Until I was five, people could be divided into two categories: grownups and children. But at five, I became aware that there were actually three groups: There were grownups, and then there were little kids and big kids. I was a little kid. Chris W. who lived down the street was eleven—a big kid. Chris was the only big kid in my neighborhood who paid attention to me. In return, I adored him.
In the autumn before I turned six, Chris had his garage fully occupied with two construction projects. He was building go-carts for an upcoming neighborhood race. He had already built his first one, and having realized all the ways he could have made it better, he started working on an improved model. Anytime I saw Chris doing stuff, I wanted to be around him. Sometimes when he saw me outside, he would ask me if I wanted to come to the garage and be his helper. He would ask me to hold a hammer or hand him jars of screws, and he always made a big deal out of what a good helper I was. One time when I’d “helped” him for an entire Saturday, he paid me fifteen cents for my labor. Fifteen cents was a fortune, the equivalent of birthday money. Another time he paid me with a Coke that I didn’t have to share with anybody.
One day when I wasn’t there, Chris had an accident with something flammable. His right leg was seriously burned and he spent a day in the hospital. When he came home, he had to cut the leg off a pair of pants so that clothing wouldn’t come into contact with his burns. Although I realize now that they were only second-degree burns, I was shocked and sickened by the appearance of his burned skin. “You don’t have to hang around if you don’t want,” he said, “or if you do, you don’t have to look at me. I understand.” I stared at his leg for a long time until I got used to it, and then I went back to my important work of holding the hammer.
Over the weeks, I watched the second go-cart take shape. The first go-cart had a seat constructed over a primitive wooden chassis and the front wheels were steered with ropes. It was a clumsy design. The second car had a more elevated seat and the distance between the seat and the wheels was shorter, so that the wheels could be steered with the feet, a vast ergonomic improvement. Best of all, the front wheels had a big housing over them, so that the feet and legs of the driver would have some protection in the event of a crash. The final step was painting it, and here Chris made me feel as though my help was invaluable.
The go-cart was finished in November. On the morning of my sixth birthday, Chris knocked on our front door and told my father he had something special for me. I was very excited about the prospect of an unexpected present. When I came to the door, Chris stood back and made a Vanna White flourish towards the newly constructed go-cart parked by the porch as he said, “It’s for you! All this time, I was making it for you.” I don’t know what I was hoping it would be, but I was disappointed that it was the go-cart.
I said, “But I don’t want it, Chris.” He said, “You don't? But you said it was so neat.” I said, “I did think it was neat, for you. But it’s a boy’s toy. I don’t want a go-cart.” My father asked me in a stern tone, “Are you sure about that? Chris went to an awful lot of trouble to make this for you.” I said I was sure. My father turned to Chris and said, “I don’t know what to say, Chris. I’m sorry about this.” Chris said it was okay and he left—looking sad, I thought.
As soon as Chris was out of earshot, my father slammed the door and said, “I’m mighty disappointed in you, young lady. You should have taken the go-cart whether you wanted it or not and pretended to be happy about it.” “But why take something I don’t want?” I asked. He said, “Because that’s what you do when someone gives you a present. It’s rude not to accept it, and it hurts peoples’ feelings when you don’t. You just hurt Chris’s feelings pretty bad.”
This devastated me. I knew what hurt feelings felt like. And now I’d made Chris feel that way. I cried, but my father wasn’t sympathetic. “Now you know” he said, and he walked away, pissed.
Huntington’s Disease ran in Chris’s family, and I have a strong feeling in my gut that Chris is no longer in this world. I wish that he were because I would love to thank him now for the go-cart, and even more for all the hours he spent with me, making me feel like I was somebody important. I guess all children learn the etiquette surrounding gifts somehow, hopefully without making my stupendous blunder. It was one of the most painful lessons I ever learned. I would give anything now not to have learned it at Chris’s expense.