Donnie and I were in my mom’s room in the assisted living facility where she now lives, helping to settle her back in after taking her to a dentist appointment earlier in the day.
An elderly woman with a sparkly holiday sweater and glittering gray hair stood in the doorway to my mom’s room, imploring one of the nurses nearby. Her voice wavered. “He’s just so beautiful,” she said, nodding to Donnie. “I just want to hug him.”
The nurse looked back at me. “You’ll have to ask his mom,” she replied coolly.
I smiled at the woman as she shuffled into my mom’s room, her eyes bright as she approached me. “May I please give this little boy a hug?” she asked again. Then, looking at Donnie, she repeated, “May I please give you a hug, sweetheart?”
I froze for a second, unsure of how Donnie would react. While he has the opposite of whatever Stranger Danger is, there have been times where he’s been appropriately hesitant to engage with another person he doesn’t know. We’ve always encouraged him to respect other peoples’ boundaries and have guided him to protect his own when he feels uncomfortable.
Donnie looked up at the woman, and I don’t know how or why, but he knew. He knew this woman was desperate for a hug, even if his nine-year-old mind couldn’t quite grasp why. I could see his eyes soften as he set aside the toy he was playing with and said “of course.”
Finally, she gently placed her arms around him and softly patted his back as he leaned into her. “Oh,” she exhaled, relieved. “Oh, thank you. You are so precious, did you know that?”
Donnie just quietly nodded and looked up at me. I smiled at him reassuringly.
She released him from the hug and happily peppered him with questions, asking him how old he was, what grade he was in, what he wanted for Christmas. She complimented his braces, telling him that he had a beautiful smile, and Donnie beamed in response.
I touched her arm. “Do you have any children or grandchildren of your own? You are so good with him.”
Immediately after the words left my mouth, I regretted asking the question. I could feel my heart plummet as she looked back at me, smiled weakly, and then looked down at the ground.
“I, um…,” she started.
Why did I ask such a question?
She shook her head, as if trying to clear her brain of cobwebs. “This brain of mine, I just…,” she trailed off, touching her fingers to her temples. Then she looked at me earnestly and said, very softly, “I don’t know.”
I swallowed the lump that was rising in my throat. “It’s okay,” I assured her. “I am sure you do have children or grandchildren, and I’m sure Donnie here reminds you of them.”
She smiled, grateful for the hope my words conveyed. “He’s just so beautiful,” she said, nodding at Donnie. “Could I hug him again?”
Donnie jumped in again with a small grin and allowed her to shower him with gentle hugs and a few kisses on the cheek. She thanked him over and over again for allowing her to show him affection as I tried not to burst into tears as I looked on.
As we were walking out to our car, I put my arm around Donnie and said, “Buddy, you know how we talk about how people’s bodies sometimes break down as they get older? And they don’t work like they did before?”
“That lady back there… her brain doesn’t work like it did before. Did you hear me when I asked if she had any children or grandchildren?”
“Yeah. And she couldn’t remember.”
“Yeah. It’s really, really sad. It doesn’t happen to all people, but it happens to some. And it’s really hard for them, because they want to remember but they can’t.”
He was quiet as we walked.
“I’ll bet,” I said as we approached our car, “that she had a little boy, and when she saw you, a part of her heart remembered how much she loved him, even if she couldn’t put the pieces together.”
“Do you think so?” he asked, hesitant.
“I really do,” I said.
We were quiet on the drive home, and I wiped away tears as I thought of the woman’s pain and confusion as she struggled to remember the most important parts of her life.
Later that night, as I checked on Donnie while he slept, my heart welling up with the familiar ache of deep love as I gazed upon him, I felt a wave of strange relief as I thought about what we experienced that afternoon in my mom’s room.
A stranger saw Donnie today and felt the deep love she once felt for another little boy at one point in her life. The same deep love I was feeling at that moment as I looked at him. And that moment Donnie gave her today… it restored a piece of her heart.
No matter what happens to our bodies over time, no matter how differently our brains work or how our abilities are compromised by time, deep love never really leaves us. It might get lost in the tangle of our brain’s neurons and cells as they age, and it might look different than it once did. But what was once there… that never disappears.
Sometimes it doesn’t have to be perfect to still be beautiful.