A couple of months ago we went to see the Houston Astros play the Pittsburgh Pirates. Our youngest daughter, Zhenya, doesn’t know anything about baseball. She didn’t care that the Astros had firmly established their position in last place of their conference by winning only a third of their games, and even if they win every game for the rest of the season, they will still have a losing record.
Nor did she care that the Pirates, although better than the Astros, were also only playing for pride. She didn’t seem to care that the amazing Minute Maid Stadium was only about a third of capacity. She wasn’t impressed by the full size locomotive or the retractable roof.
She was just happy to be at a baseball game, calling it “the best night ever!”
Around the 5th inning I noticed some veterans sitting in the handicapped section. They were there with an organization that builds specially equipped houses for injured vets. As a vet myself I wanted the kids to meet some people who are heroes, as well as get them past the shock of meeting someone who was missing a limb or had been severely burned. Maybe it sounds a little callous, but I imagine that is what I would want if I were missing an arm or leg.
I took Zhenya by the hand and walked her over to their seating area. She played shy at first, but was soon deeply engaged with them and their stories. Three young men in particular captured her attention. The first was a young Marine, who was missing an arm and both legs, sitting next to his equally young wife.
She looked at his prosthetic arm with its classic hook design and whispered “What happened to his arm?”
I asked him if it was OK for her to ask. “Of course,” he replied and engaged her with a huge smile. His wife also directed her attention to the little seven-year old that was standing by them.
Zhenya asked and he replied “My arm was broken so badly that they had to take it off.”
Zhenya, in her open and unpretentious way, asked the next question, “How did it get broken?”
“um…” he hesitated, not quite sure how to explain how an IED had blown up his Humvee while he was on patrol in the heart of Afghanistan. “A bomb blew up the car I was riding in” he tried.
“OK” Zhenya replied. He looked at me, unsure if his response was appropriate. I smiled to reassure them, explaining how Zhenya takes everything at face value.
Zhenya then spied the two soldiers sitting across the way. They were both in wheelchairs, one a double amputee with a severely injured arm in a bandage, the other a triple amputee with only short stumps where his arm and legs used to be. We walked over and introduced ourselves. Zhenya, with her usual lack of reservation, asked them what happened. They also hesitated at the thought of explaining a land mine to a seven-year old girl.
“I stepped on a bad thing the boogeyman hid under the ground” one tried. Zhen looked puzzled and then he looked puzzled.
I interceded with “The bad guys put bombs under the ground and he accidentally stepped on one of them.”
All of the puzzled looks went away as understanding took over. They found a child with whom they could talk to without being afraid of freaking her out, and she found some adults that engaged her and talked with her without fear. They showed her their stumps, scars, and tattoos. She told them about her dogs and her dream of getting a horse. They shared about their wives and their children. She shared about her brothers and sisters and her dad who used to be a sailor.
At one point I looked down at Zhenya and found she had managed to get some peanuts from somewhere, all the while deeply engaged in her conversations with these men.When I felt it was time for us to go, I told her to tell them “thank you” and “goodbye”. One of the soldiers gave her his ball cap. It was an Astros hat that was autographed by several of the players before the game.
“I really don’t like the Astros that much, would you like to have it?”
She reached out for it and took it gently in her hands. I looked down to see her eyes filled with tears. She tried to rub them away before anyone else noticed.
I whispered to her, “Maybe you can trade him something for it.”
She took one of the ever-present silly bands off of her wrist and presented it to him. He held out his hand, and she slipped it onto his wrist.
“Be very careful with it,” she warned, “they break very easy.”
She slipped the oversized hat onto her head and beamed. I looked down at the scarred and calloused wrist of the soldier, across his battered body, and into his eyes and thought “they sure do break very easy, don’t they.”
These men, battle hardened and bloodied, had seen the worst of what the world has to offer, had engaged my little adopted Kazakh daughter and impressed her, not an easy task. Zhenya, through her unpretentious and unassuming nature, had managed to capture the attention of two soldiers by slipping past their outer defenses which were embodied by their injuries, to captured their hearts. Are there lessons to be pulled from this story? Absolutely, but I will leave that to you.
When I looked up at the scoreboard, the Astros had scored 5 runs to take a 6-3 lead. We hadn’t noticed.
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Matt 18:4 ESV