Happy New Year, Alex!

When we moved to Seattle, from India, 3-year- old DD was the least of my worries. I knew she would make friends easily, that she’d be all over the place and I’d have to run behind her. Back home, we lived in a safe city, and the community is so close knit that if DD just ran into another neighbor’s house, they’d call and let me know she’s safe. She would probably have lunch or dinner with them before deciding to head back home to sleep.

It never ever occurred to me that I would have to hold her back, for her own safety, until I met an older woman at the bus stop, here in the U.S. It was our daily route an, so I allowed DD to run to the stop – she knew where to stop and she wouldn't go beyond the point.

The old lady glared at me. “That’s a cute daughter you have there.” She said. Her tone of voice did not compliment her words and it only confused me. Should I respond with an angry “thank you” too?
“You've been here long?” she asked.
“Eight months,” I said.  We were relatively new, and I was absorbing everything around me. Including making sense of this weird conversation, where there seemed to be no connection between the words, tone and facial expressions.
“You moved from India?” Well, I do have the accent.
“Then listen, you need to be careful with your kid. This is not India. She can easily be kidnapped.” She scared me. “Your daughter said ‘Hi’ to me.”

“Yeah… but I was only a few paces…”
“Even, so.” She snapped at me. “You have to hold your daughter’s hands at all times.”
I was caught off guard and did not know how to react. “OK!” I said as she was glaring through me. That was the answer she was expecting. She finally smiled and took the next bus.

From that day on, I became extra cautious; I did not want to take any chances, especially after what appeared to be a foreboding. I held on to DD’s hand and never let her out of my sight. But it felt strange and unnatural.

DD would usually stop and look at the chain of ants or pluck out and blow on a dandelion or twirl around a tree, singing her songs. I was feeling very guilty that I was not letting her do all that. Moreover, it was not easy juggling my purse, shopping bags, her bag and the wiggly fingers. DD would plead with me to let her go, cry and scream, but I would hold on. It was making both of us crazy.

One day, I had an unusually large number of bags to carry and I just couldn't hold on to her. So I let her go in the crowded  Market. I knew she would not run away.
DD looked at me surprised, but without waiting another second, lest I change my mind, she began skipping and moving towards the fruit vendors, talking to all of them. She finally seemed at ease, and more importantly - free. 

“Hi!” She said to this particular young man who was just beginning to close his stall. “Are you a girl or a boy?” He had tied his hair in a bun and that was very confusing for DD – she hadn't met men with long hair until then.
“DD!” I exclaimed from behind her.
“That’s OK,” he brushed his hand in the air dismissively and smiled.
“Well, I am a boy” he said turning to DD. “But it is confusing with the long hair, hun?”
“Yes. Why do you have long hair?”
“Because I like it” he smiled. “Just like you like wearing your tiara. I bet you wear it all the time, hun?”
“No. Not all the time. I remove it when I go to sleep. It could hurt me at night, when I am sleeping, or… or… it could break.”
“Smart!” he smiled.
“What’s your name?” DD asked.
 “I am Alex. What’s yours?” he extended his hand to DD.
“I have two names…. Which one do you want to know…?”
And they struck up a conversation just like that.
“Here, do you want a cherry?” Alex offered, as he was shutting his shop.
“I love cherries.” DD said and grabbed the red fruit from his hands. “Thanks Alex!”

Against the warning of that old lady, I let my daughter talk. I let her shake hand with a total stranger and worst, I let her eat something he offered.

For the first time in weeks, I let her be and it felt perfect. She was smiling and hugging Alex and talking incessantly with him. She spoke about our move to Seattle, about her new friends, and well, almost about everything; and I did not stop her. Alex participated in the discussion, asking the right questions at the right time. He did not seem like the guy who’d grab her and run and I listened to my gut.

It soon became a ritual. Every day, after school DD would insist on meeting Alex, yelling his name through the market and Alex would welcome her with the juiciest fruits and the warmest embrace. He would pick her up and give her a bite of whatever fruit she wanted – without charging.  “She’s the highlight of my day”, he’d say refusing to accept my offer to pay. “She lights it all up.” She also became friends with Alex’s friends.

One day, as usual, when DD ran through the market shouting his name, there was no response. Alex would always respond. She was surprised to see Shaun, Alex’s friend in his place. “Where’s Alex?” she asked.
Shaun looked at me and said, “Alex met with an accident – a pretty bad accident.”
“What?” I was shocked.
“He is alive, but he is badly injured. His legs are badly damaged."
“Where’s Alex? Where’s Alex?” DD kept chanting.
“Alex is in the hospital, baby” I said gently hugging her.
“He…had an accident”
“I want to talk to him. I want to talk to him.”
“I have his number” Shaun offered. “He's on sedatives so he can’t talk, but I am sure he would love to hear her. He says this little girl is the highlight of his day.”

DD spoke to him. He did not respond well, he wasn't able to talk, but I knew he was happy to hear her voice.
After that day, DD would draw a picture for Alex in school every day, give it to Shaun and remind him to give it to Alex. This continued for a few months, until one day, Shaun told us that Alex was going back to his parents’ house in Wisconsin.

I did not have the heart to tell DD. But she had the right to know about her friend. She asked me to call him ‘this minute’. As soon as Alex answered, she grabbed the phone from my hand.
“Why are you going Alex? I am praying to God every day for you to get well soon. Please stay. I want to see you.”
“I miss you too, princess” he said.  “But I have to go home.”
“Isn't the market your home?”
“It is. But, I need to go to my parents.  Don’t you go to your mother when you are hurt?”
“But, you are older”
“I know… but I am still small, to my parents. You know I am only 21. I need my parents. But you know what; I have all your drawings with me.”
“What about the one with the Elephant?” DD asked. “I wrote your name on that.”
“I especially like that one. How did you write it? Did somebody help you?”
And soon, they were talking like they had never stopped.

We haven’t met Alex since the accident. But DD always prays for his legs to heal and hopes that he would come back soon. I do too.
DD’s prayers before Alex’s accident involved her asking God not to give her bad dreams and to let Mamma and Papa know to buy the newest toys for her. But now, she prays for Alex’s recovery. She has become sensitive to the health and well-being of others. When someone is sick, she genuinely, in her own little way, cares for them, asking if she can kiss the sickness goodbye and make it all OK. She has learnt to value relationships – something I could never have ‘taught’ her. She had to truly experience it, to understand it.

So then, why shouldn't I be proud of the fact that I let my daughter talk to a stranger? Why shouldn't I be proud of the fact that I let her have a cherry from an unknown person? I have helped her form a friendship, care for a person beyond herself, beyond her family, and more importantly …I have helped her learn to trust people. 

DD knows that she is allowed to talk to strangers only when she is with family or with her teachers and they’re watching. She knows that she should scream if she is accosted or touched, but she also knows, that people are mostly good.

Today, as we draw to the end of the year, she wants to check on Alex, wish him a Happy New Year and ask him to return to Seattle. "Come back Alex", she orders. "It's a New Year, so you've got to be here!"

To the lady at the bus stop - thank you, but no thank you.

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