A chance encounter on a bike ride at a park leaves Wolf Pascoe and his son struggling with the limits of compassion.
The scene unfolds like a play.
Stage directions: My son Nick and I in the park on a night ride. The sun just down. We pause to rest on a grassy hill near the toddler sandbox. Few children remain.
Out of the dark, a boy emerges.
He’s about Nick’s age, eight, and even in the poor light, I can see something odd about him–the way he inclines his head, his arms churning the air.
He grips the handle bars of Nick’s bike.
“What’s your name?” he says.
“Ride over there and then ride back,” he says.
It’s as if he’s playing Mother-May-I and it’s Nick’s turn to be told.
Nick shakes his head. “I don’t want to,” he says.
The boy gives Nick detailed instructions, pointing out the exact route his bike must take.
“No,” Nick says. “I don’t want to do that.”
A man approaches, in no particular hurry. I know immediately he’s the boy’s father. We make eye contact for half a second, and in that interval have a telepathic conversation.
The conversation goes like this:
Man. He’s no danger.
Me. I know.
Man. He’s got—
Me. I know.
Man. Thanks for not intervening. I’ll take care of it.
Me. No worries. We both love our sons.
The man puts his arm around the boy.
“Did you ask if you could touch the boy’s bike?” he says.
“My name is Brandon,” the boy says to Nick.
Nick regards him.
“We’re going to be going,” Nick says.
Brandon has released Nick’s bike.
“Can you say goodbye to the boy?” says Brandon’s father.
Nick and I inch our bikes away.
“Bye,” says Brandon.
“Bye Brandon,” I say.
Nick and I ride over a soccer field. You have to be careful here. The grass hides little rises and holes that can upend a speeding bike at night. We stop on the far side and look back at the sandbox. We can still see the man with his son.
“That boy was kind of nerdy, wasn’t he?” Nick says.
“I think he’s one of those people whose brain works different.”
“Like how?” says Nick.
“The wiring is different. It travels in circles more. Slower.”
“That boy was weird.”
“He wanted to be friends with you. But that’s how it comes out sometimes when the brain works different,” I say.
“I don’t want to go back there.”
I think hard about what I want to say next. I look at Nick and smile. We’re both out of breath from the dash across the field.
“You know,” I say, “You were very nice to that boy. You answered his questions. You said what you wanted. That was just right.”
Enough, a voice in me says. Don’t push it. Let this thing be. Leave Nick his feelings.
We cruise more, always circling the sandbox. Nick wants to go back there, but he’s waiting for the boy and his father to leave.
I can’t help but feel he’s making too big a deal out of this. It’s as if Nick has a sore tooth and can’t help touching the spot with his tongue. I resist the urge to say something. I listen to his complaints, wanting them to stop. Finally the boy is gone.
It’s getting toward bedtime and we need to be home, but Nick isn’t willing. Something in him is not finished with this. We ride over to the exact spot where boy first approached us. We get off our bikes.
The moon has just risen over a grove of trees. Nick looks away from me and stares into the distance, but I’ve never felt more connected to him.
“Dada,” he says.
“Am I like him?”
My breathing ceases. The circling around, the need to watch the boy, the compulsion to stay. Everything becomes clear.
Nick was different once. When he first came to his school, he couldn’t talk. For a long time, things didn’t go well. A few other kids were different, too. There was a slow girl, children of various skin colors, a boy who couldn’t pick up on social cues.
Nick’s school is a good one. Yet despite all humanistic compassion—listening, valuing, allowing, empathizing—no power can protect any child from being different, not really. It can only help them deal with the responses to those differences. And when you’re young, you just want to fit in. Only much, much later do round pegs become prized and sought after by square holes.
Not often do I know with sureness what my job is as a father. Most times I find myself groping in the dark, scared, fighting wrong impulses, fighting Nick, fighting my past. Every once in a while, though, the stars align, the way is open.
“No Nick,” I say. “You’re nothing like him. Not like him at all.”
—Photo nerissa’s ring/Flickr