Two tiny breasts peeked out from between dirty fingers. No matter how much she was asked to set her doll down, "Topless Barbie" stayed in her grasp. We were in, no kidding, Pocahontas Pancake and Waffle House in Virginia Beach and the place was packed. It's holiday time, what with March break so there were families and kids everywhere.
I saw her immediately. I love the look of a resolute face - child or adult - determination is attractive. And she was determined. No way she was letting go of her Barbie. Somewhere along the way Barbie had lost her top and her two pink breasts were in stark contrast to hands that had dug sand and had refused washing. Somehow I could understand why she held so tight. The three adults with her, two parents and a grandmother, kept trying to trick the doll away. Kids don't like to be tricked.
Pointing her out to Joe, I heard myself speak, "Kids know when adults are being duplicitous." Bang. She was back in my mind. Nat had moved out of the institution bringing her wild hair and her frightened eyes with her. She had little. Wanted less. "Almost like a feral child," the psychologist had described her to us. Didn't seem to want affection or even contact with those around her. She could sit in a corner of a room and become invisible.
But she never sat alone. She had a doll too. Not a Barbie, not that upscale, maybe Barbie's second cousin from the mountains. The doll had lost most of it's hair but what remained was coiffed like Nat's. A wild tangle. Nat could speak. If swearing and threatening could be called speech. At our first staff meeting one of the female staff looked defeated as she said, "It's like she hates us. Really hates us. And she doesn't even know us."
The supervisor, a very very cool guy, said, "She knows us. She knows staff. For some reason she's lost trust in the system. Trust in us. That's our primary job. Getting it back." At that same staff meeting another staff brought up her doll. The words 'age inappropriate' were used. The supervisor bristled, "She's lived an inappropriate life, let her have whatever she needs. I never want to hear about that doll again. It's hers. Leave it alone."
We knew he wasn't kidding. We knew that he passionately cared about this. We left her alone. She carried that doll everywhere. She was never tricked to leave it behind, she was never, ever, asked to give it up. It was never washed. Never even wiped down. It was left in her care and in her way she cared.
It was a Sunday when I came in. I found all the staff quiet and the house silent. "What's up?" I asked. No one answered. The door to the office was closed but I could hear crying inside the door. Now I was worried. There were two other staff there but they were white and grave. One resident was upstairs but the others hadn't come back from church.
"What's going on?!" I near shouted the question.
"Go ahead, go into the office."
I knocked gently and hearing nothing I entered. The supervisor sat behind his desk. He was crying like a baby. In his hands was Nat's doll. He looked up at me and said, "She came in here before leaving for church, she gave this too me and told me to keep it safe for her. Dave she spoke to me. She gave me the doll. I don't think I've ever been given a gift like this."
I was crying then too, in truth now as well with the memory.
Nat gave over something she loved to someone she trusted.
That is one of the biggest leaps that a human makes on the journey through life.
Trust takes time. Sometimes lots of it.
Trust takes safety. Sometimes lots of it.
Trust passes trials. Sometimes lots of them.
"Are you OK," Joe asked.
Then I was back in Pocahontas Pancake and Waffle House. "Yeah, I'm just remembering something."