A couple months ago I met a seven-year-old floppy-haired, dimple-cheeked Marco. Our relationship was tentative at first. He was a latecomer to our rehearsal process, so I wanted to make him comfortable, but I didn't force anything. I wanted to take his lead. I sensed his social reservations and honored them. After all, if anyone can relate to being reserved, it is I. Yet I also wanted to make sure that he knew that he was in a safe place.
When I spoke to him, I would bend down to his level, hands on my knees, saying things like, "If you have any questions, just let me know, ok? You are doing great!" He wouldn't look me in the eye. A shy smile would appear, but he would turn his face away from mine. Sometimes he would nod, sometimes he would just turn away. What can I say? A reserved kid after my own heart.
Some days I would reach for his hand to help guide him. He was a quick study, but I was still worried that he felt uncomfortable and nervous. I could tell it wasn't his instinct to hold some strange girl's hand (again, a boy after my heart...Marco scores again...2 points). His grip was reluctant, at best.
Why I felt it was so important to take care of this little one, I do not know. Maybe it was because I hadn't worked beside a child in over four years and was excited about it. Maybe it was because I remember being a socially reserved child in the musical theater world myself. Maybe I was just in need of a project. Regardless, I was determined to continue to show this little man that came just to my waist that there was someone cheering for him.
I gave him thumbs up after he danced. I waved hellos to him when he arrived. After he was given a note and put on the spot to dance in front of everyone, I would go up to him and say, "That was PERFECT!!!!" By the end of his first week, I could sense his guard was coming down. He sat by me. He made a little more eye-contact with me. He even began to wave hello to me before I could to him.
I decided to get a tad more playful with him. "What's your name today?" I asked him before we entered for one of our scenes together. "Huh?" he asked. "Your name, silly," I said. "You gotta have a name for this scene! I'll call you by it. Whatever you want! What will it be?" Smiling a devilish smile he replied, "Billy Bob Joe." Who says that? (Marco...3 points.)
A milestone in our relationship was the first time he saw me rehearse the ballet in the show. "How do you SPIN like that????" he asked, excitedly, his toothless grin beaming its way into my heart. (Marco...4 points.) "Hmmm..." I replied. "Practice. Lots of practice." He looked at me in disbelief and said matter of factly, "And because you're SKINNY!!!!" (Marco...14 points.)
By the second week, Marco's wall was down. When we weren't rehearsing he had me write out math problems for him to do. (Marco...25 points.) And then he offered to do the same for me. (Marco...38 points.) One day we were working our equations side by side and he looked up mid-subtraction. "Are you twelve?" he asked. (Marco....110 points) "Am I twelve years old???" I asked. "No...I'm...uhhh...more like 188 years old." This is the first time I heard him squeal his signature squeal of delight. "HAHA!!!! You're not 188!!!" he laughed. We both laughed and giggled and just when I thought he had forgotten the subject due to so much laughter he said, "Hmmmm...14?" (Marco...188 points.)
I'll never forget the first time he weaseled his way onto my lap. I was sitting in a chair watching rehearsal. He came over to me and stood right in front of me, his tiny lower back leaning up against my knees. By the end of the scene, he had shimmied his bony booty up to the chair, shoving my knees aside. I think that's when this little kid stole my heart. (Marco...200 points). I scooped him up, sat him on my lap, and from then on...we were the two amigos.
He taught me hand-clapping games, I showed him how to pirouette. He told me who Ariana Grande is, I told him about Frank Sinatra. He held my hand and twirled around, and with every hold he got another piece of my heart. One day he went to grab my hand and noticed the ring on my finger. "Oh, no!!!! Are you married???" he asked with concern. "No, my grandmother gave me that ring," I said. "Oh. Your grandmother gave you a ring with the symbol of Israel," he replied, matter of factly. Looking down at my snowflake/flower/star of David ambiguous ring, I smiled. "Yes. She did."
He taught me Hebrew letters. He told me about his dad's love of chocolate and his mom's ballet background. He told me about his brother Luca and how the kids at school don't like all the same things he does. He surprised me with drawings on my dressing room spot, my favorite one being a picture of two "Awesome Cherries" that were BFFs, one labeled Marco and the other labeled Deanna.
One time during a performance Marco sensed that the audience was not as vocal as usual. "They are NOT a good audience," he said with a grimace. "What do you mean?" I asked. "They aren't laughing! Or yelling!" he replied. I explained to him that a silent audience does not necessarily mean that they are not happy, and that sometimes it means that they are actually listening. "They could still clap," he replied. Trying to think of a way to show him that perceptions are deceiving, I said, "Well...maybe they ARE clapping loudly but they all have gloves on." He loved that response. And from that point on, every quiet audience became a gloved one to us.
One day I didn't see him as usual before the performance started. Right before I went onstage, I was told that he had been in a car accident and was okay, but was really shaken up and was putting himself together. My heart stopped beating and my body froze. My Marco! I think that's the first time I felt what the pangs of parenthood must really feel like. "Why didn't I realize? Why didn't I look harder for him? Why wasn't I there to comfort him???" I thought. I went onstage in a state of worry. Three anxious scenes and three quick changes later, I finally had an opportunity to race downstairs to find him. There he was, a small smile on his face, eyes still red with residual distress. I wrapped my arms around him, asking him if he was alright. And I thanked God silently that he was. My heart started beating again.
Midway through our run my friend Jessica realized Marco's role in Act 2 was unnamed. "Deanna...you're his mother. You should have the honor." Honored I was. "Jack," I said with a bashful smile in the girl's dressing room, "I've always wanted a boy named Jack." So Jack he became.
This little kid is the coolest kid ever, so I have no reservations bestowing my future boy's name on him. He is smaller than a six year old, but more intelligent than any 12-year-old. He has the soul of a dancer and the heart of gold. He laughs at nearly everything. And he accepts everyone. And after meeting his parents, it is no wonder. They are nothing short of wonderful.
I never told Marco that my child Jack would be named after Jack Bauer. I figured he probably wouldn't know about the show "24." And quite honestly, as soon as I uttered the name Jack, Kiefer Sutherland no longer was associated. It was Marco that I saw. I saw his dimples. His toothless grin. His intelligence. I heard his squeals. I felt his hand in mine. The hand that now wouldn't let go.
Now that the contract comes closer and closer to its end, cast members keep approaching me, saying, "I don't know what Marco is going to do without you." And each time they do, I feel a small piece of my heart ache. The part labeled Marco. And I know the truth...I don't know what I'm going to do without Marco.
I'm going to miss this little guy so much. I'm going to miss him subtly tickling me behind my knees during the most dramatic scene in the story. I'm going to miss him throwing his arms around my legs and almost knocking me over during his favorite scene. I'm going to miss seeing him improv in the wings. And tell me that he wants scotch whiskey onstage. I'm going to miss him putting my hand between his two clapping hands during the bows. And having me retie his shoelaces offstage. I'm going to miss him making me dance for him. And making me do that stupid thing with my neck that I taught him. I'm going to miss his squeals. And the way he scoots when he runs. I'm going to miss his drawings. I'm going to miss him putting my hand on his pounding heart after his dance number.
I have no idea how much he will remember me. For all I know, he will grow up, become President of the United States, and his 17-year-old Winnie of a mother in Tuck Everlasting will become vapor. But I have a feeling my mission was accomplished. I think I made him feel safe. I think I may have even made him feel loved. I know I loved. And I know that there will always be a piece of my heart labeled Marco.