I always held the intention around the JW children that I wanted them to have fun around me and just be allowed to be who they are. I would take them on outings, plan parties and scoop them up into my arms any chance I got.
In the last congregation I was in, before I formally left the Jehovah's Witnesses, there was one little girl, S, who I was particularly fond of. At every JW meeting, she would bounce in the door of the Kingdom Hall and leap up into my arms with a shriek of delight. She would nuzzle her cheek next to mine and tell me how much she loved me. Sometimes, her parents would let her sit through the meeting next to me. My job was to help her pay attention (S had some attention issues) but I would just let her doodle or fall asleep on my shoulder.
S was one of those kids, much like I was, who could feel the world around her at a very deep level. You could see her wheels turning with existential questions and ponderings.
One of the last things we did together was spend a girl's day out shopping. This was some five years ago, when she was just 5 years old. We took the streetcar to the downtown core of our city. This was a treat as she'd rarely done this before. As we were watching out the streetcar window we passed a lot of buildings with graffiti. S turned to me and asked, "Why do people do graffiti?"
I paused and then turned the question back to S, "Why do you think they do graffiti?"
S looked back out the window for a long time, then turned to me and said, "I think they're angry and they just want someone to listen to them."
I smiled and said nothing. Her insight was enough. We sat in silence the rest of the way.
When I left the JW's four years ago, I did not say goodbye to any of the children. My cult exit happened rather quickly and I'm not sure I would've known what to say even if I had had the opportunity. Sometimes it is best to just leave quietly.
S was about 6 when I left. I have missed her terribly over the years.
A few months after I left the JW's and was knee deep into being shunned by the whole community, a member of the congregation died. I was not informed about the funeral. As an "apostate" I'm not supposed to be privy to congregational happenings. JW's aren't even supposed to mention me in conversation or ask anyone how I'm doing. For all intents and purposes, I am dead. I found out about this particular funeral from my brother who attended the funeral home viewing to pay his respects. He told me that S was there with her mother and older sister. None of them acknowledged him. Even though my brother was never a full-fledged JW, he would sometimes get shunned because of his connection to me.
Then out of nowhere, S quickly bolts across the room and slides quietly up to my brother, watching over her shoulder to make sure her mother or anyone else isn't watching her. She knows full well she's not supposed to do what she's about to do. She gets up on her tiptoes and whispers to my brother, "How's 'tall penguin' doing?"
My brother smiles and says, "She's great. I'll let her know you were asking about her."
Then S takes a quick look around and goes back to her family.
Needless to say, this happening made me very emotional. It was bittersweet to say the least. I was so happy that S had the courage to stand up for what she felt and inquire about me, but I was also so sad because I missed her so terribly and hated that she was in this stupid cult that caused this distance between us.
It's been four years since that happened. As my parents and S's family are still in the same congregation and my folks have become lax with their execution of the shunning doctrine (thankfully so), I regularly inquire about S and am updated by my mother just to let me know she's okay.
Fast forward now to three weeks ago. I'm visiting my brother who lives in the heart of my old JW territory. We go for coffee at the local donut shop. I have my back to the door and am told by my bro that S and her mother have just walked in. I'm afraid to turn around. I know I will be shunned and to see that girl and not be able to speak to her will just be too much to bear. So I keep focused on my brother and just keep talking.
A few minutes later, my brother looks at me and says, "S is coming over here." My heart skips a beat.
I turn and see her coming across the donut shop. She is tall. She is beautiful. In the last four-and-a-half years since I last saw her she has become a young woman. We lock eyes and she begins to run straight across the shop into my arms. I try not to cry but I can't help it. I hold her tight to me, showering her head with tears and kisses.
"I've missed you so much," she says to me. I move her just to arm's length so I can see her face. She is 11 years old now. She is beautiful. I can't stop looking at her. I'm holding her in my arms like she is my own. She feels like my own. She has always felt like my own.
We embrace again and again. There are so few words between us. I don't even notice anymore that we're in a public place. I don't even care that her mother continues to shun me from the other side of the donut shop. None of it matters. There is just S and I locked in a moment of pure love and joy.
S looks at me and says, "Remember the time we went shopping and we took the streetcar?"
"Yes, I remember that," I say. Of course I remember. I remember all of her.
"I wish we could go shopping like that again."
"Me too," I say. If she only knew how many times I'd imagined such things.
Again and again she tells me how much she's missed me. And again and again, I hold her to me and kiss her head.
I see out of the corner of my eye that her mother is almost through the line and ready to leave. Not really thinking, I ask S, "Can I give you my phone number?"
She smiles from ear to ear with excitement, "YES!"
I scribble my number down on a small piece of paper and palm it into her hand. "Call me anytime, day or night."
"I will guard this with my life." she says, slipping the piece of paper into her pocket.
We embrace once more, tighter than ever. "I love you, S," I whisper into her ear, "Don't ever forget that."
"I won't," she says, looking up at me with her big brown eyes, And then she turns and walks back to her mother.
I turn my back to them once more. I refuse to watch them leave. I want to believe that this isn't the last time I will see this child.
I look at my brother and the tears gush forward. For every bit of crazy I've been through as a JW and as an ex-JW, somehow, in this moment, it's all okay. Somehow, there is hope. And I like hope.