As my girlfriend and I round the corner of her apartment complex, her energetic Boston Terrier in tow, another evening walker passes us by.
“There’s a young girl sitting over there, crying,” he says. “Her mom was supposed to pick her up, but she hasn’t come yet. You should say something nice to her.”
This random statement from an older man that neither of us knew causes us to exchange quizzical glances. With slow steps, made more unsure by the sure-to-be awkward situation, we approach the young girl. The evidence of her sadness, mixed with a tinge of embarrassment, shows in the tear stains beneath her timid eyes.
We walk right by her at first. We had dinner to get to after all. But we don’t venture much further than a few steps when both of us turn around, aware of a child, really, in need of help.
“What time were you supposed to be picked up?” “6:30,” she says quietly. I look at my phone. It’s 7:30. “Do you want to call someone?” She nods. I hand her my phone. She dials two different numbers.
“We’ll come back and check on you in a bit, to make sure that someone’s picked you up.” Another nod.
We go back inside and start dinner. In five minutes, we head back outside, hoping that we won’t see the girl because her mom has finally arrived. We peek around the corner and—voilá—she’s gone. “Maybe she just hid because she’s embarrassed,” my intuitively smart girlfriend says, so we walk a bit further down. Sure enough, the girl reappears. We approach and she doesn’t see us.
I didn’t get her name the first time. (It’s this thing I do when I’m hoping a chance encounter doesn’t require anything of me). I ask now, “What’s your name?”
Barely audible, she says “Desiree.”
“Do you want to try to call again?” She nods. No answer. “Is your mom usually on time?” “Yes.” I stare at the ground. It’s almost dark. I’m at a loss as to how to help. Then, a white car pulls up and Desiree starts to walk toward it. I assume it’s her mom, but I don’t go to the car. I smile and wave, and my girlfriend and I walk back to her apartment, glad that the issue has resolved itself.
But the entire event unsettles me.
In hindsight, this event is a non-event. A child had to wait a little over an hour for her mother to pick her up. I still remember the day I was somehow forgotten at basketball practice and chose to walk four miles home. It was unsettling for me then (and I wasn’t as young as Desiree), but it wasn’t traumatic. Then again, we all become like children when we’re forgotten. We become acutely aware of our dependence on others, on our need for someone else to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. When that dependence is severed, the present consequences can be earth-shattering.
I have no idea what Desiree thought, whether her mom had been in an accident, or if this was a recurring episode, or if her mom had legitimate reasons for being late. I know nothing of the story beyond what I’ve already conveyed. All I know is that this child was sad, embarrassed, tired, and likely hungry. I hoped that this was only a rare occurrence.
Though the circumstances themselves were mildly depressing, what unsettled me about this experience was my reaction, or lack thereof to be more precise.
I am afraid to put myself into other people’s stories.
There are days when I wonder what I would do if I ever came across a severe traffic accident. Would I stop? Would I argue with myself that I’d be useless in helping someone who’s physically suffering because I wouldn’t know how to assuage their present pain? Would I let that be my way out of helping people? Sadly, I do this all the time.
High intentions, low completions.
The court of my mind is filled with the rhetorical flourishes of a jaded, high-dollar defense attorney. Whatever good that my heart wants to accomplish, my mind voices a hundred rebuttals. My loudest mental attorney most often complains that I don’t know what I’ll be getting myself into, that, at some deep level, an honest interaction with another human being, especially one in need, will cost me something that I don’t want to give up, whether that’s time, pride, money, or comfort. (Sacrifice always costs something—that’s why so few do it).
In other words, I have a fair grasp of my own story. Even though the book of my life has definitely not gone as I would have written it, I’ve come alive to the fact that I was never the author of it in the first place. In this place of freedom from worry about my own story—knowing that it’s in better hands than mine, but being able to see the major plot points coming together for a reason—I worry that my story will be irrevocably altered by putting myself into other people’s stories because I can’t control what happens when wildly unknown variables are introduced into the equation.
For instance, I was afraid that the people who Desiree called (and who didn’t answer) would later call me back, angered by a call from a random number, or upset by someone sticking their nose into other people’s business. (I did, in fact, get a call, but there was no anger, just curiosity as to who called). I was afraid that her mother would be angered, knowing that someone else knew she was late to pick up her crying child.
I was afraid that we would have had to sit with Desiree for more than 30 minutes, not because she was a scary kid, but because I selfishly believed I had better things to do. In other words, I was afraid she was going to ruin my plans, this poor girl whose plans had already been much more ruined than my could hope to be.
Really, this is the crux of the matter: I don’t want to place myself into other people’s stories because I’m far too busy trying to be the hero of my own. When I view my life as if I’m the protagonist, every secondary and tertiary characters’ needs become unnecessary, unless those needs serve to move my own story along in some way.
But what if, at least for a day, I was the tertiary character in Desiree’s story?
What if I was the throwaway character, prodded by the utterances of a stranger to reach out to a hurting child for her sake, not mine?
What if the course of my life was altered for the good by this momentary, chance meeting with Desiree?
What if I was the one without a name in the book of her life?
Would this be enough?