’ve thought a lot about what it must be like to be a kid whose life is so fraught that a mom needs to leave for 72 hours, I list a few of the things I can imagine my confessor might be missing the most: “When you sit on her, it feels so good, doesn’t it?” I ask, and I feel a little nod on my neck. “And she smells just right, doesn’t she, just like a mom should, right? And when you rub her clothes, they feel just perfect, don’t they?”
I usually stop there, because I always think that if I go on much longer, we’ll both cry. After my sensory tour of Momland, I always try my best Mary Poppins imitation, 90% brisk and 10% loving. “She misses you, too, and she’s thinking of you, and you WILL see her again,” I conclude. And then I introduce some new topic, usually my probably-stupid-but-helpful-in-these-situations color-changing wristwatch, which allows both of us to get our minds somewhere else for a minute.
This past week, the confession came from a bony little guy in an orange shirt, who whispered it in my ear as I was wiping peanut butter off his face. “I know,” I said, and I started in on my Praise of Your Mom routine, all while I was helping him clean up his breakfast things. I didn’t break stride, almost.
Even though I’ve heard it so many times, I still remember the first couple times it happened. In both cases, the kids were eldest siblings, trying to hold it together for the sake of the little kids, and that made their grief especially hard to witness. The first was a skinny little girl, maybe just six, at the nursery with a toddler sister. We were at the breakfast table, and I watched her looking around at all the happy kids, shoveling in Cheerios and loving life in a place with heat and beds and regular meals. She lifted a spoon to her lips, putting on a good show for the little sister, and then she just lost it. The spoon fell to floor, and her little hands covered her face, so that no one would see. Six-year-olds don’t usually do that; they want the whole world to know when they are sad enough to cry. But she wished she could stop herself, among all the other things she was wishing at that moment.
In what would become a long string of my many Crisis Nursery transgressions over the years, I broke the rule-of-the-moment, which that week was that we-must-all-sit-in-our-chairs-at-all-times. Screw that, said bad volunteer, and took this little sack of worried bones, with her limp hair and skinny lips, right into my lap. We sat there during breakfast, a modern pieta, and we didn’t say much. I rubbed her back a bit, and whispered what was my then brand-new routine in her ear, until it was time to get up for the next damn thing, and I had to let her go.
And I remember that boy. He must have been just about at the age limit, almost seven, and there were two little siblings with him. Funny that I can’t remember them, but I can still see his face. I can see dark hair, and beautifully dark and deeply worried eyes. We were all playing some board game, something that allowed for half the pieces to be lost without affecting the experience, which is what all the games at the Nursery are like. And we were rolling dice and collecting cards and he just stopped and looked right into my eyes, as if he were the man of the family and he had to tell me this or die, about how much they all missed her. But he didn’t crumple up right away, not until I hugged him. And then he did, for a long time.
One thing I notice is that the kids never, ever say “I want to go home,” because home, for a lot of these kids, is a fluid sort of concept. Mom is the constant, at least as much as they can have one of those. When my daughter Emma first started coming along to volunteer with me, she was eager to read the kids’ charts, which we were told we could do. We did it exactly twice, and then even Emma, for whom too much knowledge is always just the beginning, had to stop. The shelters and the battering and the jail and the evictions … it was a lot to know, collectively, and we made a silent agreement not to do it anymore.
Instead, I try to spend my time with them in the absolute purest sort of now, with no knowledge of their past and the brightest sort hope for their future. Now you need your nose wiped. Now you need your shoe tied. Now you need to be restrained from smacking that other little boy. Now you need to sit on my lap while I read you a story, and then you need to pull my head toward yours, and you need to pour out the secret of your heart to someone who seems willing to listen, and to care.
I always listen, and I always care. And that, Sunday after Sunday, is all I can do, and I just hope that all I can do is enough, at least for now.