Reaching Out

by Susan Palwick

I met you years ago, and I never knew your name. I’ve never forgotten you, though, and I think about you especially during the holidays, when so many people feel so lonely.

You should have been old enough to walk when I met you, but you weren’t walking. Part of that was because your leg was hurt, which is why you were at the hospital. Someone at home had hurt you, so you didn’t live with your family anymore. The state had gotten you out of there, and now strangers cared for you.

The caregiver who brought you to the ER clearly cared about you, and so did everybody else. The registration clerk cuddled you and cooed; nurses wanted to hold you; the doctor tousled your hair, which made you laugh. You didn’t seem to be in pain. The dressing on your leg needed to be changed, which is why you were in the ER, but you were alert, curious. Whenever you saw a smiling face, especially a woman’s, you reached out for that person.

One of your arms was hurt, too. A tight-lipped nurse showed me the X-ray: multiple healed fractures.

I smiled at you as your caregiver held you, so you stretched your arms towards me and whimpered imperiously until the caregiver handed you to me. As I held you—carefully and awkwardly, because I don’t have kids and never learned that balance-the-baby-on-the-hip thing that’s supposed to come instinctively to women—you started playing with my earrings, my ID badge, my necklace. You tugged on my glasses, just like every other kid your age I’ve ever held, just like any kid who hasn’t been hurt (badly hurt, deliberately hurt) by adults.

We had to hold you down to change the dressing on your leg. The physician’s assistant asked me to help, because I was there and you seemed to like me. I held you down, and you reached up to play with my ID badge. An EMT was holding you down, too, and he made a little toy out of a gauze bandage. He tickled you with it when you turned toward him.

You were happy with the gauze toy and the ID badge. You hardly cried at all: only a little at the end, even though what the physician’s assistant was doing had to hurt. I didn’t want to think about how you had learned to stay so quiet during pain. I didn’t want to think about how anyone could hurt a child who was so quiet, so alert, so loving.

I wondered then, and still wonder now, how you could trust big people after what happened to you. No one’s ever hurt me the way you were hurt, and even so I’m not as trusting as you. I don’t know if I ever have been. When people hurt me even a little bit, I withdraw, shut down, build walls. My heart is calloused, and I protect it. I believe in and talk about and try to follow a God of love, but even so, I don’t stretch out my arms to other people the way you did, not even to people I know. I reach out to give comfort—that’s why I was at the hospital that evening, after all—but much less often to receive it. I’m too afraid I’ll be left there, reaching; too afraid I’ll be ignored or, worse, slapped away.

Whenever I think about you, I remember all the lonely people I visited in the ER: elderly patients without family, flown in by CareFlight from hundreds of miles away; homeless alcoholics; suicidal patients convinced no one cared about them. I often suspected some of these patients came to the ER, consciously or not, partly for the simple comfort of attention from other people, even if those people were overworked medical staff.

Many of these patients had clearly driven everyone away. They were so embittered and abrasive that just being in the same room with them was wearing. They were children once, too. Maybe they reached out to strangers, before life hurt them too much and they withdrew, hiding behind their armor of insults and contempt.

But other lonely ER patients reached out for love just like you did, with your hurt arm and hurt leg. Some of them had that magical gift of being able to turn strangers into friends and advocates, even during a brief ER visit. They did this even though they weren’t babies anymore, even though they weren’t cute and innocent, even though protecting and comforting them wasn’t the appalled, instinctive first reaction of everyone who saw them.

I am writing this on the first day of Advent, the season when we wait for a child to appear. I know that many children who have already arrived, young and old, are still waiting for comfort, searching for it, yearning for it. So this is my prayer for you, child, now and always, and my prayer for everyone who has been hurt and neglected.

May you never stop reaching out. May you never forget how to transform strangers into friends. May all the love you have ever been given, by other people and by God, sustain you even when you can’t remember it. May that love, however briefly you felt it, have seeped into your tissues, into your cells, into the nooks and crannies of your brain. May it be your blanket against the cold; may it cushion your heart from callouses.

May you never feel alone.

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