As you grow older, some moments become etched in time and in your memory. Long after the event is gone, traces remain. Some of the events carved there shout to be remembered; such was their force at the time they were lived. Others whisper. But in whispering they sometimes leave the deepest etchings.
One such event for me involved a small boy. He was perhaps the ugliest child I had seen up until then. He was tied into a chair with a wide band of white bed sheet. His head lolled from side to side, and he drooled onto a bib tied around his neck. His face contorted into grimaces and his thin, matchstick arms flailed the air without control. I stood in the doorway, and, in spite of myself, I stared.
He was alone in the room, tied in that chair with a large white tray in front of him. On the tray was a jumble of children’s building blocks. The little boy was building something with those blocks. The structure took shape slowly as he carefully focused his rolling eyes on the block he needed; and then, with a concentration that made his entire body rigid with effort, he controlled his flinging arms and hands to reach for the block.
He’d aim for the block, reach, and overshoot. Aim again and again and finally, with a lunge, capture the block and grasp it in jerking, clawlike fingers. Then the block was lifted with intense concentration, finally wavering spasmodically into place. The entire structure tottered dangerously as the new block landed.
I found myself watching in fascination as the structure grew, my own body becoming rigid as he reached for each block, grasped it, lifted it slowly and carefully, and dropped it into place. I was beginning to turn blue when I realized that I was holding my breath with each block as the structure tottered and threatened to fall over.
The structure grew slowly and with such great, great difficulty that I found myself sweating the effort of watching. Yet I knew, somehow, that I couldn’t and shouldn’t try to help. It grew and grew into walls and parapets and minarets until at last the capstone was ready to set into place.
The final triangular block that would top the west tower was moving into place when the arm that moved it gave a sudden, convulsive jerk, and the hand that held the block struck the lower wall of the great structure. It came down with a clatter and a crash as the blocks tumbled across the tray and spilled off onto the floor.
The boy watched it go, his rolling eyes filled with a look that I have seen many times since but have never quite become accustomed to. He sat as the clatter trailed away into silence. Then he heaved a great sigh, pushed the debris aside and slowly, ever so slowly and ever so carefully, picked up the first block and set it into place again.
There were tears running down my face as I stepped into the room and, without a word, gathered the scattered blocks from the floor and piled them at the edge of the tray. Then I stood back and watched for a while longer the infinite care and patience as the second structure began to take shape.
I stood and watched for a long time, forgetting the demands for my time in another part of the building. No one else came along while I was there, and it probably was good because I’d have been embarrassed to have been found there like that with my face wet from tears. One just glancing in might not have seen what I had seen and might not have understood.
For, you see, I was silent witness to a miracle—a small miracle, but a miracle nevertheless. I had seen something of incredible ugliness turn before my eyes into something of tremendous courage and unspeakable beauty.
It etched itself, that afternoon so long ago, forever in my mind.