By Amy MacKinnon
I first noticed them along the narrow strip of beach about a mile into World's End reservation. The parents stood aloof, dressed in all black while their two little girls romped in brightly flowered hats and matching jackets. Both children were tiny, the big sister no more than four, the younger's toddler cheeks holding fast to baby fat.
This was the place my husband and I had been bringing our own children since their births. Before even. Now they were teens, no longer in need of being carried in baby slings or jogging strollers, no longer carried by chubby toddler thighs and bursts of awe. Being there again with my once-babies, seeing those little girls who reminded me so much of my own, I was exuberant.
"They're beautiful," I said to the mother. She eyed me, expressionless, before turning away.
My family walked on, on to the circular path that meandered for miles until we came upon the family again. They were a couple of miles into the trail by then. My two older children walked ahead of me, my youngest by my side.
The couple stood together a few yards on, their backs to us. Well beyond them -- 40 yards? 50? -- were the two little girls. The older sister crouched over the toddler who lay in a heap along the gravel path. She patted her baby sister's back as she called to her parents, her voice swallowed by the space that separated them. I looked from the parents to their children and back again as we passed the adults, but the mother and father ignored us all.
The two little girls were still some distance ahead, but now the older sister's voice carried.
"Come on," she begged, tugging on her baby sister. She eyed us as we neared. "Mommy, she won't come." She stood. She looked from the toddler -- a baby really -- to us, to her parents and then ran. She ran past us as her baby sister's cries turned to wails.
But the parents remained where they were. My youngest reached for my hand and held it as we drew closer to the baby. I wondered what my older children would do when they came to the baby. Would they stop? Keep going? And I realized that in the coming moments I'd have to make the same choice. Would I walk past a crying baby? Could I?
My older children hesitated. They stood on the path near the toddler, shuffling their feet, staring at me as if I knew what to do. I shouldn't interfere with another's parenting, I knew this. I repeated it over and over to myself with each step. It was what my head tried to convince me as my heart ached.
I let go my daughter's hand. Crouching low over the baby, I rubbed her back. She lay facedown in the brush along the path. Twigs entwined her curls and dust smudged her forehead. "Oh, honey, are you okay?" Her cries grew softer.
The parents watched all of this. I stood their little girl, brushed off that pretty flowered coat of hers, and took her hand. Still the parents stayed. The toddler stared at me, quiet now, her eyes swollen, lips trembling. Those cheeks.
Don't interfere. It's what we're told these days, what we tell ourselves.
I heard it, but all I knew in that moment was the baby girl. I started to walk her to her family. One step, two. She stumbled.
"Do you want me to carry you?" She nodded.
Before I lifted her to me, I knew I was a crossing an even more profound line. Here I was, a stranger, carrying their baby. I expected the mother to rush forward, the father close behind. They didn't move.
The baby girl lay her head against my shoulder, tucked herself under my chin as if my body were a familiar place to her. With my jacket cuff, I wiped at the mucous draining from her nose before laying my palm to her cheek. So soft. We walked toward her parents some distance away. Unmoving. Unmoved.
Her older sister bolted from them toward us, hesitated. She bit on a finger and then ran back to her parents. The last few yards of our approach, the baby's father stepped forward and held out his arms.
"She's very stubborn," he said.
Passing her to him, the spot along my side where she had knit herself a place, grew cold. "She's exhausted. She's a baby." What I wanted to say was, how could you walk past a crying baby. Your own. Where's her carriage, a drink? Where's your compassion.
The rest of the day I was betwixt and between. The spot where I'd held the baby girl against me felt strangely empty and cold. It was a nothing event -- nothing. Smaller than nothing and yet...I kept hearing that voice say I shouldn't interfere and it wasn't wrong, not exactly. But in a world desperately in need of compassion, what hope was there if a baby's own parents failed to provide her tired legs with a stroller, her runny nose with a tissue, her cries with comfort. It is the most primal act to soothe a baby and they didn't. My faith in humanity was badly shaken.
Later, I asked my son, only fourteen and already towering over me, what he thought.
"The closer I got to that baby, the sicker I felt," he said. "How could they leave her there? It reminded me of last year in lunch when I saw two boys eating alone. I felt real sick then too, so I asked them to eat with me and my friends. I'm glad you didn't walk past her. I couldn't."
He bent low, tucked himself under my chin , and wrapped me in a hug, that cold spot along my side now warmed.