"Okay, we're going to the park!" my boss Nicole announced in her sing-songy way, ushering her two-year-old son Elie out of the bedroom.
"First attempt!" she called as she slipped out of my view, a reference to her habit of returning five or six times after she leaves to get yet another forgotten necessity for the day's outing.
I wished her luck and spread her big white bath towel out wide, folding it in two halves, then into thirds, just as she requires.
Working for Nicole is simple and warming most of the time, the work she gives me often enables my mind to wander, composing stories in my mind to be written down when I arrive home at the end of the day. And even when the work involves some mental energy . . . even when I'm arguing with tech support over a faulty computer or trying to explain to her son why you can't kick sand on little girls at the park, it's still work that's good for my mind. Working inside someone's personal life is in many ways an honor, and working within a family provides constant reminders of the tiny moments that define relationships and personal growth.
Only seconds after Nicole announced their departure, I heard Elie's rapid stomping footsteps returning to the bedroom. Naturally I assumed that Nicole had indeed forgotten something she needed and Elie came back to play, having grown bored with the extra two seconds it took his mother stop by another room of the house to retrieve a forgotten object.
He approached me and with a smile I greeted him as I often do,
"Well, Hello, Friend!"
He looked up at me, his tiny mouth set in a focused frown.
"Abi," he said. He waited for a response, which took me off guard. Usually he plunged into whatever he needed to say, letting his words run together to keep up with the speed of his shifting wants. "Abicomeplay." "Abihelpplease." "Abicomeeat." But this time, there was a pause. There was a need to know I heard him, a need to know he had my full attention.
He took a deep breath, then spoke.
"Can you give me grape checker?"
I was baffled.
"I'm sorry, Elie, can you say that again?"
He took another deep breath.
"I need grape checkout, pweez."
I turned and gestured toward the toys nearby, assuming he was looking for something on a shelf out of his reach.
"Can you point?" I asked. "Can you show me?"
His eyes panned the shelves, his brow furrowing. He was reaching a level of serious I had never before encountered on him.
He tried again.
"Grape jacker, Abi. Abi I need grape jacker, pweez." This time his words were accompanied by his usual gesture of explanation, a quick twisting of the wrists which is really only effective if he's asking me to turn the dial on the radio or shake a bottle of Pepto Bismol.
"I'm sorry, Elie." I really was. "I don't know what you mean."
He sighed and looked at my feet. He looked defeated. I felt defeated. He was a man on a mission . . . a man governed by something greater than the impulse of the moment. A man asking for something he needed not only for the present, but for the future as well. Elie had a purpose. And I was entirely incapable of helping him fulfill it.
I was just about to suggest he ask his mommy for whatever he needed when he raised his round eyes back up to me, and said, "Abi, I would please like a gray jacket or a red jacket, if you would be so kind."
Okay, this may not have been his exact wording, but this was how it sounded to me when my brain finally wrapped itself around the sounds emerging from his mouth, and I know this was how it sounded to him when he realized I understood what he needed.
I hurried over to the bed, where a pile of his freshly-laundered hoodies lay and picked up a gray jacket and handed it to him.
"On, or just to carry?" I asked him, one adult to another.
"Carry," he told me with great confidence, tucking the prize under his arm. "And a red one."
"Oh, I see," I said, digging through the pile for a red jacket. "You want options."
He nodded and I fulfilled his request. He thanked me, smiling widely and rushed back to the entryway. I heard his tiny voice as he approached Nicole, calling out, "Mommy I got it! A grey one and a red one!"
It was wonderful how such a small victory seemed so big . . . to both of us. Elie was sent on an assignment, given a responsibility, and succeeded. And somehow I thought I was a super genius for helping him succeed. It was even a victory for Nicole who responded to Elie's cries of success with a message to me.
"See, Abi!" her voice rang out from the entry way. "I didn't come back!"
Then the front door closed and Nicole and Elie left . . . on the first attempt.
Bravo. Bravo for us all.