when purple is more than a color

by bam

we all sat in a circle, two moms, the teacher and 20-some second graders.

we were there, i began, to talk about something very important. and there was no one more important to talk about it, i told them, than the little one sitting next to me, one for whom the depth of the story will likely spill out in bits and gushes for the rest of his life.

“the idea,” he began, “is that since my sister died we’re having a fundraiser for all the kids who are sick. you can walk or run. and there’ll be t-shirts and artists and even a band.”

he said he thought maybe the money we were trying to raise would pay for the artists and the band and the t-shirts.
i asked a few questions, and then, when he was all finished, when at last he let out a sigh, and i asked if there was anything else important to say, he shook his head no, and those big soulful eyes of his started to smile.

he had the attention of every one of us in the circle, and he’d gotten to speak from that tender, proud place tucked in his heart.

then it was my turn: i added that what was really beautiful about the family’s idea, this idea to hold a walk-a-thon named for the sister, kira, who died, was that the money was going to pay for an art therapist–someone who draws or does papier mache with sick kids, i explained–someone who would work with the children with cancer at children’s memorial, the place where kira once had been so very sick, and the place where i once had been a nurse with those same kids with cancer.

an art therapist, i told them, is very important when you are a kid who’s sick in a hospital. and pictures and paint and scissors and glue, sometimes, are better than words when you’re sick and afraid and feeling all kinds of very big feelings.

that’s when i looked over and saw the girl in the purple shirt crying. her mama just died in the autumn. her mama had cancer too.

because the teacher in this circle is one of those masterful ones, she’d known, before the talking even began, to slide herself in right next to the girl.

and as the tears slid down the little girl’s cheeks, as her face turned from pink to practically red, as she held in the sobs, so very bravely, the teacher ever so gracefully–in that way that masterful teachers or mamas or papas or any sort of comforting soul knows how to do–draped her arm right around the little one’s shoulders, and drew her in tight. wordlessly, she was the brace that got the heartbroken child through the tears, back to the unfolding circle.

my reason for being there was simple enough: to find out, from the children, what we might bake for the bake sale; what we might sell at the soccer concession stand.

i knew going in that because the brother was there, the brother of kira, the beautiful girl who two and a half years ago died of a tumor lodged in her brain, i knew it could be tight steering, picking just the right words so as not to stir pain for the one sitting just to my right, the one who was 5 when his big sister died.

so worried i was about him, i’d not zeroed in on the two other girls in the class, both of whom had once lost their mamas. and as soon as i saw the one’s tears, it was all i could do to keep on going.

we went on with our meeting, somehow, without even stumbling, the teacher tenderly handling the hard part, me merely taking ideas for what we might bake.

the hands, and the suggestions, came swiftly: brownies, gingerbread, scones, a pie, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, cinnamon rolls.

i then said we might also sell bracelets. mentioned how purple was kira’s most favorite color. and then i asked her little brother, what color purple she liked best.

he answered, i noticed, in the present tense, in that tangle of tenses that so often occurs after a death when you start to swallow the truth that forever more the tense will be past.

“she likes light purple the best,” he informed us, sitting up straighter, more fully as he warmed to his role as the expert, the brother, the youngest of four.

and that was when a hand shot up, a girl who had to blurt out: “when you were talking about purple i had a brainstorm,” she said. “how ‘bout if we do cupcakes and make them purple?”

and then all at once the circle was spouting purple ideas. purple cookies, someone shouted. purple muffins, someone else thought. purple lemonade.

purple tie-dye t-shirts. purple hats. purple friendship bracelets.

we even changed the name of this fundraising team. we had been crowley’s clan; now we added a definitive clause. i explained how a colon is really a punctuation traffic sign that tells you something really important is coming, so i said, how ‘bout if we are crowley’s clan: the purple squad.

so that’s what we are. and that’s what we’ll do. daydream in purple. brainstorm in purple. come up with as many ideas as we can of ways to broadcast kira purple.

even the girl with the purple shirt, her tears now dried, her face back to palest of pink, she was waving her hand. she had an idea: purple cups.

purple napkins, someone else said.

then we voted on what we would bake. cookies won, 8 to 5 to 4, beating out cupcakes and brownies, though we’ll bake those too. purple muffins apparently weren’t too enticing; they got zero hands in the air.

all the while, as all the purple ideas were filling the air, i felt the boy next to me, kept watch on his eyes. he was sparkling now, the one whose sister was gone.

a whole room of children was working together, weaving ideas, stitching a patchwork of comfort.

i felt it, i swear, as his arms and his back and his shoulders were draped in the soft folds of its blanketing cloth.

by the time the meeting wrapped up, as i stood to gather my notes and walk out the door, i marveled again at the power of children. how they explode with ideas, if you give them an ear, how they comfort and care for each other.

how, if we let them, they teach us volumes and volumes about what it means to be our brother’s keeper.

God bless the children.

God bless them and bless them and bless them.

yet another quick little tale, a page snatched from the journal of daily living. some days it seems the most important moments unfold not as i’m doing my job, or chasing the long list of errands, but simply being alive to the very real stuff, the theology of being alive.

i’ll be back on friday, for good friday, the most somber of days, among the most deeply holy. tonight is the start of passover, the story of exodus told year after year. this year, it unfolds right on top of holy week, so in our jewish-catholic house we are steeped in religion and tradition.

what truths have you learned of late from our teachers, the children?