Breakfast time. A mediocre hotel. The continental buffet features food that is only a few notches above prison-camp food.
A youth soccer team forms a line at the buffet. They are filling paper plates with dry bacon and shoe-rubber eggs. I am standing behind them, waiting for my gruel.
I didn’t sleep well last night because of minor back pain.
Long ago, my mother used to say that each naughty thing I ever did would come back to haunt me in the form of back pain. I never believed her as a child. Now I do.
I find an empty table. I am eating breakfast in peace when an old woman asks if she can sit beside me.
And all of a sudden, I’m eating with a stranger.
We are quiet for a few minutes. What should strangers say over breakfast? Conversations about the weather would be shallow. And I’m not any good at discussing politics.
“I’m having a hard time waking up,” she finally says. This starts the conversational ball rolling.
“When you’re my age,” she goes on, “you don’t sleep good, you’re lucky if you get a few hours. How about you?”
“I had back pain last night.” Then I tell her what my mother used to say about divine back punishment.
She laughs.“You musta been an ornery child.”
“I had moments.”
We are joined by a boy in a soccer uniform who sits beside the woman. She uses sign language to speak to him. He moves his hands in response.
“This is Aaron,” says the woman. “He’s my grandson.”
A girl makes her way toward us. She is older than the boy, tall, lean, with blonde braids. She carries a full plate. I count four biscuits.
If I ate four biscuits, I’d nap like a bear that’s just been shot with a tranquilizer dart.
“This is his sister, Emily,” says the old woman.
Emily shakes my hand.
Pretty soon, I cease to exist. The three-person family is speaking with their hands. And it looks like they’re having an argument, too. The old woman moves her hands in an animated manner that makes my shoulders sore just watching.
“Do as I say!” she finally shouts to the boy.
Her face is stern, and I know that look. I don’t speak American Sign Language, but I am fluent in Parental Body Language. She’s scolding him.
The boy leaves the table. He hangs his head. His sister follows.
“Everything okay?” I ask the woman.
“I don’t know what we’re gonna do with him,” she says. “We joined this soccer team so he could make friends, but he keeps hanging on to me, and depending on his sister to translate everything, that’s never gonna help. She can’t be with him forever. He’s gotta put himself out there, and quit being afraid.”
Granny is actually their mother, even though she is elderly. She’s raising the boy and his sister because their mother is out of the picture.
Doctors discovered Aaron’s hearing disability a few months after his birth. Since then, Granny has moved heaven and earth to make his life successful. And so has his sister.
The boy and girl sit at a table in the corner. The other soccer players become quiet when the boy is near.
None of his teammates seem to know how to act around him. A few get up to leave. In a few minutes, the table is empty, and it is only the boy and his sister
But his sister keeps him good company. She knows how to make him laugh, and she does this a lot—while simultaneously eating four biscuits. Anyone could see that these two are a tight unit.
The woman beside me is watching them, but saying nothing. She only wears the face all mothers, grandmothers, and guardians wear. Concern.
“I just don’t know,” she goes on. “He’s so smart, but I worry, it’s not gonna be easy when he goes out there in the real world. I worry.”
She says nothing more during our breakfast. And I am suddenly wondering who worries for Granny.
We bid goodbye to each other. The elderly woman disappears. Then, I make my way to the elevators. I press the button and wait.
I hear footsteps. It’s the boy and his sister. They are waiting for the elevator beside me.
The girl hugs her brother, she kisses his cheek. She wraps her arms around his shoulders and kisses his hair.
“I love you, Aaron,” his sister says aloud, signing her words.
The boy makes a hand gesture.
“Nope,” she says. “Doesn’t count, you have to say it like we practiced.”
“I love you, too!” the boy says in a loud, awkward voice. “You know I love you, Emily!”
I don’t know much about much, and I know even less about children. But something tells me Granny doesn’t have a thing to worry about.
Just watch out for back pain, kid.