When Saturday rolled around, I was ready. When we met Marcus, I brought board games. But I had been told that this child was developmentally like a 3 or 4 year old. I googled and asked friends of kids that age, “what should I bring to meet a 7 year old who is mentally 3 years old?”
I decided on snacks like goldfish and cookies, coloring books, and bought a few age appropriate toys like Magnatiles.
When we walked into the building, the staff recognized us. It hadn’t been very long since we were there for Marcus. Security buzzed us back into the area where the children are. There, I saw Alex – one of the young male staffers at the Shelter. We told him who we were there to see.
He turned and looked towards a meek, anxious looking boy in a grey t-shirt and jeans that looked about three sizes too big. He looked gaunt, pale, and terrified. His shoulders were tense and raised up to his ears and his body was turned slightly away from us – as if he was ready to run. Instead, he froze in that position, his eyes traveled up and down, taking us in.
Alex introduced us and told him that we were here to play with him. He and the other staffers then herded the other children into another room to watch a movie and, in moments, the three of us were alone in the large living room area of children’s shelter.
I kneeled down to get on his level and introduced myself again by name. “We came to play with you! Do you want to play with us?”
He jerked his head ‘no’.
“How about a snack?” I sat on the floor and reached in my bag for the goldfish.
“No!” This time he spoke.
He backed away from us towards the leather love seat. When he reached it, he scurried towards the arm rest and stuffed himself towards the corner of the small sofa, curling his knees up towards his legs.
“Is it okay if we sit with you?”
“No.” He shook his head again from behind his knees.
“Where should we sit?” I asked.
He pointed to the sofa on the other side of the room. My husband and I walked across the room and sat down. The whole time, I could feel his little eyes burning into us.
Once we were settled, I thought back to how Dr. Perry approached the title patient in The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog. I moved slowly, putting down the bag and taking off my jacket; announcing every move I would make before I made it. My husband followed my lead.
We sat in silence with him studying us. I thought back to Dr. Perry. (I swear this is not #sponcon for his books, but obviously I’m obsessed with the guy.)
“Let’s play a game!” I told my husband. “I’ll ask you a question, then you can ask me a question.” I glanced sideways at the boy curled up in the corner. “Want to play?”
He stared at us, unblinking.
I looked back at my husband. “What is your favorite color?”
It was my husband’s turn. “What’s your favorite food?” he asked.
We went on like this for a few minutes – only occasionally turning to the boy in the corner. Sometimes, I would ask him about his favorite animal, or game, or whatever. In response, he only shook his head.
Then, I asked my husband about his favorite bug.
“I like bees,” he said.
I feigned horror. Bees are so scary!
The boy laughed. Something about my disgusted facial expression briefly penetrated his defenses. We both turned to him.
“I’m not scared.” He said.
I told him my favorite bug was a ladybug. He furrowed his eyebrows so I asked if he’d ever seen a ladybug. He shook his head.
“I can show you a picture?” I suggested, pulling out my phone. When I had a picture of a lady bug up on my screen, I held it up. He stared at me.
I spoke slowly. “I’m going to come closer so that you can see it.”
He didn’t take his eyes off of me as I slid off the sofa and onto the floor. I probably looked ridiculous as I slowly crawled across the floor. When I got within 2 feet of the sofa he leaned backward so I stopped. I slowly held up my arm with the photo of the ladybug.
He didn’t move from where his body was squished, protectively in the corner of the loveseat, but he craned his neck forward to look.
“Pretty cute, huh?”
He didn’t exactly smile. But his face sort of softened. I turned back to my husband where he was sitting across the room. “Your favorite bug isn’t really a bee is it?”
“I also like dragonflies.” He conceded.
“Want to see a dragon fly?” Again, the boy didn’t respond but he craned his head to look when I showed him the picture. He smiled.
I asked him if he wanted to color. He shook his head no.
“I want to color.” I proclaimed. I instructed my husband to pull out a coloring book and crayons from our bag and he slid them over to me as if we were exchanging payment in a hostage negotiation.
I opened the coloring book. On the page was a picture of a cheeseburger and french fries with an angry looking bee sitting on top of the burger holding a knife and fork. It was a weird coloring book.
I started coloring. Then invited my husband to join and he crawled across the floor. He crept slowly out of his spot to peek over the edge of the love seat to watch us.
I decided to make the top of one of the french fries black. I picked up the black crayon. This got the boy’s attention.
“Why did you do that?” He asked.
“Because it’s burnt!” I explained.
“Ewwwwww!” He giggled.
He started giving us instructions on what to color next. He asked me to color the bun black and then red and crudely explained that the bee was angry because he burned his tongue on the burnt burger and hot sauce.
“I like the decorations!” I said, pointing to the Christmas lights hanging all over the shelter.
“It’s Jesus’s birthday,” he said.
“That’s right!” I answered, “Christmas is Jesus’s birthday!”
“Jesus grew in Mary’s tummy and became God.” Clearly, his grandmother must have been very Christian, I thought.
Ultimately, he colored with us, then asked to go outside. His speech and vocabulary was rudimentary and choppy. He spoke like a much younger child.
Outside, he showed us that he could ride a scooter. He also played basketball with – attempting shot after shot on the “kid” sized basketball hoop. He was determined and focused. It was pretty adorable. But he was weak from his recent illness. He started coughing and gasping for air. Staffer Alex came out with his nebulizer – complete with dinosaur face mask.
After about an hour, we said goodbye and told him we would come back and maybe bring some pizza – which we were told was his favorite food.
His shoulders tensed back up to his shoulders.
“Because we like spending time with you!” we said. It gave me hope for his future cognitive development that he eyed us suspiciously. I supposed he was right to be suspicious. Other volunteers probably didn’t bring special dinner for him.
Elizabeth, one of the other staffers grabbed us on our way out. “He’s really a wonderful kid,” she said. “We just love his laugh.”
There was something in her eyes that made me grateful and sad at the same time. I would best describe it as concern – perhaps that our meeting with the boy didn’t go well. I sensed that maybe she worried we didn’t feel a connection and weren’t going to pursue the placement. I tried to reassure her that it was true. We were coming back.