His smile reminds me of Papa's. Tentative at first, almost self-conscious, but luminous in full bloom, light wending its way through crevices to the heart. It's impossible not to feel something on the receiving end of that smile.
He's three parts innocence, one part touched by the inequities of life. Eight and a half years old, brilliant, and small for his age, he's already known some struggles, and this shows at times behind a guardedness in his eyes. Beneath that, he's still the tenderhearted kid he's always been, with eyes that see hurting people in the world around him and an inquisitive mind forever formulating questions.
And he is passionate about bugs, and really, all living creatures on two or four, eight or ten legs.
Just yesterday, me and Gramie and Jayden are at the Seattle Bug Safari, an attraction I've never thought of exploring until I had a reason under four feet tall, and he's our tour guide. We migrate slowly from tank to cage to glass case of beetles, cockroaches, scorpions, tarantulas, black widows, praying mantises, hanging stick bugs, grasshoppers, and water beetles. He possesses knowledge of each one and reads to us from the descriptions posted. His voice is excitement bubbling over, flagging us to take pictures, to capture these fascinating creatures for his journal. I try not to be grossed out by the hissing cockroaches, the six inch centipede, the printout of the health benefits of eating insects. Bugs have never been my thing.
Once my arm hairs have returned to their normal position, I force myself to study the gigantic fuzzy black tarantula. Apparently it's a she and she is passed out with a few of her legs in the water dish, laying on top of the reason for her exhaustion: her exoskeleton. The guy running the Safari says she shed it all the day before in a matter of hours. They'll reach in with long tweezers in a couple of days to retrieve the skin and pin it up on display. Surprisingly, I'm filled with a reluctant fascination and respect for this creature, and I wouldn't have been, were it not for my nephew.
We pass through Pike Market when we're finished, through the sights and smells of foods he can no longer eat with his gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free diet. He's struggling under the torment to his senses, but he happily chomps his celery and peanut butter, grapes, applesauce and potato chips for lunch as we sit outside the Market. A homeless man with stringy hair matted with spit and who knows what else, his tattered clothes hanging on him, shuffles over to our table and sits down. He tells us he was just released from the county jail and needs $4.50 for a bus ride home. Mom shakes her head no, compassion etched on her face. He stands without argument and shuffles past Jayden to the next table.
Jayden is full of questions, immediately concerned for this man. We explain that people don't always tell the truth when they ask for money, but regardless, the truth behind their words is that they are often in pain and need love. "We should pray for him," he insists with pure conviction. And so we do. All the while, I feel the tears threatening the corners of my eyes in sadness for this shell of a man, and awe and gratitude for this tender heart of the boy that is my nephew.