Silky-soft, baby-fat arms encircling your neck. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” “Daddy, I’m sorry!” In those tear-filled moments when you are so devastated you can hardly speak, children know how to comfort. They cry when you cry. No expectations. No questions. Just acceptance and consolation. We can learn much from their empathy and tenderness.
I experienced such solace at the ripe old age of five (Not so long ago…oh, who am I kidding?) My fifth year of life was a nightmare. Captain Kangaroo had lost Green Jeans. No, that’s not what the Captain wore; Green Jeans was his hilarious sidekick who made my favorite kiddie TV show worth watching. KTVT, our local public television station, tried to dam the flood of plummeting ratings by compensating with a local yokel named Mr. Peppermint. Every kid knew Peppermint was a sorry substitute for Green Jeans. Mickey and Amanda Mud Turtle, Mr. Peppermint’s lame puppets, taught bored five-year-olds the alphabet. Why would we want to learn our ABC’s on TV? Wasn’t that the sole purpose of kindergarten?
But TV was soon to become my sole source of companionship. My two-year-old sister Kathy was worthless in the friend department. All she knew how to do was cry and break all my toys. My baby sitter, Mrs. Richardson, was nice enough. But she only made lunch and put us in time-out when we sassed her or trashed the living room.
I had high hopes for kindergarten. Mrs. Drake’s School for Eager Beavers was a white wooden-framed house on the end of our cul-de-sac. The idyllic little pre-fab home displayed a school-bell sign on the front lawn. As a four-year-old, I spent lazy afternoons under our mimosa tree watching happy youngsters spilling out of her front door, squealing with delight. Yes, Mrs. Drake’s School for Eager Beavers was akin to paradise in my estimation-a veritable wonderland escape from the monotony of home life.
I crossed off the sultry summer days on our refrigerator calendar. As the grasshopper chirps subsided and chiggers ceased to chomp, the brisk fall air signaled my chance at freedom. I obtained the required list of school supplies from the Rexall on the corner: a box of pencils, a 24-pack of Crayolas, a lined tablet and a Yosemite Sam lunchbox with matching thermos. The list was scanty, but Eager Beavers were just beginning scholastic endeavors that would dominate the next thirteen years of life. Five-year-olds have the energy of a bunny and the attention span of a gnat.
The greatest challenge of kindergarten was naptime. We weren’t allowed to talk, wiggle or poke our neighbors. If you blatantly disregarded the “nap code” you could say goodbye to mid-afternoon Oreos and milk. I learned later that naptime was not designed for us to catch up on our sleep. It was for Mrs. Drake to catch up on her sanity.
September blew by quickly. I was getting my kindergarten sea legs: only one girl was at the top of the pecking order, burps and booger-picking were taboo and nobody-yes, nobody could make jokes about Tommy Tugbottom’s last name. He was feisty and packed a punch. In retrospect, I realized that poor boy would go through life fighting a battle, just like the surly Texas governor Jim Hogg who named his girls Ima and Eura. Sadist! (True story...)
October rolled around and I was a kindergarten pro. I knew my ABC’s, I could count to a thousand without blinking an eye, and I learned to dunk my Oreos in my milk while Mrs. Drake picked up the blocks or snored in her seat after story time. After all, twenty five-year-olds could squeeze the life out of any self-respecting grownup.
Then disaster struck. Just as we started tracing Halloween pumpkins and the fall air turned chill, I got sick. My temperature soared and my head hurt. Mom rushed me to the doctor’s office. Dr. Pharo was my debonair pediatrician. No, he was not Egyptian royalty, but he was pretty cool. The good doctor had dark, wavy hair, a toothy grin and a starched white coat that stood up by itself. Although Dr. Pharo’s office was chock-full of blocks, choo-choo trains and Highlights magazines, every kid knew the brutal truth: behind those brightly colored doors lurked a nurse with a shot. An unwitting toddler would lumber through the Magic Kingdom entrance, and moments later the waiting room rocked with blood-curdling shrieks. Adults think shots are innocuous little pinpricks, but children know the truth. They are evil, giant metal cylinders designed to inflict terror in their hearts and torture to their pink pudgy posteriors. I didn’t know why grown-ups got to roll up their sleeves and receive dignified little pinpricks. As a child, the drill was always the same. Bend over, moon the nurse and get mercilessly stabbed by a gloating grown-up.
