I spend a decent amount of time walking around the city, and at times I feel that I have laid eyes on perhaps every one of the city’s five million inhabitants. For the most part, the figures tend to merge into a white noise of stout shapes ambling along at speeds invariably slower than my own, and generally I pay them no mind. However, every once in a while, someone will step out of the background and engage my attention for a moment or two, and the moment will stay for me for a long time afterwards. This happened a few weeks ago while I was en route to the grocery story. It was in the latter part of the day, when the sun had just about gone down but the cold hadn’t quite sunk its teeth in yet. On one grassy corner, underneath several trees rendered naked and brittle by the season, I spied a young woman walking her dog.
It was the dog that caught my attention first. It was a medium sized golden retriever who had happened upon a large grey branch and had proudly claimed it as his own. The branch was as thick as a man’s wrist, roughly twice the length of the dog itself, and spiked with many smaller sticks and twigs that were growing out of it. This rendered the branch as a whole unruly and difficult for the dog to carry. With every few steps, an offshoot would strike the ground and send the retrieved off kilter. Nevertheless, he refused to let it go.
Any dog owner will be familiar with the tenacity that a dog can show when it finds an object that it wants to take home, and anyone who has loved another creature dearly will know exactly the look that this dog’s owner gave me when her eyes locked with mine. There was the apologetic smile, the slight shake of the head, and the rolling of the eyes. The message of that look, framed within the small window of a face that was outlined by a scarf and a beanie, was a complex one. She was not apologising for her dog’s behaviour. Instead, she was sharing a joke with me. She was tacitly including me in her conspiracy to treat her dog’s discovery with exactly the same gravitas as the dog was treating it. I loved that look.
I like to watch the way people watch other people, or the way people watch their animals. Especially when there’s love involved. By far my favourite moment in recent memory happened when I went on a hike into the heart of one of Santiago’s national parks.
When I think of that hike I do not think of the cold that has terrorised me throughout this winter, or how my breath was turned visible by the crisp air. Instead I think of how I stripped off my jacket in a warm glade near the summit of a low hill. I think about ducking under thorny branches, and the low chatter of my companions and my measured breathing as I solidly placed one foot in front of the other along the mulchy path of the dead countryside. I think about occasionally stepping aside to be passed by runners and other hikers with their jackets tied snugly around their waists.
About an hour into the hike we reached a waterfall, and beyond that, a river. By that river we shed our packs and took lunch. I had not brought much, and as I did not know any of the other people very well I pulled myself up onto a high ledge that towered over the others, and simply watched.
A few meters further down the river, three figures had made their picnic atop a large boulder that squeezed the flow of the stream into a furious hourglass. I recognised in an instant that they were related; they all had the same blond hair, narrow frame, and their noses and cheeks were all relatively identical. It was a mother, perched awkwardly at the very apex of the rock, with a backpack gingerly placed between her feet, and all the ingredients of a sandwich precariously balanced on her knees and in her lap. On either side of her was a teenage son, perhaps a year or two apart in age, but each equally thin and lankly. Their grasshopper-like legs were bent at the knees, pulling their jeans, already too short, up at the ankle revealing both the colour of their socks as well as the speed of their growth.
While the teens regarded nature in silence, their awkward limbs trying to bend themselves into a comfortable position, the mother was engaged in an intricate ballet of sandwich construction. There were many complexities involved in this. Using a pocket knife she had to slice the bread, cut up the cheese and salami, and fold it all into a sandwich while ensuring that nothing tumbled off her lap and into the river. It was a master balancing act, and she carried it out with patience and aplomb.
She passed the first sandwich off to her youngest. Their movements were slow and precise because any reckless gesture would cause something to fall into the river. The mother carefully constructed a second sandwich while the oldest son gazed off into the middle distance, and as she held it out to him he said something to her, and began unzipping his fleece jacket.
Evidently he wanted to remove a layer before eating, so the mother held onto the sandwich while the son carefully pulled himself out of the fleece, his flailing arms making him look like an anemone in a strong current. While he did this, his mother simply watched him, and the look on her face was one of my favourite things that I saw that day. It was love layered on wonder layered on amusement. She was marveling at the fact that she had produced a fully formed human who could carry out the complicated task of jacket removal. It was amusement the the person she had created could act with absolute seriousness without full knowledge of how serious life could be. And on top of that was a deep, unfathomable love. Even if the jacket removal had taken the son hours, the mother would have patiently waited, sandwich in one hand, pocket knife in the other, awkwardly trying to keep her balance. She could have waited like that forever because her son’s comfort was far more important to her than her own.
Nothing quite beats the way a mother looks at her child. Sometimes mothers are tired, or they shout, or they’re focusing on other things. But during those precious moments when a child is just existing, and the mother is just watching… Those are the moments I’d gladly hike into the wilderness to see.