hole in my heart

soon, but not too soon, i will take down the welcome sign. i will tuck away all the index cards, our bridge back at the beginning, the guideposts that brought us together, each one a noun in english and german.

soon, but not too soon, i will figure out what to do with the big box of froot loops that now sits in the pantry. and the doritos beside it. the little boy who discovered both of those adventures in american eating, he is gone now.

i just took him to the train. i just cried a stream of tears that would not stop. i just walked back in to the emptiest house. a house that echoes with too much quiet now.

i can’t hear the scritch-scratch of his pencil, as he sat at the table each morning, writing his book, illustrating it. i can’t see the way his cheeks turn to pink when he laughs at me and my clumsy pronunciations. i can’t see his deep blue eyes, eyes like the sky on an april morning. i can’t see his smile, the wordless language that pulled us together. paper cards irrelevant, after all.

it had only been 10 days. but i found out, once again, you can fall in love in an instant.

especially when it’s a child who is in your care, tucked under your wing. especially when you discover, uncannily, the child is very much like you when you were a child.

my little friend from munster in germany carries with him wherever he goes stapled and folded pieces of plain white paper, his “books,” each one exquisitely hand-printed, and illustrated, the first letter of each chapter a postage-stamp-sized work of pencil-drawn art.

he has 20 books in all, so far, at home on his bedroom shelf, and it’s his daily practice to unfold his blue canvas pencil case and put no. 2 lead — in black or in colors — to paper.

“my dream,” he told me in his beautiful little-boy english, “is to be a writer.”

and so, every morning, for the past nine mornings, he and i would sit in bliss-soaked silence at the kitchen table, both of us writing for however many minutes the morning allowed. we carved out sacred time for a dream that both of us share, even though decades and miles and culture and gender might have made us, by ordinary measure, so far apart.

last night, when we took our sweet friend to the pancake house at the top of his must-do list, we asked him what he loved most about his visit to chicago. “your family,” he said, the words tumbling right out, without even a flash of a pause. “and the willis tower,” he said, second. “and the pancake house,” he said, wrapping up the short list.

he is too young, too pure, to have slanted those answers for the sake of diplomacy. i knew when he said it that the words sprang from his heart. and that’s why tears sprang in my eyes. because those words were a peek into his heart, into a heart that is rare, a heart that i came to treasure.

in 10 short days.

it started out, this adventure in trans-atlantic connection, as simply a chance to welcome a kid from far away. we had no clue who might come to our house. all we knew was that he would be german, and that we had an empty bed and a bathroom just for him.

and, now, the adventure behind us, we’ve all discovered, all over again, the miracle of falling in love. we’ve all remembered that love is something that happens without expectation. it’s pure surprise. it’s physical. it’s falling, like body through air. it’s not being able to stop. not planning the fall, not mapping the trajectory.

you just feel your heart opening wide, and kaboom, there you are, with all sorts of sparks and electrical currents surging through that place in your chest — if that’s where it dwells, really. if that’s where the love is tucked away, lined on the shelves, perhaps, wrapped inside itty-bitty boxes, each with a sumptuous bow, each ready to spring open, once the magic is airborne, is launched, once it does its unlocking, and the undiluted love escapes, twirls and whirls all through you, making your head spin, making you melt deep inside.

it’s not common, not something that happens, say, just because you like to laugh with the fellow ringing up your groceries. or because the lady down the block is pleasant when she walks by with her dog on a leash, when she looks up and waves.

love, it seems, is more demanding than that. it requires a plunge, diving deep beneath the surface. it requires exposure, peeling back the tough outer skin, revealing the place deep inside where the pulsing comes, where the dreams flow. where we say who we are, where we listen, where we discover a charm or a trinket, miracle or marvel, that schwoops us — both of our hearts — into a vacuum-sealed lock. one where age or country of origin dissolve into bits, don’t matter. we are merely two living, breathing, dreaming souls who discover that we understand each other in ways we never would have imagined.

and so it was, so it is, with my little friend and i.

and i’d never expected it.

and now, now that there’s no one to gobble the froot loops by the bowlful, now that my little one (the one still asleep in the bed at the top of the stairs) is left to plow through the snack-sized bags of doritos all by himself, i find i’m in need of a needle and thread here.

there is a hole in my heart this morning, one that already misses my sweet little friend at the kitchen table. misses the way he politely announced each night,  at minutes to nine, “i am tired, may i go to bed now?”  and awoke with a smile, and tousled blond hair, then climbed down the stairs awaiting his bowl and his spoon and his froot loops.

i’ve no one to sit with at the kitchen table. no one to write alongside. but now, in that hole in my heart, i’ve a treasure to tuck deep inside: i know there’s a beautiful boy, with writerly dreams, and pencils and papers. and wherever we go, whatever the day, no matter the thousands of miles away, he and i discovered together one of life’s unshakable secrets.

love doesn’t tell you it’s coming, doesn’t announce its destination. it merely up and entwines you, and forever thereafter, it is the thread that keeps you so deeply, unstoppably stitched at the hearts.

so that’s my fumbled attempt at mapping out love and the way it grabs us. how would you describe the fine art of falling in love, and when in your life has it happened?

the picture above is my little friend’s breakfast place, as it awaited him this morning, with a love note penned and perched in his bowl. “thank you for your words,” he said, after reading the love note, before pouring two last mounds of american froot loops.