He was black and stout with an irresistible personality. He strolled right up to me and introduced himself, suggested we step outside for a walk and a bit of fresh air. I was wowed by his charm, his charisma, his silly little quirks. My heart melted. Yes, I thought, there is such a thing as love at first sight.
This was my first day to volunteer at this particular animal shelter, at any animal shelter, and the poodle mix tagged Marcus made my job easy. He was a joy to spend time with, thanked me profusely with love and kisses, and had a long line of volunteers waiting their turn for his affection.
Then I saw Tess and Toodles, not exactly the adorable little lap dogs you would associate with such names. They shared a cage. They were friends. Possibly the only friend the other had. They were Chihuahuas, not an especially cute breed, and on the pudgy side at that, a medium tan with bulging eyes, dogs that only a mother could love if, in fact, they had a mother. I approached the kennel slowly and with a soothing voice. They cowered, were not excited to see me, wished, at least I thought, that I would go away. I did not approach them directly. I simply sat in their space. I told them how beautiful they were and how glad I was to be able to visit them. Tess allowed me to sit her in my lap, though she wasn’t exactly sure what to do once she got there. She was stiff and uncertain, not used to such praise and attention. Toodles would have no part of such and was content with simple conversation while hovering in my general vicinity. They had never known love, had come from a home where such did not exist. They had never heard the keys jingle, the knob turn, and then a big warm “Hey girls!! Mommy’s home!” They had never been slipped that last bit of cookie or ice cream or other assorted treaties. They had never sat all comfy like in a cozy lap watching back seasons of last year’s hit drama.
I wondered if this is how it is with people.
I am sitting on my front porch working at an essay and the neighbor girl pops over. She is four, with a mess of blond hair and the sun on her face and shoulders. She wears giant green rain boots, purple flowered underpants, and a red floppy hat. She asks if she can pet my dog. Of course, I say, he would love that, and good job for asking first. She tells me about her little brother. She tells me about her grandma. She asks me what I’m doing and what exactly is an essay. I tell her it’s a story and that maybe she would be in it, I’m not sure just yet, and then we talk about some of the stories she likes. She asks if she can run through my sprinkler. I say yes because, after all, she is dressed for the occasion. My heart is filled. It is difficult not to smile. It is difficult not to love this angel in the green galoshes.
Thinking of this miniature ray of sunshine in the red floppy hat, I am reminded of another time in my life.
I am in college and working to pay tuition. I am working as an occupational therapist’s aide for at-risk preschoolers. These children are developmentally behind and from environments that are less than supportive to their physical, mental, and emotional needs. They show up on Friday in the same clothes they wear on Monday. And Tuesday and Wednesday. And Thursday. They reek of cigarette smoke and body odor. And urine. Lori, the occupational therapist, and I say that we are working on motor development, both gross and fine, but really we are playing with Play-Doh and finger paints and bubbles and aqua blue wading pools filled with Styrofoam packing peanuts or sand or water. Or Jello.
At first I’m not sure. The children stink. I can’t be near them. I throw up a little when no one is looking.
They don’t talk about princesses or ponies or superheroes or action figures or other five-year-old stuff. They don’t talk about their grandmas or their brothers or their giant green galoshes. Mostly they just don’t talk.
But, Courtney, the little girl with Down’s Syndrome, smiles. She smiles all the time. Love is in her heart. Always. It is infectious, her smile. It is difficult not to smile back. And Terrell can make the best cow sounds I have ever heard, a trick he is very proud of and rightly so. Granted, he does it with his eyes closed in a creepy sort of way and with the full belief that he is a cow, but, nonetheIess, is the best imitator I have ever heard. If you’re quiet with Jonathon and don’t approach him, but, sort of like with Tess and Toodles let him come to you, it’s amazing how much he shares, always something new, some undiscovered bit of unbelievable information on what happens at home with Mom and Grandpa and Mom’s new boyfriend. Then we all come together to form our own disjointed circle and to play Hokey Pokey, to put our various body parts in, or not, and to turn ourselves around, or maybe, ok, not. And then, either Lori or I will need to leave the circle to chase down Jermaine. It is always quite a chase as he is speedy and sneaky and not at all interested in reason or bribes.
I begin to love these children.
I go home and shower because I reek of cigarette smoke and body odor. And urine. I realize that I am just like the children, only I am bigger and not as great at making cow sounds. I, too, smile and stomp bubbles and string macaroni necklaces and share just a bit when I feel most comfortable with someone and when I think they aren’t listening too hard. And sometimes, like Jermaine, I want to run away even if everybody else is laughing and dancing and putting their left foot in. Sometimes I am just not in my happy place and would like to go off and be alone. Sometimes, secretly, I cheer Jermaine on, wishing him a good hiding spot and a bit of private time, a bit of time to be in his place. And though I shower and wash all of that wretched stink down the drain at the end of each day, I don’t clean it all. I never can if I try wash off the feel of Jonathon’s trusting cheek on my arm. I can never erase Terrell’s incredible sense of pride out of my brain. And I can never, even if I try, rid my insides of Courtney’s indelible smile.
I realize now as I sit typing that sunshine is sometimes difficult to spot. It is not always dressed in floppy hat and galoshes, asking to jump in your sprinklers. Sometimes it is obstructed by a dark depressing cloud. Sometimes it sits in its own pee and cowers in the corner. And yet, it creeps into your heart and warms you just the same.