Secret Angel

When we found out that we would be having a boy, I painted the nursery blue. Ugh! I feel the need to go officially on the record with this because when mommy originally brought to my attention that I had defaulted to something so stereotypically heteronormative, I denied it. Repeatedly.

First, let me start by clearly stating that my favorite color is blue. Always has been. Whether I developed my predilection for blue naturally, or whether I was programed at a very early age by endless hours of televised, gender-specific marketing and propaganda, would be difficult to determine. And at this late hour in life, what difference would it really make to know the answer now? No, some baggage is better left unpacked. And I’m guessing that any sort of latent insight would hardly have the power to change my preference now. I like blue.

And really, what was not to like about blue? It was everywhere I looked. In the glistening on the water. In the brightness of the sky. And in the loving sparkle of my father’s eyes.

No, there was no changing me. But what about our child? How would our decisions effect his inclinations?

When it came time to nest, we decided that the primary nursery would be in mommy and mama’s home. Conveniently, they also had a den that I could set up as my temporary bedroom. We thought it would help for all of us to be under one roof for the first few months postpartum. I immediately had a very clear concept for the space where our baby would be spending so many blissful and babbling hours. My suggestion was to drop the crown molding about six inches and then paint everything above that border – including the ceiling – a very light blue. It would be like sky, I explained to the mommies. Neither a masculine nor feminine notion, I reasoned, but simply a universal, subtle, and poetic echo of the limitless ether that our child would live under for the rest of his earthly days. OK, so probably not so subtle. The rest of the room – which was all the wall space below the crown molding – I wanted to be a neutral gray. You see, I hypothesized that surrounding our son in a decidedly nonspecific hue from his very first day might allow him to discover his favorite color on his own –  sans any gender biased, subliminal encouragement. So, off I went to the hardware store in search of two, positively unpersuasive paint colors: sexless sky and nothingness.

Although my own upbringing was certainly laden with all manner of boyish expectation and obligation, my desire to try and allow our child to discover his preferences on his own was directly connected to an experience that I had somewhat later in life. Sometime in my mid-twenties, long before daring to consider the possibility of fathering a child of my own, I found myself roaming the aisles of Toys”R”Us looking for a birthday present for one of my nephews. Naturally I had failed to contact my brother for suggestions, so there I was wandering aimlessly down row after endless row in the brightly colored, retail warehouse.

At some point, I became conscious of the faint sound of crying. As I continued my perusing, the crying grew louder – not more disturbing or concerning, but rather more like a steady increase in volume as I moved closer to the source. I rounded the corner of the next aisle and there was a sobbing, young boy standing next to what I assumed to be his grandmother. At the far end of the aisle was what looked like the boy’s grandfather; stern-faced and arms crossed.

“But I want that one,” the boy managed to say through tearful convulsions.

I looked up at where he was pointing. High on top of the looming shelf was a row of ride on toy cars – you know, the kind that kids can sit in and drive? There seemed to be a wide variety of models to choose from. There were options ranging from work type vehicles to sleek and sporty racers. It was hard at first to know exactly which car the boy was indicating. His outstretched finger was jittery with emotion.

“Those ones on that side are for girls,” the grandmother said. I remember that her tone seemed firm and resolute, but not excessively harsh or condemning.

Still crying, the boy made a slight move toward the tall shelf and pointed again, “But that’s the one I want.”

I looked up again and this time it was clear. The car he was eying was a little pink roadster. Perhaps it was part of a Barbie collection, but it was up too high for me to know for sure. But, Gurl. When I say pink, I mean – like Angelyne lounging on a cotton candy raft in a pool of Pepto-Bismal. P-I-N-K. Pank!

The grandmother sighed. The old man at the end of the aisle grimaced. And the unhappy boy wiped his snotty nose on the sleeve of his shirt.

Warning, what happened next you may find hard to believe.

Suddenly – like I was transitioning into a dream – for a few precious moments time seemed to slow. The grandmother dropped her head and the stern old man turned away. I moved toward the boy and knelt. Not creepy close, but close enough so only he could hear me. And like a secret angel, I whispered in his ear.

“It may not seem like it, but your grandparents love you very much,” I said. “I know it sounds weird right now, but sometimes even the people who love us the most don’t always understand how brave and amazing we are. And you are very brave. And so very amazing.”

“Really?” he sighed.

“Really, really,” I said.

He gave me a sort of a smile, and I rose and headed off down the aisle. As I passed the old man, I tilted my head in his direction and said, “Don’t worry, it gets better.”

“Let’s hope,” he grumbled.

After a few more fruitless, serpentine strolls through the store, I made my way up to the checkout counter to grab a gift card. There in the line next to me, I noticed the boy’s grandmother counting out a stack of bills for the cashier. Just in front of her, the old man was hefting a pristine, white, ride on VW bug on one shoulder. When he caught my gaze, he gave me a sly wink and a thumbs-up with his free hand. Standing just behind the old man was the boy. When he saw me looking, he proudly displayed – à la Vanna White – a large, clear vinyl pack of rainbow markers. The boy pointed – first to the pink marker and then up to the white car. When he looked back in my direction, his expression conveyed an inspired mix of understanding and determination. I watched with a modest sense of satisfaction as the three of them turned and walked out the door.

And then suddenly – I woke up.

Remember? Just a while back there, I warned you that what happened next might be hard to believe.

The truth is this. That day in the toy store, when I crossed paths with the sad little boy who was tearfully trying to convince his grandparents to buy him that sassy, pink roadster – I said nothing. I simply stood witness to the boy’s painful pleas for a few seconds, turned away, and then slowly made my way out of the store. In the aftermath, I sat for a while in the parking lot of the Toys”R”Us. Slouched in the front seat of my swelteringly hot car. Drenched in despair. Disappointed in my inaction.

In the decades following that incident in the toy store, I imagined numerous heroic scenarios – like the one above – where I was able to swoop in and give a prophetic message of comfort and hope to the distraught boy and his distressed grandparents. In addition, I often fantasized that there would come an opportunity in my life to make up for my failure to intervene that day. A spiritual moment to offer a recompense to the universe for not having had the courage or clarity that day in the aisle of Toys”R”Us to say or do something to ease the anguish.

Now, Back to the baby’s room. With all the weight of that karmic debt weighing heavy on my soul, I stood in the paint aisle at our local Lowe’s flipping through color chips. I was determined to find the perfect neutral hues for the nursery. This was it. This would be my chance to make things right – to tip the cosmic scales back in my favor. I could send a message to my son – starting from day one – that he would be free to discover his kaleidoscopic likes and dislikes all on his own. Without judgement or cajoling.

So you can imagine my dismay when I arrived back at the mommies’ house to be told that I had in fact purchased two different shades of blue. Um, not! I was emphatic. I explained again that the ceiling was supposed to look like sky, so that blue did not count. And then I argued – all through the painting process and well beyond our son’s birth – that the wall color that I had painstakingly selected was gray. Most definitely gray! Categorically. A cool gray. Yes, perhaps. But certainly not blue.

OK. It’s time. I confess. It’s true. From top to bottom, the nursery was blue.

It has been a while now, and I continue to look for secret angel opportunities. Chances for me to swoop in and make a positive impact on something or someone. Finally, and also for the record, our baby just turned six-years-old. And for some time, he has been steadfast regarding his favorite color. Like his Paul, our son’s favorite color is green.

And really, what’s not to like about green? It’s everywhere he looks. In the softness of the grass. In the shadows through the leaves. And in the loving sparkle of his daddy’s eyes.

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