I got a call today from an occupational therapist who sees some of the same children I work with. I treat them on a private basis; she sees them at school. We were talking about different kids who really steal our hearts, and how hard it is to discharge them when they get better and don’t need us any more. She said, “You know who really misses you is Tess. We were working the other day and she kept talking about you and how she got to go to your house. She was telling me about your teddy bear collection and she said that she was the only one who could play with the one with glasses. I didn’t quite understand what she meant.” I thought about it a bit, and then I remembered and understood.
Tess is a beautiful blue-eyed, blonde-haired pixie of a child. When she was three, her favorite possession was a pair of red patent leather boots. She proudly wore them every day until she outgrew them. We worked for several weeks so that she could fasten the zippers with hands that were not exceptionally coordinated. I smile as I recall her dance of triumph around the treatment room when she finally was able to put those boots on by herself. I treated her for several years and we simply adored each other. Her one-hour treatment was one of the highlights of my week, and it was very difficult for us both when the day came that she really didn’t need me or occupational therapy anymore.
So, today’s phone conversation reminded me of the day she came to my house. I had been meaning to have her over for a long time, and the opportunity finally came. I picked her up at her house after school and she was obviously as excited to come as I was to have her. I think that more than anything she was happy to get away from home. She lives with three sisters and a brother in a tiny, cluttered three-bedroom mobile home. Her mother runs a daycare and has four or five additional children at any given time. Tess once told me that her only wish was for a little peace and quiet. A pretty interesting wish for a seven year old. I thought that at least she would find some peace at our house, even if it were only for a few hours.
We stopped at the grocery store where she picked out frozen pizza and ice cream for dinner and then we headed home. A little undivided attention and a bit of spoiling seemed to be just what she needed. Little did I know that what she would treasure was just a chance remark on my part. As we came into the house, her eyes lit up when she saw the teddy bears that live on the back of the couch. I said, “You know, there are more downstairs. Let’s go find them and I’ll also show you their clothes.”
When we got to the downstairs bedroom, she immediately went to the mohair bear sitting on the bed. It was my cherished bear that my brother Jack gave to me just before he died. He gives me comfort every time I see him because I think that just a bit of Jack’s spirit resides somewhere in the stuffing. I put glasses on him because he looks more like Jack that way. I started to say, “No, Jess… you can’t play with that bear.” But, something made me stop. Instead, I said, “That is a very special bear. I’ve never let anyone play with it. But, if you’re careful, you can play with the bear with glasses.”
That was almost a year ago. I had completely forgotten about the whole thing. But, here was Tess telling her school OT all about coming to my house, and the teddy bears, and saying with pride “and I’m the only one who gets to play with the one with glasses.” I got to thinking about chance remarks, and what children really hear us say. I thought that I would make Jess feel special with some extra attention and a junk food dinner. And I did make her feel special, but not because of that. She was honored just because she got to play with a teddy bear that was obviously treasured by me.
And what if the reverse had happened? What if I had said, “No, Tess. You can’t play with that…you might hurt it.” How would she have felt? What would she have remembered? I think it’s often the offhand remarks that either harm or hurt our children the most.
And now, I hold my brand new grandson who is innocent and fragile and oh, so impressionable. If I can have any wish, it would be this. May my intended remarks make him feel loved and wanted and unique. But, even more importantly, may my chance remarks make him feel loved and wanted and unique.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll let him play with the teddy bear with glasses.