Dr. Pharo swaggered into the examining room as I sat perched on a freezing, tissue-covered underwear or a tiny hospital gown with the open back blowing in the breeze. I believe it is part of the art of physician-intimidation. He grinned as if I would be excited to see him. “How’s my little trooper today?” he queried. Before I could answer, he gagged me with a tongue depressor and poked me vigorously in the tummy. “A few too many Vanilla Wafers, huh?” the doc smirked. I was full of Reese’s pieces and it was none of his business! “Let’s look in those little ears...” He poked and prodded. “Wow, you could grow flowers in that earwax.” I was incensed. Mom tried to stick soapy Q-tips in my ear holes occasionally, but to no avail. Ear hygiene felt like receiving a wet willy. I reasoned that my mousy brown locks covered my ears anyway. After the ear check, Dr. Pharo pressed his icy stethoscope to my chest. When I inhaled and coughed, his dapper demeanor immediately grew sober. My thermometer read 103 degrees. You could fry an egg on my forehead. When he lifted up my little cotton gown, my tummy was covered with red blotches. Mom assumed I had contracted a routine case of German Measles, but my measles were not German and my pox was not chicken. Dr. Pharo concluded that I had contracted roaring case of Scarlet Fever and pneumonia. Our house was quarantined and I was confined to bed.
Dr. Pharo gave Mom a long list of prescriptions and recommended I receive a series of gammo gobulin shots over the next three months. A yearly vaccine was one thing, but a series of shots? No way. My fate was sealed and my torture was imminent. I knew the drill. The Bugs Bunny band-aid and the green lollipop didn’t make it all better. A shot was a shot. I had a drawer full of lollipops and tootsie rolls and I would trade them all in for one less inoculation.
As the fall turned into winter, my condition worsened. I was really, really, really sick. My mom stayed home from work to swath my forehead with cold washcloths and to rock me as I sobbed. At night, she clutched me to her chest while I gasped for air, but then she dropped off to sleep. I lay awake listening to Moon River on the radio, trying to make my heaving chest match the slow, undulating rhythm of the music. When I visited the doctor in the weeks to follow, he would shake his head and give me another shot in the bottom. At that point, I was too ill to care.
Green Jeans was gone, my friends couldn’t visit me because our house was off limits, and I dreaded the lonely nights of wheezing and coughing. My annoying little sister stayed at Grandma’s to avoid “the plague,” and Mrs. Richardson, my nanny, also kept her distance as much as possible. Weeks turned into months. I coughed through Christmas, I whined through January, and by February I had given up hope of being an Eager Beaver again.
Had God forgotten me? I couldn’t even go outside and smell the fresh air. I was a prisoner in my own house. Chutes and Ladders played alone is just Chutes. Shoot! I’ll bet the Eager Beavers didn’t recall that I existed. The doc said I was improving and might be able to return to kindergarten in March. But four more weeks at home seemed like an eternity. I had been sentenced to solitary confinement by this evil disease. I begged for a puppy, but mom said that furry creatures might make me wheeze.
On a particularly frosty, gloomy winter morning, I sat in my little bedroom rocker gazing at pictures of Hansel and Gretel that I had seen five hundred times. Although I couldn’t read, I knew the story by heart and determined I’d plan a bold escape from my bedroom dungeon and leave a graham cracker-crumb trail on the sidewalk in case I needed to find my way home. At least running away would let me breathe the outside air for just a little while.
Just before I made my break, I heard a knock at the front door. It didn’t sound like a grown-up knock, but a little kid’s rap-tap-tap. I didn’t know what to think. Had the “runaway from home” police gotten wind of my evil plan? Who was at the door? Was my little sis coming home? Did Dougie Scott from next door learn I was soon to be germ-free? I didn’t care. I just wanted to see a friendly face from the outside world.
I peered out of the frosty window and couldn’t believe my eyes. Mrs. Richardson called me to come to the front door. Tommy Tugbottom, the toughest Eager Beaver of them all, smiled a toothy grin and presented me with a box-an enormous beautiful cardboard box covered with construction paper hearts and doilies. Tommy handed me the present, blushed, waved and ran toward the pick-up truck puttering down the driveway.
What treasure would I find? Why had Tommy, of all people, courageously appeared on my doorstep? I could still smell the drying wheat paste beneath the paper doilies. I lifted the lid and gasped at its contents-a veritable treasure trove of handmade cards, candy and an unopened box of Hershey’s kisses. The large letter on the top was from Mrs. Drake. “Dear Julie,” she wrote, “we are so sorry you have been sick. The Eager Beavers are not eager without you. Please come back to us soon. Love, Mrs. Drake.” My heart leapt with joy. I had been missed! Card after card had messages like “Be well” or “Come back” scrawled in red crayon. The girl’s cards were painstakingly neat. The boy’s notes were rattier, but they still managed to say something kind like “Stop sniffing-start living” or “Get well, Stupid.”
I never felt so valued. It didn’t matter that Mrs. Drake had probably threatened them within an inch of their lives if they didn’t complete the assignment. I could care less if Tommy and his cronies teased me when I returned. God, in His own way, had taken time to show His love for me through a few scrawny, hyperactive five-year-olds.
There is a “someone” in your life who is suffering. You can be “Tommy” to them today!
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." 2 Corinthians 1:3-5