Yesterday, I saw a baby learn his first lesson in loss.
Onto the bus bounced a unit of energy – he, his young mother, and his red stroller. Now, he sat, seemingly content, his pudgy feet dangling. His blue eyes, two twinkles of color framed by golden eyelashes, challenged the dull grey of our surroundings in a way that was thoroughly impossible to ignore – so wide that they seemed capable of taking in the entirety of the world. They focused on only two things, however: his mother’s smiling face, and the little plastic jar of cereal that he clutched to his body. Understandably, in the manner of any child’s eyes, they wandered, they searched, and they gazed at what surrounded him. They only ever sharpened with recognition, though, when his mother spoke or the jar threatened to slip from his grasp.
Indeed, he clung to this container with such resolve that it was almost comical. Presently, he stuck a single, miniscule finger into its depths, his tongue lolling, and began to fish around for a Cheerio. His face contorted in focus, he evidently heard nothing, saw nothing, wanted nothing but the tiny piece of toasted grain, a thing so small, so easily attainable, so irrelevant. He finally succeeded in pinning it against the wall of the jar, and, triumphant, raised it to his toothless maw and gummed it happily. His mother smiled; he beamed. In his world of the mother and the jar, where there was no other joy than that reflected in her laugh, no other sustenance than that provided by General Mills, all was well. Nothing was missing.
Then, for the first time, another face appeared beside his mother’s. An elderly woman, upon seeing him, had come to a stop. She looked at him over the rims of her enormous glasses; her eyes crinkled into a smile, and she began to speak. Her voice shook as she gently croaked all possible forms of ‘Aren’t you a sweet little boy?’ in his direction.
His little mouth hanging open, he stared up into her face. She was neither his mother nor his jar, and this, not surprisingly, surprised him. The voice was new, the laugh was new, the warmth she offered him entirely unknown. The world had broadened. Interested but shy, he smiled a little.
“Can you say ‘Hi!’?” his mother asked in the high-pitched, overly cheery voice that we reserve for the verbal cuddling of babies. The little boy just grimaced lightly, then continued to smile at the woman, his expression a mixture of awe and confusion. At last he laughed and, dipping his hand into the jar, he pulled out another piece of cereal and showed it to her. The old lady laughed too.
With a start, she realized she needed to get off the bus. She pushed the big red button labelled ‘Stop.’ And she was gone.
Something came over his face then. His eyes grew extremely big – two sky-blue orbs – and they glazed over. He stared fixedly at the place where the old lady had been just seconds ago, his lip sucked in, his tiny fingers pinching that last piece of cereal. He was waiting.
“Bye-bye!” his mother said, realizing his confusion. “Say ‘Bye-bye!’”
The boy’s mouth wrinkled. A perplexed frown. His eyes distant, he watched where the old lady had been. He didn’t smile, and his eyes didn’t wander even slightly. He stared. He was waiting. Some minutes later, very slowly, his small hand began absent-mindedly bringing more pieces of cereal to his mouth. He chewed, but distractedly. Something was missing.