My five-year-old niece, Mackenzie, taught me something today. Again. And undoubtedly not for the last time. Children intuitively instruct those willing to learn, and my son, my nieces and nephews and the elementary schoolchildren I was once expected to teach—but who in fact taught me lessons that linger even now—have convinced me to be a willing student.
Mackenzie is a spitfire—fearless, impulsive and athletic. She scales climbing walls like a spider on speed, her hands and feet rendered sticky by some genetic material absent from my own DNA. She laughs as she scurries upward, with a giggle more infectious than the common cold. The tether around her middle is there for her parents’ sake; she endures it graciously but fails to see the point.
She is so sunny we dubbed her Sara Serotonin (after the mood-elevating brain chemical) when she was still roughly the size of a watermelon. My sister didn’t know half the time if Mackenzie had awakened from her nap because she’d just roll around in her crib, unperturbed by solitude and content with happy thoughts.
Her affection is always at the ready. Before leaving school, she races around the playground, her feet slapping her bottom in a comical yet surprisingly speedy running form she calls “kicking my own butt.” She stops to hug teachers and any classmates she can catch. Everyone readily hugs back. This girl is clearly popular in her ’hood. And why not? She’s easy-going, imaginative and entertaining.
Even her less fetching habits are endearing. She frequently pulls behavior cards—the junior equivalent of getting a traffic ticket—for talking out of turn and ripping open the Velcro tabs on her tennis shoes. Again and again and again. In her defense, I can see how the sound that startles teachers coast to coast would intrigue an active little girl better suited to, say, skydiving than sitting in a reading circle comprised of more sedate peers.
We play a game, Mackie and me. We chat on the phone regularly, and she hits the highlights of her schoolcentered days. “Henry stuck a rock up his nose and Miss Pam had to take him to the emergency room,” or “I had to pull a behavior card for burping on purpose.” Partway through a sentence she’ll suddenly interject a speedy “I love you,” which comes out a remotely Hawaiian “I la oo.” The game is to see who can sneak it into the conversation first, and I must admit she usually wins.
This morning, as I chatted with her older sister, eightyear-old Morgan, who is equally delightful though as different from Mackenzie as wine is from chocolate, Mackie was belting out a song in the background. Morgan said, “Mackie’s singing her Time-Out Song,” and suddenly extended the phone so I could listen.
There she was in classic form, dominating the airwaves with an original ballad, the one Morgan assures me Mackie sings every time she lands herself in Siberia: “I love my little self, self, self. I love my little self, self, SELF. I love my little SELF, SELF, SELF!” and on and on. And on. In so doing, she offered me today’s first lesson—one I sorely needed—about the indefatigable human spirit.
A severe form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis— inherited from my physician father, who succumbed to complications of the disease—has snipped away at my once-large world until it is small and tattered. I downshifted from teaching to freelancing for newspapers, eventually coasting into the protracted deadlines of magazine writing. This past year, I published nothing.
Like Mackenzie, I have visited Siberia—most of my days are spent in solitude, with only my thoughts for company. My illness has left me barely able to walk, let alone run. But also like Mackenzie, I must find the will to sing a spirited song of defiance, of affirmation, of persistent joy that is not dependant upon mobility or companionship or achievement as the world gives.
I resolve to follow my niece’s lead, to love my little self, self, self. And to hold out for the day when I can scurry up my own version of climbing walls—even if I have to kick myself in my own butt getting there.
Rising slowly from my recliner, I shuffle to my office, where I begin to write. “My five-year-old niece, Mackenzie, taught me something today. Again. And undoubtedly not for the last time…”
by Linda Boone Hunt
Linda Boone Hunt lives in Northern Arizona with her husband Bob and service dog Mesa. Her son Brian and sundry other relatives—including the irrepressible Mackenzie—live nearby. She can be reached at bo*******@co*******.net