“To feel compassion is to feel that we are in some
sort and to some extent responsible for the pain that is
being inflicted, that we ought to do something about it.”
My mom and dad brought us up to believe that we had to do something to help. To serve. They raised two doctors and two educators; professions traditionally associated with the culture of giving. The outlier sister, an attorney, spends most of her day on the phone answering calls from friends and relatives who’re caught in some crisis. She knows more people in need than the other four put together.
For me the presence of any kind of pain provides an opportunity. It’s like a challenge. Over many years my family has patiently suffered in silence while they listen to my ideas on how this or that social malady could be fixed. More often than not my thoughts end up stuck at the end of a blind alley. You’d think failure would discourage me, but it doesn’t seem to. Soon after someone that I’m trying to help tries to take advantage of me I’m fearlessly marching on to another case. Every once in a while the stars are well aligned and permanent good is done.
So it is that when he was in grade school my son brought one of his classmates to our house for a sleepover. In the past I have written about how enormous a responsibility we take on when we allow strange children to stay overnight at our homes. These moments make me nervous. But this boy did not trigger that response. He was another opportunity.
“Z” came from an upper middle class background. His parents had recently divorced. His dad was very successful. He lived in the “right” neighborhood; drove a nice car; the few times that I visited his home I saw many signs of wealth. I never met his mom. It did not seem that she was as involved in Z’s life. Z’s dad was gone a lot. There was an au pair woman who cared and cooked for him, but I got the feeling that he was rarely disciplined.
My son has inherited the “always think of others” gene; I think that’s why he felt the need to be friends with Z. Soon I got to see Z a lot. I saw an opportunity to mentor and guide; to provide a “normal” home for this child to feel a part of. There were times when I actually felt good about this arrangement. Z was withdrawn at first; the kind of person I describe as being “off” a bit. Within a few weeks I talked myself into thinking that he was changing and that he liked coming to our place.
It all fell apart on a Saturday night when we sat down at the kitchen table to enjoy a spaghetti dinner. We serve ourselves noodles from the pot; move on to the sauce, which is always chunky with juicy ground beef, and sit down as fast as we can so that we can be the first ones to pour unreasonable amounts of parmesan cheese on our plate. This evening I made a big point of telling everyone that Z had first dibs at the parmesan, followed by my wife and then my son. I’d set the example for being patient and generous: I’d be last in line for the cheese.
In case anyone in the audience does not know this: Kraft makes powdered parmesan cheese. They sell it in a tall green plastic bottle. The top of the bottle has several wide holes in it. They have to be wide because the cheese tends to clump inside. Sometimes you have to vigorously shake the container in order to break up some of the aggregated lumps.
This evening my son, unbeknownst to me, had decided to forgo the shaking. He opened the top of the jar and poured a lot of cheese unto his plate. When he replaced the top he did not do a good job of screwing it back on. He placed the bottle on top of the table.
I finished serving myself a large amount of sauce and turned back to sit at the table. After I sat down I reached for the parmesan. If you’re a fan of this blog you probably know by now that I have my rituals. Certain ways that I like to do things. OK; rigid ways that I MUST do things. One of them is pouring the parmesan. Without even looking to see if the cheese has clumped I firmly clasp the bottle with my right hand. Then I vigorously strike it against my left palm, one, two, three, four times. Exactly four times. As if it were written somewhere in a holy book that this is the way parmesan is poured. Four times, firmly, against the left palm.
This night I never got to number two. As soon as I whacked the bottle the first time the lid came off. And the cheese. All of the bottle’s contents; thankfully I was the fourth person in line, but the bottle had been full to begin the evening.
As fate would have it 99% of the cheese landed on Z’s face. And his hair; his shirt; his upper torso. There were tiny crumbs lodged in his eyebrows. Even his ears were plastered. He looked like a glittery Christmas tree ornament.
My wife, God bless her, has an extraordinary ability to laugh at herself; a trait I do not share. She enjoys it even more when I make a mistake, because she somehow thinks that I will finally succumb to the evidence that proves that I have flaws. She broke out in hysterical laughter.
My son, who unfortunately has inherited his mother’s humor gene, followed suit. Our dog Samson felt that he had died and gone to heaven. After he quickly scooped up the cheese that had fallen on the floor he put his front paws on Z’s chest and began to lick his face.
Z was mortified. He thought that this accident had been planned. A look of panic came over his face; I could tell that tears were soon to follow. I jumped up from my chair and grabbed a few paper napkins, at the same time that I screamed at my wife and son for being so crass. With difficulty I pushed Samson away from Z’s chest and began the process of cleaning him up.
I don’t think that Z ever believed that we did not mean to laugh at him. I saw very little of him after this incident. I don’t know what has become of him, although I have fears that he has become a wealthy businessman that will soon run for office on a racist platform. Scarred for life.
We don’t eat much spaghetti these days. I always make sure that the parmesan bottle lid is on tight before I slap it on my left wrist. I gave up the four slaps habit; I don’t want to tempt fate.
I still foolishly think that I can make a difference.