I stepped out of the hospital into a beautiful, spring day. It was one of those perfect days—that one day right before spring and summer collide. The birds were singing their best songs at fever pitch, flowers in full bloom with the bluest of sky for background, the color bursting forth onto a palette of lifeless, grey winter. The sun rested high and bright amidst cotton-candy clouds and a determined, but now weakening, winter wind still blowing. This is the season in which one notices things as if for the first time. The season of birth and life and new beginnings.
I found myself sitting on a park bench beneath a red maple, its leaves rustling a tune which I seemed to vaguely recall but could not place. I had not noticed this park before, nor did I realize the vastness of it. It was a park for children. One giant playground. Children were everywhere. The little ones ran to and fro, playing…swinging, scrambling across monkey bars, “Weeing!” down slides big and small, scampering up the ropes and down the poles, playing tag. Their laughter carried across the breezy air, a hypnotic and nostalgic symphony. It was clearly a place built for the children by someone who loved the little souls very much.
As I watched them play, they appeared so happy. And why should they not be? What I’d give to be able to go back and replay my life as one of those little creatures. Hard to believe, now, that I ever was one myself. So full of imagination and creativity, faith and belief, hope, trust, forgiveness, purity, and not a worry in the world. Life nothing but friends and play and ice cream and cake. Each day running into the next as one grand adventure inseparable from the previous. Stuck in the perpetual motion that is the innocence of childhood. Until we tell them that they “must grow up,” killing within them all that we truly cherish and miss in ourselves. Why must they grow up? Why must we?
We pretend to be the wise ones but look at them! Black, white, yellow…no matter the pigment of the skin…running together hand in hand, laughing, playing. Always together. Always happy and, when there is unhappiness, its origins are not of their world but of the big ones’. How often are we happy? How often have I been happy these past few years, battling my own particular hell of illness and mostly alone? Hell! If there is one, maybe we grown-ups deserve it but never the little ones, no. Perhaps children are too good for heaven itself. When I die, heaven or hell or nothing. But, for them, I will believe that heaven is just one big, beautiful spring day at the playground with friends. The children play on forever.
As I sat there, thinking to myself, I was startled out of my own mind and back to the world, noticing that several of the children now stood before me.
“Well, hi there,” I said.
They just stood there smiling at me. Two little boys and one little girl.
“Beautiful day to spend playing with your little friends.”
Slightly puzzled, I looked around and it struck me—there was neither parent nor chaperone present.
I inquired, “Why, where are your parents?”
Before this question had fully rolled itself off my tongue, a moment of bafflement then that sense of déjà vu—it seemed as though I had been here before and, now looking more closely at the children, particularly the little boy to my right with his shiny black hair and hazel eyes, standing, rather anachronistically, in his patched blue jeans and white t-shirt soiled from what could have been a lifetime of play…but no, it couldn’t be.
“Little fellow, you remind me of a friend that I had when I was about your age. His name was Heath. What is your name?”
Heath. I had not thought about him for so long nor spoken his name in years.
For logical reasons, it could not have been Heath. Heath had died long ago. A car crash back in 1959, I recalled suddenly, returning from summer vacation with his family.
Lost for a moment in thought, I was unsure as to whether or not the little boy had responded. I looked at him again and, in that moment, noticed that all the sea of children on the playground had turned toward me, gazing at me with the same silent, smiling faces. The eerie silence was broken only when the little boy who had reminded me of my childhood friend walked directly up to me, took my hand into his and said, “Don’t be silly Mikey! You can come play with us now.”
I stood and, as I did, though I should have towered over them all, I was eye to eye with the boy who reminded me so of Heath. And then we played.