Getting Close To the Kids

Hank Mattimore
Reproduced with Permission

Some days I find myself loving the kids so much it's scary. It's the kind of love that moms and dads know with their own children, the kind that hurts and also makes you want to sing. I have moments like that with our Village children, with 10 year old Jennie, spirited, stubborn and sweet all in one, 9 year old Danny, who threw theologians a zinger with his "Does God have a cat?" question, Matt, our future stand-up comedian. We touch one another if only for a moment. A fragile trust rises to the surface through a note, a tiny hand squeezed in mine, a confidence shared, a hug.

Becoming a real confidante to the Village kids is demanding. It's tempting and much more comfortable for me to keep relationships on the surface, to settle for taking the kids out to McDonalds for French fries or signing them up at the YMCA for basketball, or giving them high 5's on the playground. That's the easy part of being a grandpa.

Becoming up close and personal is much more difficult to handle. The heart-to-heart moments happen sometimes when you least expect them. A kid will start to sob softly in the backseat of my car; a girl will scream for her mommie. Someone will knock on the door saying "Grandpa Hank, I need to talk to you."

I can give the kids some cookies and milk and advise them to see their therapist. After all, I am not a trained mental health counselor. But the person who is present at the moment of need is often the one in the best position to help. I am there at 9 O'Clock at night and their counselor is not. My gift, our gift, as grandparents is to be available for them. They need someone right now to listen, not an appointment at their therapists a week from Wednesday.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned as a Village grandpa, is that sometimes, even love is not enough. I recall being devastated the first time we had to move a kid out of our Village. He was too damaged for us, needed more professional psychiatric treatment than we could give him. Maybe, he will return to us some day after he has undergone treatment. But we do not know the future. What we do know is when we said good-bye, we felt the loss in our guts, deep down where the pain is most acute. It's part of the price you pay for loving and we are reminded that while every kid is lovable, there are some we can't reach.

But, when we do succeed in reaching a kid who has been wounded in life, to put hope in his step or, at least, give him the acknowledgment of being listened to, there are few satisfactions in life more lasting or more deep. That's what we live for. This kind of closeness only happens when the kids become "our kids," when they matter to us as much as our own children and grandchildren.