My eight-year-old, Austin, has always held his feelings close. When his father died last January, I worried about how he would fare in the world without the man who understood him best. His older sister talked openly with me about her emotions and his younger brother cried any time I left his sight. But Austin’s grief was quiet. I only knew he was sad whenever I found him curled up in our recliner looking at family photos.
I was worried about my son, but I was also consumed by my own grief, and that meant that I could not organize all of the play dates and other activities my children previously attended. It was during this time that Austin took to hanging out regularly with one of his favorite friends, Grant, who lives across the alley from us in DC.
Many afternoons last spring, Austin would wait patiently in the alley for Grant to arrive home with his parents, Mark and Chris. They played baseball and tag and hung out with Grant’s new puppy. As the spring wore on, I sometimes found myself wondering where Austin was, and would realize that I’d received a text from one of Grant’s dads that Austin was with them.
One day, they fed Austin dinner. “It was so good, Mom!” he reported later that night. “They had chicken and bread and vegetables and everything!”
At first, it worried me a bit. I was barely getting any food on the table and I certainly wasn’t serving such balanced meals where everyone ate at the same time. I was merely keeping my three kids alive. Over at Grant’s house, they told stories at dinnertime and listened patiently to Austin. Sometimes, they took a walk together afterwards.
Soon, Austin seemed to be over at their house more than our own. I felt grateful for the help, and a bit guilty as well. Mark and Chris assured me that they loved his company. And so, almost every day, Austin was at Grant’s until bedtime.
When summer arrived, Grant went to overnight camp for a few weeks. The first night of camp, Austin wanted to go over to his house. I told him that Grant was gone. “Well, I’ll just go see Mark and Chris then!” he replied.
I let him go, and after about 45 minutes, I went over to check on him. There he was, playing video games while Mark and Chris read books. “I’m so sorry Austin is ruining your alone time!” I said.
“Are you kidding?” Mark said, “we love having Austin here! He’s always welcome.” Austin ended up staying for a while and walking the dog with them that evening. He came home as happy as he’d ever been.
“Thank you so much,” I said, when they dropped him off.
“It is our pleasure,” Chris said to me. I was shocked to realize that I think he actually meant it.
Later that week, I took my kids to get ice cream. Austin said he had to do one thing before we left, and I watched him run up and knock on Grant’s door. He spoke briefly to Chris and then came back. “They can’t come to get ice cream right now,” Austin told me.
I hadn’t planned on inviting Chris or Mark to have ice cream with our family, but Austin couldn’t imagine going to get a special treat without first asking his new favorite people. “Grant is coming back soon and I can’t wait to hang out with him at his house!” he told me as we walked away from their house that day. I knew he was excited to see his friend.
“What’s so fun about Grant’s house?” I asked him.
“Well, Grant has a basketball hoop in his room and I really like their dog,” he said. Then Austin looked at me with big eyes. “Oh! They also have this giant cushion on the ground in the living room where we like to lie down and hang out. It’s really comfortable.”
I laughed at what he described. It sounded like every other house I knew.
A week later, when Grant returned, Austin ran over immediately. A few minutes later, I got a text. It was a photo of Austin and Grant, slumped together on the floor cushion. He looked right at home.