I secretly watched them from across the room, my daughter in her pink and purple striped pajamas perched on the edge of the bed like the Cheshire Cat reading a book to her little brother. His head was lying gently against her shoulder and he yawned and wrapped his arms around her neck for support. One of his legs kicked idly off the edge of the mattress. Clara was reading him the story that he had chosen for the night, and she was bravely and confidently working her way through each of the sentences, stumbling over the words from time to time. Her tongue often tripped and occasionally fell down and had to start a sentence over, as if it were jogging over tree roots. The boy patiently waited; a goofy half-smile frozen on his face. He was clearly paying more attention to the sound of her voice than the words she was saying. It was a comfort to be read to.
My mind wandered as I stood in the doorway. Clara was ten now. Gideon was five. He was half her age. This was the only moment in their life that they would ever get to say that. It seemed so obvious now, but someday they would have to explain this fact to people. “I was once half her age! Really!” but who can believe something like that. “I was just a little boy once, but now look at me.” Would he say this? A grown man looking down at the world? Would he still sit next to her and lay his head on her shoulder and find comfort in the sound of her voice?
I cringed as Clara confidently mispronounced another word. What grade was she in now? Fourth grade? Fifth grade? Should she be reading better than this by now? Did I read better than that when I was her age?
Now, I thought about this question. And, while thinking, I traveled back in time to when I was ten-years-old. In my mind, I floated through the halls of Butte Elementary like a ghost and I quietly peeked through a classroom door. Inside, I saw myself reading to a young boy half my age. I was ten. The young boy was five. He had dark hair and a wide straight grin, much like my own. Much like my son’s.
“That’s right,” I said. I remembered now. I used to sit, once a week, and read to a little boy, just the same way that Clara is reading now. He was my Reading Buddy. He was assigned to me at the beginning of the school year. I remember my teacher dragging me by the arm across the room on the first Friday of school to where this boy was sitting at a desk in the back corner near the door. And then she left me there with a wink as my eyes betrayed how terrified I was at being abandoned in charge of this strange little boy. The two of us took turns glancing at each other and looking at the floor. “My name is James,” I said. His name was Brian. “I guess I’m going to read books to you on Fridays,” I told him. He nodded and picked at his Velcro shoes with his fingernail. We were a perfect match.
Every week, for the rest of that year, I spent my library period picking out a book that I could share with him on Friday afternoon during our reading time. I remember there was a little wooden fort in the corner and he always wanted to sit inside this fort while I read. At first, he was as uncomfortable with me as I was with him, but eventually, we became good friends. And he would lay his head on my shoulder while I read to him about Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss’s monsters. He was quiet. At first, I would just read to him and then we would sit together and look at pictures. Eventually, I started using the time to ask him questions about his life. We shared stories about sledding. He told me about playing on the lake near his house. We exchanged ideas for pranks we would pull on our older brothers. It turns out we had a lot in common. We even liked the same books. And for a moment, once a week, I enjoyed playing the part of big brother. I enjoyed having a little buddy. I looked forward to these afternoon reading sessions with my friend.
One week in early spring I spent a good fifteen minutes looking through picture books that I could take to read to him that Friday. I remember settling on one about a young duck that loses its way in the forest and goes on a journey to find its home again. I practiced my baby duck voices. I smiled at the end of the book where the little duck is reunited with his mother. I liked this book. I was sure my reading buddy would like it as well. I checked the book out at the library counter and proudly put it into my bag and then got in line to walk back to my classroom, on the way we passed the kindergarten room and I glanced in and saw him there at the back, sitting quiet and straight at his desk. He did not see me.
And that was the last time I ever saw my little friend. We got a call the next day. My mom answered it in the kitchen and then came and sat down next to me on the couch. She put her arm around my shoulder and told me as gently as someone possibly can that my friend had fallen through the ice near his house while playing with his brother, and by the time they found him, it was too late.
That Friday we carried our books to our Reading Buddy time in the Kindergarten classroom. I stood in the doorway hugging my board book about a duck, not far from his empty desk, as my classmates paired up excitedly with their young friends and wandered away. My teacher came a moment later, hand in hand with a nervous little boy I had never seen before, and asked if I would please read to this new boy now. He had come late in the year and didn’t have a partner. I agreed. My new reading buddy had very light-colored hair and a round face. He liked trucks and robots. I don’t believe he ever said a single word to me about his life apart from that, or maybe I just never asked. He certainly never rested his head on my shoulder or lit up with excitement when I walked through the door on Friday afternoons.
I never cried. I remember feeling sad, but I was mostly sad about not being sad. It seemed like all of the adults in my life were watching me very closely and were waiting for me to mourn for the loss of my friend, but I felt so distant from the loss, and I had no way of knowing what it meant or how I should feel. I had no context for something like sudden pointless loss. Perhaps it was all greater than a young mind could process. And so I felt nothing, and that made me sad.
I felt nothing for nearly 30 years until I was standing in the doorway to my children’s bedroom one evening as my daughter read a story to her little brother and I watched as my son leaned his head against her shoulder, and for a moment he reminded me of someone that I hadn’t seen in a very long time, and then I cried.