Somewhere in Georgia. The hotel lobby is festooned with Christmas decor and holly, and the place smells like a cross between a cinnamon bun and a bottle of industrial ammonia.
My wife and I are checking out of our room. We are in travel mode. We need to get on the road. Need to keep moving. Need to put miles behind us.
But right now my wife apparently has other plans. Because she is standing at the front desk having an in-depth conversation with the hotel receptionist. They are laughing and carrying on while I stand around waiting like a wart.
In exactly one hour and forty-five minutes the Iron Bowl will be on television, the century’s biggest rivalry football game, and I’m going to miss it because my wife is having a heartfelt conversation with a total stranger, talking about—I am not joking—cute baby clothes.
I wander toward the lobby’s TV which is blaring with gameday sports commentary. I watch and I wait for my bride.
After thirty seconds of watching the football pundits, I realize something: The intelligence of the sports commentators has really gone downhill in recent years.
COMMENTATOR: “…Bob, we know for certain that whoever scores the most touchdowns in today’s matchup will absolutely, without a doubt, become, ultimately, the winner of today’s game…”
I don’t want to be exposed to this.
But because I’m stuck here, I sit on the lobby sofa to watch.
Seated on the couch beside me is a little girl with curly blond hair. She is watching TV, too.
“Hi,” I say. “Is this seat taken?”
She says nothing at first. She only looks at me briefly, then back at the television. Shy.
“Hi,” she chirps.
She is done talking now.
“Did you have a happy Thanksgiving?” I ask because I have the obnoxious gift of gab.
She turns to look at me. I can see a large scar on the side of her head, shaped like a half moon. Her hair does not grow on one side of her scalp. Her face bears another sizable scar.
“It was good,” says the girl of a million words.
This is as far as I get in our conversation. So we watch the talking heads on TV in silence.
THE TV: “…Bob—can I call you Bob?—the most important thing about today’s game, Bob, about any game, really, about any sport in the world, Bob, is that you don’t lose…”
After a few minutes I can tell she’s not thrilled about the football-themed broadcast, so I ask the obvious and most pressing question.
“Do you want me to change the channel?”
She stares at me, then back to the eloquent commentators. She’s weighing her options.
“Sure,” says the girl.
So I start flipping channels.
Bye, bye, football.
The TV zips through a stream of truly godawful daytime television shows.
You have the perky people on home shopping networks, who claim your life will be changed by purchasing a green vase shaped like Mount Rushmore.
You have the twenty-four-hour news channels informing you that the world is about to implode.
And there are the home-decorating channels, where TV hosts act clinically insane with joy whenever someone uses the word “shiplap.”
Finally I land on a cartoon depicting a talking sponge.
“How’s this?” I ask.
“You sure? I can keep scrolling channels if you want.”
“No. Spongebob’s cool.”
“You like Spongebob?”
“You sure talk a lot,” I say.
Shrug number two. No smile.
While the TV plays, I find myself staring at the girl, wondering what she has endured, and where those scars come from. Occasionally she laughs at Spongebob. It’s a private laugh, but it’s an honest one. An open laugh. I wish I could laugh like that.
I’m wondering how a small child can so easily laugh when she has obviously been through so much. Something tells me this child is made of iron—this is just a guess, mind you, but I’d bet the state of Georgia on it.
When the girl’s mother arrives she says, “Are you ready, Raya? We have a long drive today.”
The girl zips up her jacket. She looks at me, and I feel lucky to be the recipient of such a look. Her green eyes are like little pieces of opal.
I wave. “Bye.”
“Thanks for the great conversation,” I say. “I never got a word in edgewise.”
She actually smiles at this. I count this as a major personal victory.
Raya uses a pair of lightweight forearm crutches to muscle herself off the sofa. It’s difficult for her, she almost falls twice, but she does it.
Her mother places a stocking cap over her yellow curls, and mittens on her little hands. In a few moments the happy girl is gone, and I’ve forgotten all about football. I’m too busy thinking about her.
When my wife finishes her ultra-marathon conversation, she finds me slumped on the lobby sofa, openly watching “Spongebob Squarepants.”
“Guess what,” my wife says, “I made a new friend today.”
“Guess what,” I say. “So did I.”
Thames - November 28, 2021 6:26 am
You, Mr. Dietrich, are my hero.
Joy Jacobs - November 28, 2021 12:05 pm
Thanks. We’re also traveling. We’re in Kimball, Tennessee. It’s one of those towns off the highway with lots of motels. Last night we ate at Western Sizzler, which is definitely a memory for us seniors. I love your blog, it’s a great way to start the day… crying or laughing.
