On his first day of kindergarten, Griffin wore striped shorts, a Big Wave t-shirt and ratty tennis shoes that he swears make him run faster. I could tell he was nervous. As we waited for the yellow school bus on the sloping front lawn of our rambling Maine house, he sucked his thumb like a madman, his slight cold making him take raggedy, snuffled breaths. His Spiderman backpack contained a healthy lunch and a love letter from Mom.
At 8:30 sharp, we heard the bus rumble down to Shore Road, but instead of turning left toward the Edna Drinkwater Elementary School and us, it turned right and drove out of sight.
“It’ll be back,” I promised Griff, who was staring after the bus like he could will it back, his eyes dazed by the day’s importance. Ten minutes later, we heard the bus again and ran toward the road, but it zoomed by – the news that the new kid from California wanted to ride perhaps not getting to the driver. Instead, I drove Griff half a mile to the small, red and grey school standing just above the Penobscot Bay. A dirt path off the playground winds through vine tangled forest down to the beach.
At the school’s front door, I said hello to a woman looking out toward the parking lot with nervous, watchful eyes. I wondered whether she was the official school greeter, but her manner was too preoccupied and concerned. Outside the Kindergarten classroom, I hung Griff’s backpack on the last hook in a long row, completing the line-up of superheroes, talking trains, princesses and ponies. Mrs. Jones, a smiling, efficient 36-year teaching veteran wearing a red and white flowered dress took Griff’s hand from mine. I quickly said goodbye to my son as we had been asked to do in the parent letter Mrs. Jones had sent home, and walked out. He did not cry.
“Too fast!” my heart screamed. “Get in there and smother him with kisses and tears!” But I continued walking away, eyes misty but not overflowing, feeling like both Griffin and I had handled this milestone well.
At the door, the waiting, watchful woman was gone. Then I saw her inside a school bus parked at the curb. Its sliding side doors were open and she was helping the driver get a child off the bus. The girl was about seven or eight, her gold streaked hair held back by a red ribbon and wearing a matching red dress I imagine she had picked out just for this day. Her legs, white knee socks pulled over silver braces, were bent gracefully into a wheelchair and I could see stick thin arms. The woman efficiently unsnapped straps and pulled levers, maneuvering the child into the schoolyard’s bright September sunshine.
This brave, lovely child had ridden the bus on the first day of school just like the “normal” kids and, just like them, her face radiated hope and anticipation. Her mom had come by car to make sure things went smoothly, giving her daughter this rite of passage gift that most of us take for granted. At least this is what I imagined in the minute I stood watching from the doorway, because the woman and I never spoke a word, but I think I heard her call the girl Emma.
When I got into The Oddy, I began to cry. Was it destiny, the capricious hand of fate, or simple bad luck that would keep this child from ever playing on the monkey bars, jumping into her mother’s arms, or writing her ABC’s in neatly spaced, block letters? I thought about my recent conversation with Griffin about God.
“What do you think God is, Mommy?” he asked one night as I tucked him into bed.
I hesitated. I have struggled with this question before, mostly during my father’s sudden, early death and my own nasty divorce, when I needed omniscient help but didn’t know whom to ask. On the creation versus evolution spectrum, I fall somewhere between “big, bearded guy up in the sky with booming voice” and the idea that we all started as soft, wiggly newts creeping out of the sea.
“Well,” I finally answered, “if you take all the love I feel for you and Ado and Daddy and Marley and your Grandpas and Grandmas and Aunts and Uncles and cousins and all our friends and rolled it into one big rainbow colored ball, that’s what I think God is.”
He thought about this for a minute, his sea-green eyes full of understanding beyond his five years, and then asked, “But is the ball a boy or a girl?”
“It’s whatever you want it to be, Baby,” I said, and it occurred to me that together, my child and I might create our own definition of God that was neither exclusive, restrictive, judgmental or scary. I kissed him and started out of the room.
“Bless you, Mommy,” he called out to me and I swear neither Ethan nor I taught him this. “Bless you a lot.”
I pulled The Oddy to the side of Shore Road, unable to see due to my torrent of tears. I hoped that God had reasons for putting that little girl in a wheelchair. Perhaps she was a princess in her past life, charmed and protected by magic, talking animals and handsome princes disguised as frogs. Perhaps she is an old soul in the process of learning something important that will one day save our planet. But trying to rationalize it didn’t make the sad, heavy feeling in my gut go away.
In my past life, I surely must have been a mosquito. It’s the only reason I can think of that I have been so blessed in this one.