Anyone who has ever owned a dog will attest to the fact that they seem to have an innate sense when something is wrong with their owner – the single most important person in their life. Whether it’s a cut, a broken bone, a surgically repaired knee or something far more subtle and “invisible” to the naked eye – a wounded or broken heart, tears shed at the end of a too long day, the paralyzing sadness that accompanies loneliness and super glues us to our bed or sofa – dogs just know when things aren’t right and they are quick to respond. Without hesitating (or needing to be invited), they run or amble up to their owner’s side and offer all they have – themselves – to comfort and ease the pain. Best of all, they expect absolutely nothing in return. All dog owners know what I’m talking about. At one time or another, we’ve all had our wounds, bandages, casts and faces licked by “man’s (and woman’s) best friend.” We’ve tried not to smile in response, but it’s impossible not to in the face of unconditional love.
While it’s not quite as obvious, I believe young children have that same innate sense. They seem to intuitively grasp things about the human condition that some adults spend a lifetime “missing” or searching for. Maybe it’s because, like a dog, so much of a young child’s world is sensory. They are intent on discovering the “newness” of everything around them and are highly dependent on their senses of sight, smell, touch and taste to help them do that. Like a dog, their world is simple, in part, because their brain has not yet begun to filter and/or distort the images and messages it is receiving from those senses. They aren’t afraid to put themselves out there – to try new things, to take risks. Theirs is very much a “what you see and what you feel is what is real” world. Frankly, all of us could learn a lot from emulating/returning to that child-like mindset in our adult lives. I missed one of those “learning opportunities” offered “free of charge” by my almost 4 year-old son – 23 years ago.
In the Fall of 1988, I left a very well-established and prestigious law firm in Miami, where I was a bit of a rising star, and moved our family to Dallas. It was an anxious and difficult transition. On a personal level, it meant leaving my mom and dad and a number of good friends behind. Professionally, it meant leaving my comfort zone and joining one of the nation’s largest and most-demanding firms, where I knew almost no one. To make things slightly more difficult, because we had not yet sold our house in Miami or purchased a new one in Dallas, I spent the first several weeks in a small one bedroom apartment that the firm was nice enough to find for me. Fortunately (and purely by coincidence), my brother was training for a new job at the time and also was in Dallas, which provided both of us with a familiar face and some much needed companionship. We made the most of it, meeting regularly to work out and play racquetball at the local YMCA and eating Chick-fil-A lunches in the underground walkways that join the downtown office buildings, as often as our schedules would allow.
Eventually, our family was reunited in Dallas and things slowly returned to normal. A few weeks after their arrival, my brother’s training ended and he headed home. Greg, who was not quite 4 at the time, and I drove “Uncle Russell” to DFW airport and dropped him at the curb. I knew it was likely to be some time before we saw each other again and I was grateful for our time together. Still, I wasn’t expecting the silent tears that spontaneously began to fall on the way home. Although I was careful to try and hide them from Greg, so as not to upset him, he knew something was “wrong.” In fact, somehow he knew exactly what was wrong. “Do you miss Uncle Russell, Dad?” he asked rather matter-of-factly. I quietly nodded. And with that, he reached his small hand over and put it on top of mine – the one resting on the console. “It’s okay,” he said, “I’m here.” And somehow, with a half a smile, it was “okay.” Like having your face licked. Greg was too young to remember that moment and to him it was a simple, didn’t-give-it-a-second-thought gesture. Just a young child – unfiltered. Me? I’ll never forget it as long as I live.