Xenophobia

It was a glorious fall afternoon when I took my youngest son, then four, on a quick trip to the hardware store. I was preparing to paint some baseboards in the house.

He was playing his favorite video game: Banjo Kazooie.

“You’ll have to pause that,” I told him. “We have to go buy some paint supplies. You can play it when we get back.”

“Okay,” he replied with good humor, “I’ll put it on the Eyes.”

The Eyes meant the pause screen where these colorful creatures called Jinjos just sit, blinking their big eyes.

My boy loved the Eyes. Would often pause the game just to watch them.

I could not see why the Eyes were so enthralling, but… moms are busy people, and I had things to do.

He paused his game with a last loving look at the Eyes, and off we went.

The round trip took about fifty minutes.

Upon arriving home, I thought it odd that a random piece of wood was lying on the back deck. It wasn’t there when we left…

Odder still: the back door standing ajar.

And that the bottom of it had been split wide open… hence that random piece of wood, and more pieces, in the doorway.

I couldn’t quite make sense of it.

I stepped into the house.

The comforter from my little boy’s bed lay in a heap in the middle of the living room. The soft blues, green, yellows, and oranges so out of place, there…

The TV was gone.

And the Nintendo.

In those split seconds, you don’t think I am currently messing up a crime scene, here in my house.

You think, What am I seeing? What has happened here? How much more…?

You go running room to room to find out.

It took only seconds to ascertain. All the TVs, gone. Older son’s gaming system, gone. Husband’s desktop computer, too. One pillowcase from my bed gone; bedclothes rumpled and mattress shifted where…where someone must have run hands underneath (do people really hide cash under their mattresses nowadays?).

My wedding rings still lying on the dresser in plain sight (I was planning to paint, remember) but the closet door open and my husband’s jewelry box, containing some of his deceased father’s cufflinks along with the shells from the twenty-one gun salute at the military funeral…gone.

“Mama! Mama!” My son’s voice, in the living room.

I race back down the hall.

He’s standing, facing the spot where the TV used to be. He looks up at me, confused:

“Where are the Eyes?”

That’s when it all snapped into focus:

“I have to call the police, honey. Bad strangers came and took the Eyes…”

*******

Shortly after that is when the nightmares started. They lasted long beyond the years of child night terrors. Waking up believing someone was in the room, when no one was.

He couldn’t understand it, why bad strangers would come and take the Eyes. He asked over and over: “Why?”

We eventually replaced the Nintendo, eventually got another Banjo Kazooie game.

But a young, tender psyche paid a price. It was violated, just as our home was violated.

Bad strangers haunted his dreams for years.

One might expect that he’d grow up hardened, possibly angry, understandably mistrustful.

He is none of those things. The nighttime xenophobia never diminished the brightness of his being.

In his twenties now, my son is a gentle spirit. Kind, quiet and deliberate, with a quick, razor-sharp wit. He’s our musician, listening over and over to rhythms and patterns and chords that he can replicate on a number of instruments. A singer, a natural harmonizer; I know he hears things many of us do not, or maybe it’s just that he hears them differently and more beautifully. At seventeen, he achieved a childhood dream: He got a position as a church music director.

He’s recently left it for another calling. A full-time job, see.

Part of it involves going into people’s homes to take away something precious.

I don’t imagine many young people dream of going into the funeral home business but that is what my youngest has chosen. He refers to it as “a ministry.” He now encounters strangers in their time of greatest need, speaks words of comfort to them, enters their homes, and helps to carry their loved ones away for final arrangements. On these “death calls” he leaves our house wearing a tie, dressed in his best, out of respect for the strangers he will encounter and their dead.

He is at peace with himself and with others. A calming presence.

It occurs to me that the opposite of xenophobia is philoxenia, “friend to strangers.” It is the basis of the Biblical word translated as hospitality.

A good stranger, then, to the people he encounters. Once he saw an elderly lady with a walker eating alone in a restaurant; he paid for her meal along with his own, and left without telling her.

My precious boy, overcoming the darkness, being a light in so many ways… has it ever occurred to you that you are the Eyes.

To this day, the boy loves “the Eyes” – he even has a stuffed collection of Jinjos.
In the video game Banjo Kazooie, the player must find where the witch has hidden the Jinjos, and rescue them.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 24, I am writing around a word beginning with letter x. 

22 thoughts on “Xenophobia

    • I’ve had fun writing around a word starting with each letter of the alphabet – this particular story has clearly been in my mind a long while. If I hadn’t thought of “xenophobia,” I might not have recalled the “bad strangers” and my son’s overcoming… so the approach has brought more than a little magic! Many thanks.

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  1. I am so sorry to hear of your house being robbed and your son having nightmares for years. How awful that must have been. I am happy that his fear never changed his brightness and “He is at peace with himself and with others. A calming presence.” Your son is a beautiful, caring, and giving young man as your husband and you are. I love your ending “My precious boy, overcoming the darkness, being a light in so many ways… has it ever occurred to you that you are the Eyes.” Thanks for the photo of “the Eyes.” Now, I see why he has loved “the Eyes” for so long. They are entrancing. Great slice from darkness to light. Thank you.

