I didn’t expect to see anyone in that empty park on a late Saturday evening, let alone them.
A young mother beneath the streetlights bouncing a small, sullen girl on her shoulders as she weaved down the trail, her arms stretched out like airplane wings.
I knew why I was there.
My dispensary closed late and I worked early on weekends. There was nothing else to do that balmy summer night but go jogging around Washington Park. Exercise was always a good distraction, especially with the anniversary of my girlfriend’s death approaching.
I’d finished the two-mile dirt loop and was heading towards the pull-up bars near the entrance when I jogged past the two of them. Out of the corner of my eye, the mother pointed at me as she turned her head to speak to the girl. I didn’t think much of it. I figured it was something like “See honey, that’s an ex-con. Don’t talk to those.”
I’m not an ex con.
However, I am six-foot, bald, and have the kind of face where if I make eye contact with a stranger, they usually apologize to me.
I’m used to people turning as I walk behind them and exclaiming “Oh! You scared me!”
My low smoker’s monotone doesn’t help this, or that I have what doctors would call “Resting Rage Face,” or that when I work out I look even angrier. Anyone who sees me would assume I’m blasting DMX or Mastodon through my earbuds, but usually I’m nerding out on a science or history podcast.
That night, I was learning how trees help each other during droughts. It was getting a little emotional.
I’d nearly forgotten about the two of them as I slowed to a walk and approached the pull up bars. It was odd for them to be out this late, but nothing remarkable. Midway through my reps, I heard the scrape of gravel behind me. They stood a couple of feet away, watching me.
The kid was probably five years old. Backlit by the streetlights, all I could make out was her brown hair. She waved at me blankly. I dropped to the ground and clicked off my earbuds.
“Hi,” I waved back “What’s up?”
She turned away, so the young woman spoke.
“Sorry if we’re bothering you. Her mom just died…” She opened, almost apologetically “and her dad passed away a couple years ago. So I’m taking care of her now.”
“Oh…” was the best I could do on short notice, crowding out the runner up of “Jesus, are you OK?”
“Anyway, her mom was a fitness trainer, so she’s obsessed with watching people work out.” She continued, “When you jogged by, she told me to ‘follow that man.’”
The right thing to say remained out of verbal reach, but I wanted to offer her something. My nephew was a few years younger than her and my heart broke when I thought of anything bad happening to him, let alone losing his parents. I’m a grown man and I’m still not prepared for that.
Plus, my girlfriend’s death was a wound that reopened every day.
“Do you want a hug?” Finally spilled out in as soft as I can make my voice.
The girl nodded and reached her arms out.
In a nearly abandoned park long after sunset, a caretaker passed a young child over to a complete stranger towering over them. I wrapped my arms around her, holding her to my chest. She rested her head against my shoulder and squeezed tight in that way only children searching for comfort can. A way to shrink that chasm inside a little smaller, if only for a moment.
I had no words that could make it easier for her. I couldn’t comprehend losing your parents so young. However, as I held her I remembered something that always made my nephew smile. Maybe it would make her feel better.
“Do you want to be tossed into the air?”
She looked to the caretaker for the OK, who smiled and nodded back. She turned back to me and nodded, a grin starting to crack.
“Ok, but you need to help me,” I told her.
I crouched low with my hands under her arms and bounced her feet on the ground as we counted “One…two…” in small jumps. On three, she pushed off the ground and I launched her into the air.
She giggled as she hit the parabolic arc, backlit by the halogen bulbs. Then she began the eight foot descent back toward the concrete, her hair billowing like a torn parachute.
At this point, a thought occurred:
Hey Paul, remember how you still have that shoulder injury?
This was immediately followed by the much more pressing thought:
Do not drop this fucking orphan, Paul.
I caught her on the way down. She giggled. My shoulder screamed. She ran back into her caretaker’s arms and climbed onto her shoulders.
She waved goodbye.
“Be strong.” I told her.
“And brave,” her caretaker added. “You have to be brave”
“You are brave,” I assured her. “Braver than I could be.”
They turned and continued along the path, both their arms now outstretched. Two airplanes navigating through a dark sky. I jogged home, keeping my arm as still as possible, the rest of me feeling lighter.
Three strangers met long after nightfall, brought together for a short time by trust.
Trust that all three of us were safe. That we would care about each other.
That no matter how much it hurt now—we would all be OK someday.
Paul Barach is a writer and storyteller living in Tacoma, Washington. After graduating from college, Paul backpacked across Europe, taught English in South Korea, bicycled across the United States, and has hiked the Shikoku Pilgrimage and the Pacific Crest Trail. When he’s not writing or performing, he’s usually out hiking or at work, which he likes way less than hiking. His two proudest achievements are earning his black belt in Karate and only falling into the La Brea Tarpits once. Paul is the author of Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage. It tells the hilarious, true story of an unprepared office worker, a 750-mile Japanese pilgrimage and everything that went wrong along the way.