by January Gill O’Neil
A gray hoodie will not protect my son
from rain, from the New England cold.
I see the partial eclipse of his face
as his head sinks into the half-dark
and shades his eyes. Even in our
quiet suburb with its unlocked doors,
I fear for his safety — the darkest child
on our street in the empire of blocks.
Sometimes I don’t know who he is anymore
traveling the back roads between boy and man.
He strides a deep stride, pounds a basketball
into wet pavement. Will he take his shot
or is he waiting for the open-mouthed
orange rim to take a chance on him? I sing
his name to the night, ask for safe passage
from this borrowed body into the next
and wonder who could mistake him
for anything but good.
From Rewilding. CavanKerry Press, 2018.
Anyone who’s ever felt unconditional love for another human being can relate to the speaker of this poem as she watches her son stride out into the New England cold wearing a hoodie that offers little protection against the elements or the unseen threats this mother knows she’s powerless to control. “I fear for his safety,” she says with heartbreaking honesty, “—the darkest child/on our street in the empire of blocks.” We feel the immensity and uncertainty of the world this young man steps into as well as his mother’s deep desire to look after him, singing “his name to the night” in her own version of a prayer for his “safe passage” back home. For me, this poem goes far beyond a mother’s concern for her son, however, as O’Neil quietly yet masterfully calls us into empathy with everyone we meet, asking us to see that these bodies are “borrowed,” and they suggest little of the basic goodness we all possess within. I am profoundly moved by the final lines of the poem, in which this worried mother confesses that she can’t help but “wonder who could mistake” her son “for anything but good.” And yet, in spite of her anxieties, she lets her son go out into the night, allowing him to keep becoming the man he almost is. In this way, she subtly implores us all to see beyond our own fear as well, so we don’t speak or act from that confused place in ourselves and add more suffering to an already hurting world. She urges us instead, with the gentleness of a caring mother, to hold onto the basic assumption of goodness and innocence in others, no matter what they might be wearing, no matter the color of their skin.
Invitation for Writing and Reflection: Describe a time when you were able to see past your own anxiety, and come into a deeper empathy with others in your world. What allowed you to scale the wall of fear, and how did it feel to move beyond it?