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    • Thank you as always for such insightful comments, Gail – and I wanted to leave readers with a feeling of overcoming, and fighting evil with good, for that’s exactly what my boy has done.

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  2. This is such a hopeful story. I think this word and my new favorite word philoxenia are so important at this time. That your son could overcome this trauma and become a friend to strangers is something to hope for in our future. I love the respect he shows for strangers. I suspect that music played a part in bringing him to this peace. What are you doing for the few days left after Z? I’m so impressed with how unforced this abecedarian process has seemed in your skilled hands.

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    • You may well be right, that music played a part in his overcoming and finding peace. It is his language. Philoxenia is such a great word! And yes, so important now. Ok, so after Z … I thought about starting over with A (Affrontery, by Henry the dog), or with One, using numbers (nah, not feeling it). In short – I DON’T KNOW! :O

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  3. Fran, you make the most interesting connections, leading us from a traumatic experience, the violation of your safe space, to your son’s chosen career. My takeaway is the power of personality and personal choice in our response to life’s hardships, that question of why different people respond in such radically different ways to the same circumstances. My personal connection takes me back to my mother’s passing, as that was my first close encounter with funeral directors. Ours was so calm, so respectful, covering every last detail of laying my mother to rest…I distinctly remember feeling cared for and held. It is a special vocation, the funeral business. For an interesting take on that line of work, as well as how we “handle” death in this country, may I suggest Caitlin Doughty’s books? I’ve read her first one and have the second on my reading pile; her perspective gave me much to think about.

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    • It is certainly not a line of work for everyone and to me, a testimony to my son’s strength of spirit and his great compassion. He’s extraordinarily calming, and funny. These characteristics have served him well. Point so well-made about personalities and responses to hardships, Chris. So, now I have added those books to my Amazon cart….! It is amazing to me, the books you know! You carry an immense library around in your head.

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  4. I can’t imagine the fear and terror you all must have felt after the robbery, but you have packaged this nightmare with the gentle human your son has become. You are blessed in so many ways. Thanks for sharing.

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    • It was a horror, and terribly sad. For the record, the people were found and arrested; they’d been responsible for a number of local break-ins. I wondered what else I might have said to explain, besides “bad strangers”… but there was no shielding him from the fact that it happened. He is a gift and a marvel, widely loved – in so many ways, a story of overcoming. Thank you, Margaret.

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  5. What an excellent slice (x-cellent? sorry.). Really well done and I wasn’t sure where it was going but you tied it all together so very deftly. Glad to hear that your son has grown with a certain and hopeful understanding of the world, and is making a difference for others. 🙂

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  6. Gosh, what a totally traumatic day, no wonder your son had nightmares. You have woven the story together so skilfully as you always do, with the Eyes being left behind and then the feeling of violation as you find your house plundered. I once lived in a flat in London that was robbed, so I remember the sensation of shock and horror, but for your son it must have been terrifying. How amazing that those nightmares have helped somehow to form him into the strong gentle musical young man he is today and made him able to perform the profession he has chosen.

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    • Somehow, all of these things DO connect, and I think for me it was also seeing how an act of evil can be overcome with redemptive acts… it is an ugly, gritty feeling, being plundered that way. And so good that others find a way to be the grace. Thanks so much for these words of kindness and empathy!

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  7. This brought me to tears. I have been there when a kind young man, dressed in a shirt and tie came to take away something precious. I thought at the time, what a hard but necessary job. He was so lovely, and I was so grateful.
    Beautifully written. I am so glad I found you today.

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    • Deepest thanks for these beautiful, heartfelt words – and for that young man who helped you in those moments of pain. Loss and pain are universal; in these moments, we remember how much we need one another. I so appreciate your stopping by!

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  8. You take an idea from the letter of the alphabet, then you find the threads that tie this word to events in your life and weave them so artfully that the are embedding in the reader’s heart. I hate to say it, but those Jinjos are kind of creepy. 🙂

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    • This story has been in my mind awhile, Elsie, just not really framed until it dawned on me that it might work well for “xenophobia” – like, two days ago! Writing epiphany! I agree that those Jinjos are, ahem, creepy – especially in the photo. Cuter in person and in the game. So interesting, the things that draw us as children. The Jinjos represent childhood playfulness, innocence, and comfort to me – something in them still brings joy to the (grown) boy.

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  9. In the Jewish tradition, we talk about a “mitzvah” as a good dead (it translates directly to “commandment”). The highest form of a mitzvah is to care for the dead, because it is a favor that the recipient is unable to repay. So the fact that your son sees this calling as his ministry, well…that’s not far off. What I find so moving about your post today is that you start with this idea of xenophobia, this fear of others, but you bring us so carefully into this space of love and light. Gorgeous.

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    • In the age-old theme of good vs. evil…I believe that good, in the end, wins. Thank you for this beautiful gift of a comment; I treasure this connection to the Jewish tradition, Lainie. I’ll share it with my son.

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