I saw a little boy at the park. His t-shirt read, Strong Like Mom.
I looked at woman who was with the boy, his mother, I presumed. She was petite, didn’t appear to have any obvious superhuman strengths. She wore a bandana on her head and my first impression was that maybe she’d been through chemotherapy.
I thought about that boy, in that shirt, walking into a drab hospital room and seeing his mother on the bed, fighting for breaths with tubes in her arms, up her nose, yet still managing a weak smile when she saw him. He was horrified of course. And with sleepy eyes and a groggy voice his mother assured him she would be fine.
It was a lie at the time, the sort of lie you tell little children and those you love. Because the truth is too painful to speak or hear. The truth for her was that she was beginning to think the end was preferable to the hopeless depths she faced that day. But maybe they don’t make shirts that read, Honest like Mom.
Such morbid thoughts. I turned to my newspaper, then decided that wasn’t the case. The bandana was more of a Rosie the Riveter look. It was after all, Rosie red, not the cowardly white of a surrender flag. Another quick glance to confirm. This was a woman who’d survived abuse, not cancer. She’d summoned the courage to take a stand, lived in shelters and scraped so that boy would never have to grow up with a monster. What I was seeing was a dream fulfilled. The park, watching her boy run and giggle and enjoy the day. Why, I was witnessing a second chance.
She was wiping off one a swing when our eyes met. Her posture tensed and her jaw went tight with distrust. Oh no. She’d known a man, a family friend. He was older and used to tell her she was pretty. At the time she was only beginning to wonder about such things, and one afternoon when they were alone he did something terrible.
I looked away. But from there my thoughts spiraled. She wasn’t his mother at all. His mother wasn’t fine. She’d lost that battle. With cancer, depression, or addiction after that sunny day with the family friend. Maybe the boy wore the shirt as a memorial.
The woman was still staring at me. And I knew I should leave. So I got up, folded the paper. I wanted to assure her that I meant no harm. But I didn’t want to cause any more problems. So I left. I left my thoughts on that bench. I left the boy with the woman to play at the park.
I hope it was just a shirt.