He had vacant eyes. When any emotion crossed them it was in flickers of fear, rage, and shame. He didn’t smile for a full four months. He never let anyone touch him and had no concept of the power of a simple, pure hug. His fits of rage came in bursts like a camera clicking on the speed setting. Hitting. Punching. Kicking. Screaming. No one should taste the words that spewed from his small pink mouth. He ended in a clump of fitful sleep and deep breathing. He was always too tense to be truly spent and lived his life on edge. His face was chiseled and sweet with deep set eyes that had already seen too much. Those eyes followed you with a stern, untrusting focus. His sense of observation was acute, and his pulse was keen to what he perceived might threaten him. His short sentences came out as grunts and garbled words. He had seen the hand of violence so many times that the scars would imprint his very soul. He knew hunger and dread and fear and filth. He knew what it was to have nothing and he knew what it felt like to sleep in the crevices of rock bottom. His clothes were ill-fitting with a shoestring as a belt, meaning his own shoes were always missing a lace. His coat was tattered and dirty, and he often had no socks. His winter coat was threadbare, and he never knew the warmth of gloves. He never knew the warmth of flannel sheets in bed, a marshmallowy mug of hot cocoa, or the embrace and nuzzle of a father. His eyes told his story. One look made you want to look away and pretend the horror that unfolded before his eyes never intersected your life. He was filled with a rage and fear so large that it more than consumed his tiny frame. He knew what it meant to be alone. It was said he lived in a hovel. It was said he never sat down to a meal at the table. It was said that he didn’t have his own bed or one single book. It was said his mother never tucked him in.
He was five years old.
This little boy touched my heart in a way no child ever has. I faced his wrath and inhaled his pain. I watched him learn basic social skills that children in safe, stable homes learn from day one. I watched him blossom and shine. He expressed himself through art. His drawings were detailed and colorful. Oh, the boy loved color. After many, many months he finally sat on my lap for a story. I read him book after book after book, and I could feel his heart singing against my chest. And then, he smiled. He giggled. He started to laugh.
And the very last time I saw him, he hugged me, and I didn’t want to let go.