The first afternoon I volunteered in my daughter Ruth’s first-grade class, I was surrounded by a group of giggling girls.
“That’s Sean!” The pint-sized leader, with sparkling brown eyes and an adorable bob, pointed to a brown-eyed, brown-skinned boy working diligently at his desk across the room. “Sean is Ruth’s boyfriend!”
I smiled and quickly changed the subject, not wanting to embarrass him.
“It’s true!” another girl insisted. “Sean loves Ruth!”
In quiet moments, I occasionally allowed myself to imagine what would happen as our 7-year-old daughter, who had cerebral palsy and was deaf, grew older. Would others love her as much as we did? Despite having the physical abilities of a 2-month-old, Ruth had already fallen hard for Matt, a baby-faced 17-year-old at church who stopped by our pew each Sunday to tell Ruth she was beautiful. If Ruth couldn’t see him, she’d shriek until we turned her wheelchair so she could. But Matt had left for the Marines a few months earlier, making Ruth cry. Best to leave boyfriends for later.
My husband, Dana, and I had adopted Ruth more than five years before. When she was a year old, Ruth arrived in Maine from a Ugandan orphanage for physical therapy. We met her through friends and — with urging from our three children — decided to adopt. Our time together had been challenging but worth it. Academically, Ruth was doing terrifically. However, her health was more fragile than we imagined. Six months into the school year, our family was devastated when Ruth unexpectedly died in her sleep.
Psychologists often say there is no greater loss than the loss of a child. But even in that overwhelming darkness, there were sparks of light, such as the boy with autism from Ruth’s bus who rang our doorbell clutching a bouquet of pink roses.
“I miss her smile,” he said, struggling to form each word.
“Me, too,” I said, accepting his gift.
Only slowly did our family come to understand how many lives Ruth had touched. The funeral home down the street donated its services. The cafe where Ruth loved to buy cookies sent over steaming carafes of coffee. Church friends and neighbors cooked meals and shared memories, as did Ruth’s first-grade teacher, Ms. Buotte, who brought a loaf of fresh-baked bread.
“I wanted to tell you how sorry the children are, how sorry we all are,” Ms. Buotte said, standing in my kitchen. “Do you remember Sean?” she asked.
I nodded, recalling the handsome boy the children had called Ruth’s boyfriend.
“When I called to tell his family about Ruth, his mother shared a story I thought you’d like to hear,” Ms. Buotte said. “Last fall, Sean came home from school and said he had a girlfriend.
“ ‘Oh?’ his mother asked, ‘What do you do together?’
“ ‘We don’t do anything,’ Sean said.
“ ‘What do you talk about?’ she asked.
“ ‘We don’t talk,’ he said.
“Sean’s mother thought he had an imaginary friend,” Ms. Buotte said with a chuckle. “ ‘Then what do you do?’ ” she finally asked.
“ ‘When I jump up and down on the playground, she smiles at me and laughs!’ ”
Ms. Buotte shook her silvery head. “I don’t think Sean ever saw Ruth’s disabilities. He saw her smile, and it made him feel so good that he loved her. On Monday, as we walked back to our classroom after recess, Sean stepped out of line to kiss Ruth’s picture in the class photo outside our door.”
So Ruth had a boyfriend after all.
I touched my heart in wonder and marveled at the power of a smile to overcome even the most enormous differences. Not long after, when I returned to helping in Ruth’s class, Sean was gone. His family had moved. I didn’t even know his last name, but I prayed that he would always remember the girl whose smile had been enough.