all of the selves we Have ever been
The long pandemic year left me feeling youth-deprived.
With my own children grown, no grandchildren, and social distancing, my world was bereft of children.
About the time I began to acknowledge this painful loss of youth, my friend Laura wrote about her encounters with the neighbor’s grandchildren. These kids gathered on Laura’s porch for a few consecutive days. They visited, borrowed toys, and made up stories. It was lovely to imagine the good fortune to spend a few summer hours in the company of creative, curious, energetic children. I was both awed and envious.
With that on my mind, I stopped at a fast food restaurant. Still in pandemic mode, I intended to place my order at the drive-through window, but the line was so long that I decided to live dangerously and go inside. As I stepped up to the patio that surrounded the front door, I discovered the area littered with boys on a lunch break from the neighboring high school. These youth spread out like water in that fluid way of lanky teenage boys who travel in packs. The entire bunch gathered around a single table. Some of the boys sat on the small benches, others stood, several shared the edge of the same bench—three where one was meant to sit. Their backpacks and belongings took over the remaining space.
When the boys stood, their bodies stretched up into the heights of adulthood even as they remained cloaked in the soft, tender flesh of childhood. Talk and laughter emanated from their smooth faces. They elbowed each other and snagged French fries from other trays. They conferenced and negotiated a deal in which each of them would have enough money to return inside to purchase a small frosty. The first boy in line passed his change to the guy behind him and so on until the last man standing was served his frozen dessert.
They were polite in passing and held the door for me. They seemed free and happy. Together, they were able to stand strong against that inner, invisible critic that makes teens self-conscious in the company of adults. They deftly walked the line between awkward and cool.
As though they could hear the school bell ringing, the group abruptly stood and left the patio. At the same moment, they all stepped off the curb and into the middle of the street, ignoring parental teachings to cross at the corner and wait for the light to turn green. This long gaggle of parentless goslings stretched the entire width of the road. Just as suddenly as the group departed, two of the boys raced back to remove the trays and the trash. A boy with the name Murphy printed across the shoulders of his football jersey remained until the patio was clean, and then he raced to catch up with his peers who were already out of sight.
The middle-aged woman who manages the restaurant laughed and shook her head as she gathered up the backpacks and belongings left behind. “They’ll be back,” she said. “They always leave something behind.”
With this brush of youth, my own smudged, grey outline of a life regained its color, texture, movement, and meaning. Nature was back in balance: young and old, past and future, uniting in the current moment to become the living present I needed. Accepting adults cast a gentle net of supervision and were there to pick up the pieces as these young people stepped off the curb and into the traffic of life. Murphy, who returned to complete the clean-up, was already becoming one of us.
There have been moments during this pandemic when it felt like it might be the end of the world. In such a mindset, it can be difficult to remember that life is just beginning for others eager to grow up.
Now, at the very moment we thought that we were putting the pandemic behind us, a new variant looms. The virus will do what viruses are born to do: mutate, strengthen, find new hosts, suck the life from the living, and gather speed while doing so.
The virus will now come for our youngest citizens—our children for whom there is no vaccine. Our children do not have the luxury of saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” ill-conceived as that current use of the word liberty may be. Our children are now the most vulnerable. They trust us. They have no other choice. Trust is the foundation of all meaningful relationships, the core of our humanity. Trustworthiness characterizes the mature adult.
Toddlers are egocentric by nature. They first have to realize they have agency in order to exercise it in the future. When they throw themselves down in the cereal aisle and demand some sugary food, they do not have adult understanding, insight, and judgment. Those wee ones lack the powerful adult capacity to anticipate the future and to harness dangerous desires. Their needs and wants remain immediate and all-consuming. Under healthy circumstances, they will grow out of it.
The gift and the burden, the obligation of adulthood, is to look after the young, to ensure that there is a future for them just as previous generations did for us. Our ancestors took the smallpox vaccine and the polio vaccine. They accepted their war rations and lived within those meager means. They planted and harvested their victory gardens, and they resumed life and making a living even as they were shell shocked from war. As adults, we are not the center of the universe, but it is our job to keep the earth on its axis and to keep it turning for the sake of our children.
I understand that there may be many reasons an adult would not want to take the new, emergency-use vaccine. But that does not relieve adults of the obligation to wear a mask, social distance, and stay away from mass gatherings, to protect our children.
I do not want to live in a world deprived of youth. And so, for our children, I offer this prayer: Please, grow up. And to the minority of childish, angry, and egocentric adults, I make this plea: Please, grow up. Let’s respect the natural order and be the ones to leave something behind.