The little girl in the bright yellow tee-shirt caught my attention. Must have been nine, maybe ten. It was rainy, not a downpour, rather one of those spongy May mornings. Stationary raindrops clung where they landed, glistening spheres on feathery iris, pale and pearly white. The landscape was awash in purples, pinks, grey and green. Many shades of green.
I noticed her because she was alone. This is a rare sight on a busy street during the morning rush and the little girl with the swingy ponytail was walking to school. She was talking to herself, maybe even singing, holding a stick or a slender branch from a tree or bush, waving it around, the way kids do. She was blissfully unaware of the harried masses zipping by, gulping coffee, texting, talking, getting their daily dose of toxic headlines or talk radio drivel. She was simply being a little girl, walking along with no idea the effect she had on me.
A rush of emotion, worse than a hot flash, sacked me, right there in the driver’s seat, instantly taking me back to Ft. Worth, Texas, 1960s and countless walks to and from school. I’ve written many times of my passionate belief that kids need independence such as this. They deserve solitude and time for contemplative thought. While I was encouraged to see a little girl walking to school on her own, evidence that the child abduction, boogey-man-on-every-corner hysteria is beginning to subside, that is not what moved me to tears, (which proved inconvenient, since I had just put on my mascara at the traffic light.)
No, seeing that little girl reminded me of one of the most profound singular moments of my life, emphasis on singular. On my pilgrimage of 2011, when I traveled across America to reconnect with every person I had ever loved, revisiting many of the more formative landscapes of my youth, of course, was part of the bargain. Some of these vistas made me happy, some sad, others ambivalent. Not so much the grainy sidewalk at the crest of the hill on Lafayette Ave. Hot as blue blazes, early August, early afternoon, midway through that summer’s drought, I was retracing my walk to school. Standing there in the middle of the sidewalk, I studied the crooked, patched-up crack, pushed up by roots from trees long gone. I had tripped over this damn, jacked-up sidewalk crack a hundred times, sometimes with a forward rolling stumble, bust-a-lip-open kind of stumble and yet on this day, looking at what is now a mound of Redi-Mix, I was filled with gratitude.
It is hard to explain the rush of recognition, almost affection, for some inanimate glob of familiarity, but that’s how I felt. It vouched for me. It validated a part of my life, as if to say, “She was here! That little brown eyed girl was here!” To which I wanted to throw back my head and shout to the Texas sky, “and I’m still here! I am still here! The same little legs that carried me then, carry me now and I’ll still still standing!” It felt as if some other part of me, some guardian angel part of me was hovering over this scene with a benevolent pat on the top of my sun soaked noggin, whispering, “See? Do you see, Jeannie? Look how far you’ve come! And look at who’s still with you!”
In lives that have been injured by loss, there is a lesson here. In my time, I’ve had my share – my innocence too young, my mom, three brothers, a father I had never known, the death of a marriage and the dream of what I thought my life would be. Gone. Others have had worse. But, I will tell you my darlings, loss beats you down. It rides in your car. It stops you on the street. It seduces you on the rocks or straight up. In lyrics that stream like paralyzing tentacles or birdsong in open fields at sunset, its reach is long, that devil, loss.
But it need not claim you.
As long as you’re breathing, you have the most trusted friend, the most sacred of all bonds to fortify you, to carry you through, to protect and love and defend you above all others — yourself.
This is what life has taught me. In moments of piercing clarity, on a sun baked sidewalk, on a sandy desert ridge, slipping through the dense night air along a coastal highway, blessed is she who knows. This is what I wrote in Off the Leash —
I belong to me. I am the faithful guardian of this one life. My life. There is no one better qualified to watch over me than me. Lucky is the little girl who is now in the loving hands of the woman I’ve become. I am still with me.
And so, here’s what I want to say to you: Look at your hands. They’ve been with you from the beginning. Love them. They have served you well. Look in the mirror. Look into the loving gaze of a companion beyond compare, your unwavering advocate, the most exquisite friend you will ever have. Look into your own eyes and say, “I am still with me.”
See how far you’ve come?
Little girl in the bright yellow tee-shirt, I do not know you, but I humbly thank you for the inspiration. Maybe today is the day you’ll remember forever. Maybe today is the day that will plant the seed to comfort you for a lifetime. Maybe today is the beginning of your knowing. Safe travels, baby.
If this has touched your heart in any way, please pass it along. Maybe this is how we help each other. Tell your friends, tell your mama. Tell ‘yo dog. Wait, dogs don’t read. Hell, tell it to the Marines. They can sign up to get my column here. As always, tell me what you think @ firstname.lastname@example.org or post a comment on my blog. Here’s a snap of one of those moments of piercing clarity. Peace.