I’ve known Kaitlyn for over half of her life. She’ll turn seven later this summer and I met her when she was three. She’s the granddaughter of one of my co-workers. She’s the one he affectionately calls, “George.” (I don’t know why, so don’t ask.) And she’s the niece of another of my co-workers, Nicole.
When I had only recently met three-year-old Kaitlyn, her Aunt Nicole and I took her to eat at the Dairy Freeze in town. The prim little princess sat there, eating her chicken nuggets, talking to us like she was a tiny adult. (You would have to hear her vocabulary to believe it!) And when we were finished and I asked her how her meal was, she tipped her china-doll face up at me and responded, “Miss Sarah, it was so delicious!”
Special. Precious. Precocious. Mature. Delicate. Tiny. There’s just something about her that makes me want to hold her, protect her, and give her the world.
Fast forward to the present.
Soon after I started preparing for camp this year, I instant-messaged her Aunt Nicole at work one day and said, “Guess who’s old enough to come to camp this year?”
“No way! She’s only six!”
“But she’s finished first grade. That’s old enough.”
And so last Thursday night, as I was clumsily holding the puppet strings known as Alpha Camp registration, pointing the boys one way, the girls the other way, and reminding parents that they must check in with the nurse before they leave, I felt a wee pair of arms around my hips. I turned and looked down, and it was Kaitlyn. She was beaming from ear to ear. I set down my puppet strings and squatted to be eye-to-eye with her.
“I’m rooming with Bella and Alivia!” Her eyes sparkled and she slid her arms around my neck to hug me again before returning to the line with her mother.
Kaitlyn’s six and she’s never been away from her family before, so since Thursday, I’ve made a special point of keeping an eye on her. And every time, she’s been just fine. She smiles in her quiet way and hugs me.
Until Friday night.
When I came into the canteen after the service on Friday night, the noise was overwhelming. Over the sizzling hot dogs on the grill and French fries hitting the oil, children were laughing, screaming, and shouting to hear their own conversations over the din. I stepped over to the table where my boss was sitting and had a shouted conversation with him. And in the noise, I missed the tiny, tearful voice talking to the counselor next to me. Until the counselor said my name.
“Miss Sarah, Kaitlyn has lost her nametag. Can you make her a new one?”
I looked down into the sad little face and it almost broke me.
“I’m sorry. I don’t have extras. I still have three groups of campers coming. I have to have enough for them, too.”
Kaitlyn nodded sadly, playing with one of her pigtails and at that moment, her lost nametag seemed like the biggest tragedy in the world. I had to do something. I had the power to fix her sadness. I had to do something!
In a moment of brilliance, I pulled my own nametag off.
“Kaitlyn, would you like to be Miss Sarah for the rest of the week?”
Her face lit up like the sky on Fourth of July and she nodded.
I put the lanyard around her neck just before she threw her arms around me in as big of a hug as her teeny little arms could handle. She ran back to her group and showed them all her new treasure.
Yesterday morning, when I got to the post-breakfast staff meeting, her counselor told me that Kaitlyn’s making all of her bunkmates call her “Miss Sarah.” And while at the time, it made me smile, the whole thing has made me think.
First of all, I’m amazed that in a time when I don’t want to be me, this child does. She sees something in me that makes her want to be like me. Maybe I should sit down and talk to her and find out just what it is that she’s seeing in me, because most days, I really don’t see it. Most days, I’m struggling to bend underneath the pressure of my life without breaking. Most days, I’m hiding behind a plastic smile, trying not to let people see that really, I’d rather be curled up in a corner crying. I see the weak me underneath the façade that the world knows as strong me. And I hate myself both for the weakness and the façade.
But second of all, this has shown me how healing the smile of a child and the love of a child can be. I made her happy and eased her pain. What I did for her was about her and not about me. And it was the happiest, freest moments of my week. It makes me always want to be the me that Kaitlyn sees.