I am not a sympathetic person. I want to be, but it’s like my desires to be the life of the party and to look good with my shirt off; I’m just not built that way. When someone in my vicinity experiences an emotional blow, I want to be that comforting voice who puts an arm around them and says the words that make everything all right, but whenever the situation has presented itself, I choke. I panic. Everything that comes to mind sounds patronizing, sarcastic, or pitifully unhelpful. I realized this shortcoming on an afternoon when I was fourteen and sitting with my friend Kyle on his back porch. I don’t remember what we were doing, probably trying to think of something to do, but that afternoon turned memorable when his neighbor, Tanya, came over. She was our age and she was cute, so she terrified me. I didn’t know her very well - I went to a different school and lived down the street - but Kyle knew her. They were friends. When she opened the screen door and came in, it was obvious that she was upset. Crying. Kyle asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t answer. She just sat down next to him, crossed her legs under her, and put her head on his shoulder. He put his arm around her. I was sitting on a chair on the other side of the porch, feeling like I was intruding on something private. I felt I should leave, but I was too confused about what was going on, too scared of saying or doing the wrong thing. I didn’t want to look scared or confused, so I just sat there. They sat on the couch for an uncomfortably long time – at least a minute. I remember telling myself that if I wasn’t going to leave, then I should say something to comfort this poor girl, but I had no idea what that might be. One of Tanya's sneakered feet rested against Kyle's leg, and he was absently rubbing it with his hand. After a long time, he broke the silence, saying, “This a soft leather sneaker.” And there was something in the way he said it – just the right amount of whatever it took to turn his words into the right ones at the right time. Tanya smiled, and then she started to laugh. Not just a chuckle or giggle, but that wonderful sort of laughter that you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to. Kyle was laughing, too, and when I realized I should, I joined in.
That event stayed with me, etched into my memory, not so much because I failed to say something to comfort Tanya – she didn’t come looking for sympathy from me – but because of how deftly Kyle turned her mood around. Maybe it was just a desperate move on his part; Maybe he felt as helpless as I did, but he came up with something. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that, but it has always seemed beyond my powers. Even with someone I really care about – someone like, Oh, I don’t know, my wife? – I find myself fumbling and sweaty when I’m called on to be comforting. I do okay, but I want to be better than okay. I wish I could whip out a comment like, “This is a soft leather sneaker.”
But that’s the wonderful thing about being the parent of a very young child. Words of comfort are not necessary. It feels self-centered and a bit wrong to say it, but it’s a fantastic thing to have my mere presence be the supreme object of comfort for another human being. I pick her up. I hold her. I whisper that it will be all right. She nestles into my chest, consoled and content.