Nancy Powers - November 28, 2021 1:03 pm
My heart…you touch it every time…the kind of words that just ‘grab’ you and hold on, leaving you with a moment of reflective blessings…the awareness that you share of just ‘being there’ for someone, with ears that listen, really listen.. The patience to wait for a child to speak, even when the waiting may seem long…even the sweetness to find ‘SpongeBob’…. You may have a gift of ‘gab’, but you have so many more gifts as well. I think it’s that you’re always in the ‘present’…you’re a gift to me this morning…for that I am thankful…travel on❤️
Paul McCutchen - November 28, 2021 1:23 pm
Sometimes it is not the length of the conversation but just the fact that you took to time to have one.
ANITA J PARKER - November 28, 2021 1:25 pm
Your words are awesome!
Clark - November 28, 2021 1:27 pm
Not everyone has the gift of seeing what you see, Sean. I’m happy for you that you choose to use that gift.
On another note, when my wife and I would go to a mall, I always made sure not to park by the door that goes through the baby department. No matter our age or circumstances, that baby Dept. would catch hold of her like a hook in a vaudeville show. 😫
Keep writing Sean, you’re good at it!!
Melanie - November 28, 2021 2:17 pm
I’m with Jamie on this. I will talk to anyone with a pulse. It can be enriching and a lot of fun. Drives my husband crazy but he has learned to endure. I wonder if the little girl is a product of the times: strangers are to be feared and never talked to. She has great taste in TV programs. And please tell me you did not miss the last 30 minutes of the game. It got so bad I had to go outside because I was pounding on the coffee table and scaring the dogs.
Bobby - November 28, 2021 2:24 pm
Sweet encounter. ❤️ The Iron Bowl that you missed was somewhat analogous for us Tide fans. The Tide started out slow and awkward, but finished strong and heartwarming.
Bob E - November 28, 2021 2:31 pm
I sure learned something from that little girl – hope y’all did too.
Stacey Wallace - November 28, 2021 2:44 pm
Thanks, Sean. I needed that.
Liza - November 28, 2021 3:19 pm
You must be the easiest person to talk to! You have great conversations with so many different people! 💜
Steve McCaleb - November 28, 2021 4:52 pm
Your point about the quality of on-air sports announcers is well taken. I used to REALLY be “into” college and pro sports. No more……. Today’s commentators ( as well as many athletes) don’t want to talk about sports anymore, they want to bore me to tears with their OPINIONS on social and political issues. Apparently in all their vast store of knowledge that don’t know that people turn to sports to Get Away from that crap. If I wanted to listen to opinions about those things there are 373 cable channels staffed by people who might (?) give me some facts instead of their celebrity slant on things. This is why their ratings and subscription numbers are sinking faster than the Titanic back in the day. That’s just My opinion. But then….what do I know ?
Linda Moon - November 28, 2021 5:23 pm
My Guy and I love getting on the road. I love laughing and carrying on with your wife. Gifts of gab are fabulous and wonderful unless they become obnoxious; yours are not….obnoxious, that is. So, hopefully soon the road will open up more than it has in the last year or so and we’ll see you, your wife, and other friends we can gab with again!
Cathy M - November 28, 2021 6:26 pm
Something abt. brave , sick children tears me up. It’s just hard to understand. God bless anyone dealing with a sick child. The parents need mountains of prayers❤️🥰
Chasity Davis Ritter - November 28, 2021 7:15 pm
May you and Jamie always make friends where ever you go. In my heart you are my friend too, Sean. I look forward daily to our conversations even if most days I end up crying on your shoulder.
MAM - November 28, 2021 7:55 pm
I’m not even sure how to react to this wonderful story (obviously I just reacted!), other than to say that you, Sean, are a treasure for all of us, all of your readers. Thank you!
Karen Snyder - November 29, 2021 3:48 am
Sandi. - November 29, 2021 10:31 am
Sean, I think little Raya will long remember chatting briefly with you in the hotel lobby. You seem to make new friends wherever you happen to go. How delightful!
Dawnie B - November 30, 2021 3:26 pm
May the good Lord bless Raya richly throughout her life with good friends and good health. And, May He bless you with more, too!
Mary Coley - December 1, 2021 6:43 am
Love this story. I will be thinking of Raya for a while now. Reminds me of my granddaughter when she was young. Pretty sweet.