Leila* is a new girl in my daughter's class, a toddler with an apple-shaped face, chestnut brown hair and full-moon eyes. Her cheeks are usually tear-stained, eyes rimmed with red. She stares at me hopefully when I come to pick up Tegan, looks at me like she wants me to take her home, too. I smile and wave as her eyes follow me across the room, start to well up with tears.
"Leila cry?" Tegan asks as we put on her coat.
"Yeah, honey, but she'll be OK."
"Leila uh-set. Need hug."
This is a common trend with anyone she thinks is in distress: teary-eyed classmates, book characters, anyone she hears cough. She hugs and kisses pictures in board books, asks strangers if they're OK.
The other day, after leaving school and buckling us into my salt-covered car, I turned the key expecting a blast of air, familiar car sounds, but nothing happened. There was no rev of the engine, no sound except for the quick flicker of lights on the dashboard. Battery. Oil. Check engine soon. Seatbelt not on. Crap.
I sat there in my pink puffy coat and Micah's borrowed hat, black rubber boots absorbing the cold. Tegan sat contently in the back, bundled and waiting. I thought of the unactivated AAA card still on the kitchen table, how Micah (my husband) worked 40 minutes away. I wondered if I could still get a rental car, what Tegan would have for dinner.
I made calls, unbuckled and scooped up Tegan, then speed-walked back to her classroom. I couldn't think of a better place to be in that moment: somewhere warm and safe with all of her friends, tons of toys, unlimited milk, snacks and diapers.
Once inside we de-layered, said repeated hellos to happy friends. They surrounded us as we sat down to play, pulled every puzzle off a nearby shelf. I braced myself for Tegan to yell "No!", push them away, but instead she calmly sat in my lap, shared and put together puzzles.
I looked up to see Leila staring at us, looking distressed. Her mouth was a quivering O, eyes were filling.
"Leila, come play with us!" I said. Her tears began to fall. "Come play!" I said again. "Come sit next to Tegan."
Her face slowly relaxed, tears stopped, mouth curved to smile. She walked over and leaned against my shoulder, then started to suck her thumb and twirl my hair. Tegan didn't bat a lash, just looked up at me with a knowing smile.
"Leila, sit here," she said, patting my leg. She scooted herself to my left knee, then patted my right. "Sit here, Leila!"
I was in disbelief. Just a few weeks ago she had shoved her cousin (whom she adores) after she'd tried to read a book in my lap. She will melt down if I hold or talk to another child. She'll even push away Micah when he tries to hug me.
Leila shyly sat down. Tegan leaned her head against Leila, offered her favorite strawberry puzzle piece. I watched them play together, felt emotional as Tegan gave reassuring smiles, helped her put together puzzles.
Tegan didn't react when Leila grew tired of playing, stood up to twirl my hair and touch my face. She still didn't react when Leila wanted me to hold her, when I hugged Leila goodbye, when I knelt down to tell Leila I'd had so much fun playing. She looked on longingly as Leila cried when we left.
I talked to her about it that night while helping her into her PJs.
"Tegan, do you like Leila?"
"Yeah," she said. Her voice was soft. "Leila OK?"
"Yeah, sweetie, she's OK. Does Leila cry a lot?"
"Yeah." She frowned and looked down.
I'd never seen her show such empathy and concern for another child. This was more than a hug or kiss for imaginary book friends. This was something more. Even her best friend couldn't talk to me without slight panic from Tegan. We went downstairs to be with Micah.
"Tegan," I said, "do you want to have a brother or sister?"
"That means there'd be a baby in mama's belly, and then the baby would be a part of our family," Micah said.
"I see?" she walked over and lifted up my shirt.
And there it was: she wanted someone to take care of, to play with, to encourage. I had been noticing it lately with her dolls and stuffed toys, the role-playing, the goodnight kisses, covering them in blankets, feeding them, rocking them to sleep. But it was more than that; she was ready to share me with someone else who needed me too.
Here's hoping, sweet girl.
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