I walk in, and she sits alone on the third row—she, only here to be with; she, who forgets how to breathe when being means there’s just too much to absorb. She has the courage of a lion, and most don’t even know. A movie flashes large on the screen at the front of the room, but I hardly notice the blur of its color, the garble of sound.
I notice the knot of girls side-by-side at the back of the room, girls Riley’s age, like new birds twittering on an electric line. They wear their closeness like a shade, like a brand that makes them okay. They flick hair and glances and glossy smiles, and in every way as it’s always been—they don’t seem to realize how much she’d love to be with them—she, and another few scattered around, rows away from them, each like an unprotected ewe without the strength of their numbers.
Riley finds no other wants besides this one: connection with girls her own age.
If only they knew, I stand there thinking, that she studies YouTube videos for hours trying to understand how to talk to them, trying to figure out what to say. If only they knew that sometimes when she’s with them she eats herself sick because at least eating is something they can do together. If only they knew that she thinks of them as her friends; that she wants to invite them to her celebrations; that she never says or thinks or feels an unkind thing toward any of them. If only they knew that to her, they’re always beautiful just the way they are, never “too” anything, never out of place. And I don’t know, because maybe they do know and just don’t yet understand the value of that kind of friendship.
It’s not that these girls mean to be unkind, just that Riley can’t quite reach them. She stretches and tries, and they’re nice enough, even often tolerant of her presence and her idiosyncracies. It seems as though they recognize that they can and should be charitable to her, without ever understanding the gift she offers them. She isn’t usually invited into their knots.
I motion, catching Riley’s glance from the doorway, and she smiles, standing immediately, moving toward me. She stops next to me and turns to say goodbye to each one of those girls, calling them by name sometimes repeatedly until they acknowledge her. And I wince inwardly, watching them throw grins, elbowing each other. If she had not insisted, they would not have even noticed her leaving.
“Why were you sitting alone?” I ask her as we walk away, guarding myself against a natural inclination to speculate about how the arrangement came together.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says, looking sideways the way she does when she feels me evaluating something but doesn’t know what to do with my notice. She clutches her hands together awkwardly, catching my eyes again, and then laughs a little to set me at ease. I’m okay, Mom, she says, without a word.
But still, I have to ask. “Were you okay with it—being by yourself up there?”
She nods, looking forward. “I guess so,” she says, and then finishes a bit more solidly. “Yes, I was okay with it.” She hadn’t thought about whether or not it was okay until I asked, and now she’s decided. So why does this bother me so much, if it doesn’t even seem to bother her? Oh, but somewhere deep it does, or she wouldn’t work so hard to untangle their knots. I know how hard she works at this; I see what few others can: how much she wants to be with them. And I suppose that’s how it is with God too. He alone sees what happens when no one’s looking and what lives in the corners of our hearts. Surely he aches too, while he watches us growing.
I study the lines of Riley’s face carefully, as stray strands of her hair lift in the wind. It’s not that she refuses to complain, but that she truly conceives no criticism—not of her situation, not of others, not of herself. She harbors no ugly shadows. She lives with more concern for others, crying most often over someone else’s pain. So when she feels disconnected, she struggles to find what she can do to connect more, without ever wishing anyone any different than they are, without an ill thought regarding anyone else’s motives or short comings. And meanwhile I stand in the doorway with my “if onlys.” If only is not a shining refrain.
Whenever Riley wants to go and be with, I have to pry my arms open to let her be away from me. Because for all my faith, I still live and breathe as though Kevin and I are the only ones protecting her. But here is the truth I now see with spiritual eyes, as the sun lights my daughter’s eyes on fire and she walks beside me:
A soul who belongs to God is clothed with His strength and dignity. And she never walks alone, because she walks with God.
I’m blind not to see it. She’s not some vulnerable ewe. She’s strong. Because she’s His.
And still, He’s not finished with me. As we leave for home together, He writes something else right into the ache in the heart of me: If I long for her to have friends, God longs for it even more, and He stands at the door as we gather in our groups and He hurts too, for all the ones we leave sitting alone because they don’t know how to make us feel better about ourselves; for the ones who don’t know how to speak or what to say; for the awkward ones still struggling for connection, the ones we tolerate without offering relationship; the ones we believe we honor with our charitable notice. He says to me, It hurts me too, when there are souls left out. Because in truth, I am often guilty of the kind of selfish ignorance that seeks only my own comfort without noticing the discomfort of others.
So I give thanks for the mother-ache I feel, settling my arm again around Riley’s shoulders, and the Spirit moves and I answer deep, asking God to give me eyes to see. Let me ache over what makes you ache. And then again, with a throaty-whisper, I ask for the sheer strength of a pure heart.