It was my 18th birthday. I was filled with angst, frustrated and frankly, pissed off. I was so excited to reunite with my high school friends after my first semester as a college freshman. With a December Birthday, the finals were done and I was finally back in Detroit. However, my plans were shortly canceled after finding out my sister had a dance performance on the night of my birthday.
Not only was I not allowed to go out with my friends, but I would be forced to sit through a show I had danced myself for years and years on end. And to make things worse… I had to do it with a 5 year old girl, Elsie, - the daughter of my mom’s friend I had never met before. What a great flipping birthday.
The plan was to drop my sister off backstage, go and get dinner with Elsie, her mom and mine, and then see the show - a mixture of my sister dancing and a professional organist. Exactly what I wanted to do on my birthday... and to top things off, I didn’t even get to pick the restaurant.
Meeting up with my moms friend and Elsie at the restaurant, I remember sitting in the booth of this underwhelmingly ‘fancy’ italian restaurant picking at my Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo. My mom and Elsies mom engaged in conversation, while Elsie and I were sitting in silence. I was so upset, texting my friends feverishly under the table of the booth to avoid getting scolded for being rude by my mother.
I went to the bathroom mid-way through dinner, where I received a text message from my mom telling me to ‘buck up buttercup and start engaging in conversation’. Annoyed, I returned to the table and began to ask Elsie about her life. After all, what interesting thing could come out of the mouth of a five year old?
After boring discussions of a new toy she had received the month before, the next logical segway in the conversation was “ Well Elsie, what do you want for christmas?” The reply I received was the furthest thing from what I expected.
“ For christmas I want my dad to be an angel. He’s been really sick, and It makes me sad to see him sad. I know he is going to be an angel soon, but for christmas I want him to be an angel, so he doesn’t have to be sad anymore.”
My heart sank, and I was immediately filled with guilt. Here I was, so caught up in the fact that I couldn’t do what I wanted to on my birthday, while this little five year old was dealing with her dad dying. Not just that, but she was selfless enough to understand that his pain was worse than anything she could comprehend, and as a result his relief was more important than anything.
I sat in silence for a few minutes with Elsie, while our mothers were chatting away. I shortly excused myself to return to the bathroom once again, walking through the restaurant fighting back tears. The compassion, understanding, and selflessness of a child so young overwhelmed me. Here I was at 18 thinking I understood the world, and how to be a good person. But in this moment, it was made clear to me I had gotten it all wrong.
I was behaving like such an ungrateful person, focused only on what I couldn’t have. I had been using my birthday as an excuse to be selfish, and think the world owed me something. Which in that moment when Elsie shared with me what she wanted for Christmas, I realized it didn’t. In fact, at that moment I realized it was me that owed the world something.
Shortly after returning to the booth for the second time, I began to really engage with Elsie. Coloring, giggling, laughing, playing. All of the things I had forgotten since being a child that bring such an innocent joy. She was funny, she was creative, she was passionate. What a beautiful child.
On the car ride from the restaurant to the theater, I asked my mom about what was going on with Elsie’s dad. He had stage 3 cancer, and wasn’t doing well, which is part of the reason my mom invited them out with us to see my sisters show. He only was given a few months to live, and they almost didn’t come, but he insisted they have a night out to enjoy themselves and escape the sorrowful atmosphere. Still awestruck from the conversation at the restaurant, I made it my mission to make sure Elsie had the best night of her life. Forget my birthday not being what I wanted it to be, this little girl having a good time amidst all she was going through was more important.
Once again reunited with my little pal Elsie at the theater, she was a bundle of joy. At the front of the stage, over the orchestra pit, there was a huge miniature christmas village with a moving train, fake snow, lights and sounds - the works. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the front of the theater squealing with joy. So excited about something so small that I wouldn’t even think twice about.
I glanced over at little Elsie, her eyes sparkling with joy taking in the small beauty and excitement of every little figurine, every sound, every piece of glitter in the fake snow. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I began to see the beauty in something that would have been nothing but an annoyance mere hours before. I was in awe of how someone, let alone a five year old girl, who was experiencing so much pain, could still see the beauty in it all. She could still find joy in the small things, and not just take them in but fuel her soul.Throughout the show, Elsie and I sat in the audience hand in hand, eyes sparkling, smiles beaming.
At the end of the night, I was sad to say goodbye to my new little pal. Afraid for what she was about to face, what she was about to experience. She had this zest for life that was so infectious, and I was fearful it would disappear with the troubled times that laid ahead for her and her mother. But something within me told me she would be alright, this little child filled with love and light would be fine. She understood that this was something beyond her control, she understood it would be better for her dad to pass because he was in so much pain. I knew she was strong, and I knew she would be okay.
This little girl, going through so much while being so young had changed me that night. She taught me that no matter what experiences you are going through in life, there is still beauty in the world. That no matter what, there is always something that can bring you joy, even if it's as small as specs of glitter in fake snow. She taught me how precious child-like wonder is and how we must protect that in children and re-discover it within ourselves. She taught me what true compassion and selflessness looked like. She taught me what it truly meant to be alive.
Our children carry such joy, excitement, and wonder in this world, and somewhere along the way they lose it, whether to socialization, trauma, or just plain growing up. But there is something to be learned from each and every child. ‘Children may not know as much as we think they do’ couldn’t be further from the truth.
They know more than us
They know how to live life with:
They know something we’ve lost on the way
That we can learn from them
Children are powerful