In her post titled My Eyebrows, Linda describes a heartbreaking incident as she and her sisters and Mildred were leaving a restaurant. As the girls are exiting the establishment, a woman—a stranger—admired my sister’s eyebrows. Linda writes poignantly about how wonderful it made her feel to receive such a compliment, and how this chance encounter gave her a simple gift that she’s carried with her ever since.
It is amazing how a random and fleeting encounter such as the one Linda describes can have an impact on a child’s life, sometimes forever. I have my own tale of a similar meeting in a restaurant entryway. Thinking about it still makes my heart heavy with sadness.
A year or two ago. I’ve been on the Interstate for hours, driving a rental car from northern Florida down to Fort Lauderdale to catch a flight home after visiting friends. The landscape is flat, the traffic heavy, and the monotonous landscape of chain stores, mini-marts and fast food franchises has long since made me yearn for the mountain vistas of Alaska.
My portable GPS predicts another 20 minutes or so to the airport, and my bladder is feeling the pressure of my long highway trip. I decide to pull off for a break, selecting an exit more or less at random, knowing I’ll have my pick of bland establishments with clean public restrooms, where no one will notice or care that I’m not a customer.
The right turn from the freeway is a drive that delivers me to a faceless suburban parking lot rimmed with businesses, and I park a few rows from the entrance to a Red Robin, a chain of “family friendly” themed burger restaurants. There are several in Anchorage, and I’m mildly amused that here in the opposite corner of the country this is where I’ve decided to do my business. It’s Saturday afternoon, near lunch time. The joint is hopping, loud, and crowded with couples and families.
After I use the facilities, I walk past the hostess desk and head toward the exit. I find myself behind a couple with a small child, a little boy maybe 4 or 5 years old. They are also leaving, and I slow my pace to follow them politely out the door and into the bright Florida afternoon.
As they push through the first set of double doors, the man begins cruelly berating the boy, who I assume to be his son. The father is very angry; fuming—furious even. He is calling the boy names. Mocking him. Saying hateful things. Mother is silent, embarrassed, powerless. I follow, unseen, but just steps behind.
Outside, the man grasps the boy roughly by his forearm and pulls him toward the family minivan. He is lifted to his tiptoes, and his tiny sneakers scuff against the baking asphalt. The boy looks terrified, as if he knows something awful is going to happen. My quick glimpse of his face tells me that his fear is not of the unknown, but of the all-too-well-known fury of a father he has tried desperately to please, but has failed. Mother walks to her side of the car. She says nothing. She doesn’t see me.
I feel my face redden, my heartbeat quicken, and a lump grow in my throat. No one has witnessed this drama but me. If they had, their assumption would have been that the little boy had misbehaved in the restaurant, and was being punished. I sense that the father feels embarrassed, angry, and that whatever happened was the boy’s fault and now he’ll be made to pay for his transgression.
“Just wait till I get you home!” I hear the man hiss. His words strike me with an almost physical force. I have not heard those words—spoken in that tone—for 35 or 40 years. I know what they mean. As a child I heard my mother recite them too many times, along with their kissing cousin of hatred, “Just wait until your father gets home!”
I am big now, a grownup. I strong man, not a helpless child. I am compassionate. I must help this little boy, intervene somehow to save him from what my heart tells me is coming, but I cannot move. What do I do? Look for a cop? Grab the man, punch him, punch him there in the parking lot of the Red Robin like a violent madman? Give him a taste of his own medicine?
The father has the back door of the car open, and thrusts the little boy roughly into the backseat, slamming the door behind him. My car is 3 or 4 spaces over. It’s just me and him. I could be on the man before he could open the driver’s door. I imagine the look of shock on his face when I grab his throat, turn his head, and look into his eyes.
“Do you remember how you felt when your Daddy was mean to you?” I want to ask him—demand of him. “Do you remember how much you loved him, and how bad you felt that nothing you could ever do was ever good enough? How even when you were a good boy, his words would make you feel small and sad and lonely? Can you still feel the force of his blows? Can you still feel his hatred?”
The man has his door open. I am rooted to the spot, frozen in place as this vignette plays against the tears in my eyes. I feel helpless, as anything I said or did to the father would give satisfaction only to me, and the child would be made to pay the price later.
“How could you do this to your own son? How could you make him feel the way your little boy is feeling right now? How could you do to him what your father must have done to you? Stop it! Stop it!!” I scream silently to myself, adrenaline making my legs shake as my fingernails dig into the palms of my tightly-clenched fists.
The minivan backs out of its spot. I see the little boy’s face in the backseat window, just for a moment. Then they are gone.
I did nothing. I could do nothing. I cried for that little boy, and for myself. Then I continued on my journey, as we all must.