The minute we got home from our trip in May we knew we had new neighbors. It wasn’t just the empty boxes next to their driveway that clued us in, they were hanging onto the fence as though they had been waiting all 14 hours for us to get back. As soon as we stepped out of our vehicle we were surrounded by little people.
They started coming to our house to play. Often. Every day often. Thirteen times a day often. Yes, I counted.
Soon I was hardly able to get .anything. done at all. People are always more important than things, but some things need to get done so that people are taken care of. I had to learn how to say no.
Our yard became the best hang-out spot on the block. I had dreamed of that. Zachary ran off his energy with new friends and came in sweaty, dirty, and with an enormous smile. I had dreamed of that, too. The front porch windows had handprints and forehead marks on the outside and on the inside. It goes with the territory. The eighth grader asked if I could help him with his (elementry level) reading. I said yes.
There were parts that weren’t so nice. Every time we came home from anywhere…every single time, the outdoor toys were scattered all over the yard. Not a big deal. If we really cared we would lock them away. Also every time we came home the water was running…gushing. It was a big deal. You’d kind of have to know the way I save water left from supper to water the flowers and the way I always turn off the water while brushing my teeth to understand. I didn’t get angry, but I was annoyed that someone was opening a closed gate to turn on the water. And, really, if they had to use the water couldn’t they at least turn it off instead of letting it gush for who-knows-how-long?
Blah. I knew that it was just another one of those boundaries that hadn’t been taught–just like entering a house without knocking, or taking a tour of the house without being invited or getting mail out of other people’s mailboxes hadn’t been taught. It still bothered me. I even asked people to pray about it.
Sometimes when the children came over I let them have a water fight. They LOVED it. When we told them to turn it off they always did. As soon as we went back inside they would turn it on again. We’d go out and tell them to turn it off. They did…and turned it back on. Again. And again.
One of the older boys (13) would play with Zachary mainly when he was bored. When he’s around I always stay outside the whole time. Often his games turned kind of mean…like asking Zachary to play basketball with him, but actually playing keep-away–teasing him by keeping the ball just within his reach, but yanking it away whenever Zachary got close. One night I told him, “Look, you’re a lot bigger than Zachary and you could keep this ball away from him all night. That might be fun for you, but it’s not any fun for him. You need to play in a way that is fun for you both, or then go home and come back when you’re ready to play nicely.”
He said okay. A few minutes later things hadn’t changed at all. I reminded him of what I told him and asked if he wanted to play nice or go home. He said he’d be nice….and he was. That night I learned something important. Everyone….Zachary, all the kids who were around, and I were a lot happier when there were rules and the rules were respected.
I started expecting them to respect our rules. If they started fighting with each other and couldn’t get to a peaceful resolution even with some help, I sent them home. If someone turned on the water after I told them not to or if they turned it on without permission, I sent them home. I always said, something like, “We love to have you come play here, but when you are at our house you need to respect our rules. I asked you not to turn on the water and you turned it on. I’m sorry, but you’ll need to go home. You may come back again when you’re ready to listen.” (Soon when we came home the water wasn’t running anymore!)
One of the little girls would stalk off sulking, but it was Jabari who got angry. Instead of going home, he wondered around the vacant lot across the street from our house and threw and punched the few things he could find. He threw a metal band onto the street. Sometimes he shouted, “I hate you,” when he was corrected.
There is something about little boys like that who find their way deep, deep in my heart. For one thing, they are just as free with their love and their smiles as they are with their anger. (Their anger is coming from a place of pain, and I feel sadness instead of feeling threatened.) They are so honest with their emotions, their actions, and their questions.
And Jabari? Well, he was so winsome. It didn’t hurt him any that he was just plain CuTe and his curled eye-lashes were a mile long and his eyes always sparkled. Though I am Zachary’s Mom to the rest, Jabari called me Ms Christy.
Ms. Christy, can I come into your house again?
Ms Christy, I’m hungry.
Ms Christy, can Zachary come out and play?
–his questions always asked with that mile wide smile and his eyes that dance.
Soon he was most often respectful and sweet. He had boundless energy. I often helped him change course, but now most often he’d grin, say, “Oh,” and change up his play to something better.
Why am I writing in past tense? Well, because one day several weeks ago we were playing with him like usual; the next day he was gone. Just like that. There was no warning. There were no good-byes. The house next door normally houses around six adults, often a few teenaged boys, and anywhere from two to six children. Jabari’s dad is one of the adults who is in and out. Miyani says Jabari went to live with he gramma.
I wonder if he had any warning that he was leaving. I wonder if he wanted to go and if he had a hard time adjusting. Sometimes I wonder if thinks about us, if he remembers little things he learned here, and if he knows how much we love him. I wonder if he’s being taken care of well and if someone is building his character.
Mostly, though, I just can’t stop missing him.