My nine-year-old son Harry ran up to my car all smiles. He dropped his backpack to the floor, unzipped his parka and reached over his shoulder for the seat belt. “Guess what? We had a Buddy Day. D.J. was there this time!”
Student buddies were set up at his school between all first- and fourth-graders to help the incoming younger kids feel looked out for by the older ones. The buddies met every other month to work on a holiday-themed art project or do some other seasonal activity together. I knew from Harry that D.J. was sick a lot and had missed the last Buddy Day.
“That’s great!” I said. “How did it go?”
“We were drawing in the art room. D.J. told me he wished he could be an artist like me,” Harry replied, beaming satisfaction.
“Aw. That’s really sweet, Harry. You know, people can grow up to be whatever they want.”
“I know,” Harry said, looking over at me. “That’s what I told him.”
The heater was on in the car, but I still felt a warm wave of pride run through me. I’d been telling Harry that since he was four, the age his future sights were set on “dentist, policeman, firefighter or doctor.”
His goals had changed frequently over the years, from ballet dancer to girl, to scientist-comedian, to inventor, teacher and, as of a few weeks earlier, “songwriter, artist, or the person at the airport who x-rays the baggage.”
Harry gets it, I thought.
Years later, on a night he was a sophomore in high school, Harry had plans to meet up with a new friend, Tom (not his real name). Tom was thirteen, still in middle school, and lived on the other side of Milwaukee. Harry told me that when he first spotted Tom talking to a mutual friend at a show at the Shorewood Veterans’ Legion Hall, he thought Tom was the most interesting and prettiest girl he had ever seen.
“You know I don’t like you hanging out with Tom,” I said as we cleared the dinner dishes.
“Oh, he’s all right. He’s fun.”
“Harry, you’ve told me he drinks, takes prescription drugs, and is always getting suspended from school. He’s not what I’d call a good influence on you.”
“You don’t have to worry, Mom.”
Like a toddler who only hears your last two words, all I heard was “…worry, Mom.”
“What does he want to do with his life?”
“He wants to be a gay porn star and doesn’t plan on living past twenty-one,” Harry said flippantly.
Anger filled my lungs and ratcheted up the dial on my decibel level.
“That’s it? That’s what he really wants? Doesn’t he know he can be, have, or do anything?”
Harry put his hands to his hips and stuck his face right in front of mine. “Well maybe no one’s ever told him that!” he yelled.
I arched my back and leaned against the kitchen counter. I hadn’t expected such an intense reaction. Harry’s eyes darted, searching mine. I felt guilt gathering at the back of my throat. What did I know about Tom’s family life? What if he wasn’t accepted at home?
Harry turned and walked away. I felt a little ashamed. I realized Harry wasn’t going to let a troubled boy’s behavior bring him down. Rather, Harry wanted to be this kid’s buddy. I took a deep breath of hope.
The two remained friends, but had a falling out the year Harry was a senior in college. Tom visited Harry on campus that year, but his self-destructive behavior became too much. It was a sad story.
Harry said recently he’d heard from Tom online. He was now going by the name Jasmine. And Jasmine told Harry that she was healthier and happier than she’d ever been in her whole life.
When I heard the good news about Jasmine, I felt a slow burn at the back of my nose. It was the sensation that accompanied an overwhelming sense of relief and triggered watery eyes. Harry’s friend had done it. She had become the person she’d always wanted to be.