What struck me first was that he had the head and hair of an adult on the body of a boy.
This is fairly common in boys – young men? – of a certain age. He bore other marks of adolescence as well, nervousness being the most apparent among them.
We were boarding the plane late, and he had gotten on with dozens of Italian kids and chaperons who appeared uninterested in either sitting in assigned seats or settling in and thus allowing the plane to depart.
His peers had all scrambled for seats near each other and he was stuck next to me. He seemed relieved when I spoke to him in Italian (and surprised that the Aer Lingus attendants on a flight leaving Rome didn’t speak a lick of it).
About halfway through the voyage he unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket. I couldn’t resist. I peeked.
It contained tips, in English, for living with a British host family. So that’s where all those kids were going. I had to wonder what good that tip sheet would do for the majority of them who couldn’t understand the flight attendants.
He sat with the sheet in his hands for at least an hour. How much he could understand I don’t know, but if I ventured to read him I’d guess he was nervous, quietly on edge, and braver than he realized.
A few days later (or the next day? With time changes and 24+ hours of travel – thanks to the delayed flight out of Rome – the days run together) we celebrated our return by relaxing on the beach. Sitting near the water as the tide went out I gazed mindlessly out to the horizon.
A thin, dark-haired boy galloped into my view and ran up to the man sitting in front of us. As he turned sideways to talk energetically to his father I could see his buckteeth in all their glory. His voice was high with the tiniest lisp (thanks to the buckteeth) and he couldn’t wait to tell his father everything that had happened while he was in the water.
His older – or at least taller – sister approached and they grabbed their father’s hands and dragged him out of his chair toward the water. He obliged and they clung to him, happy to be back in his orbit.
Having lived nearly two decades on the other side of adolescence, this unbridled affection and eagerness moved me, because I know it is precious and fleeting.
There are times that I feel so much I think I might explode. I could share countless anecdotes of my feeling for another person making me want to literally run away. When I was a child and watched TV with my parents I would leave the room if I knew someone on a show was about to be embarrassed. Feeling cuts so deep in me that it rattles me.
But what choice do I have? It’s what I’m wired for (“what separates us from the beasts”, as my mother says). So I resist the urge to run away and instead I lean into it.
When my heart is moved I try to go with it, even if it means being overly effusive or gushingly grateful or crying behind my sunglasses on a summer afternoon. It’s better than the alternative.
I have learned that in my own trials my gift of feeling may be my only consolation. Even when I am grief-stricken or in agony, the exquisite liveliness of emotion, flapping shimmering wings and endlessly singing, bears me up.
Here is the crucible in which art and beauty are formed. Here is the intersection of one life with another. Here is what separates us from the beasts.