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Thursday, February 20, 2014

long lines and little people

Running errands this weekend I found myself in the uncomfortable parenting position I have expecting and dreading for some time - really ever since Maya began to speak and we realized just how uninhibited she is.

The four of us ran into the  L.L. Bean Outlet store.  I offered to wait in the very long line with our return while Sandi and the girls browsed.  I found myself standing in line behind a mom and her daughter.  Her daughter was a little person.

I confess I don't believe I have ever met a child with dwarfism.  To be entirely honest, in our very homogenous area of Maine, I may not have I've ever met a little person at all.

I'm not even sure how to write about this without it sounding wrong or politically incorrect.  Please forgive any transgressions I make in sensitivity; they are born out of my own ignorance and not from any malice, I can assure you.

I often find myself in a similar position out in the world where I don't know if the right thing to do is to ignore a person's condition, difference or disability or to do what my heart wants to do: to reach out, to connect.   When I see a mom with a very disabled child in a wheelchair, for instance, ignoring her and her child feels wrong on every level, but making too obvious an attempt at contact seems odd and could be perceived by the mom as pitying.  I mean, how well does: "Cool wheelchair!" come off?

I have seen moms with kids that have significant mental or physical disabilities out in public and I have observed how other parents will actually turn their back or look right through them.  I go out of my way to hold the door, offer assistance or say something if it feels natural.  If nothing else I offer a warm smile.  

Because, let's be honest, who doesn't benefit from a warm smile that says, hey I'm out here slogging around trying to keep it all together too?

So back at L.L. Bean, my warm smile was quickly followed by easy "mom" talk.   It was a very long and slow moving line and we covered a lot of ground in the small talk range.   Her daughter told me she was nine.  I told her I had a nine-year-old.  I asked her what music she liked and if she was in third or fourth grade.  I commented on the sparkles on her purse.  I learned that her name was Sara*.  The mom told me they were visiting from out of state.

It was what I would want if I were a mother out at a store with a child with a genetic abnormality: to be treated like everyone else.   I wouldn't want to be pitied or ignored.  I would, essentially, not want the difference to become a barrier to living.   

And then the girls came along. 

Maya was doing some heavy staring.  So was Ella for that matter.  In order to make things less awkward and obvious, I said, "These are my girls, Ella and Maya.  This is Sara.  Ella, she is your age."  

I was proud of Ella.  She was trying hard not to stare, trying to take it in.  

Maya, on the other hand, whipped her finger out, pointed it at Sara and said, "WHAT?!  SHE is nine years old?"

Sandi and I worked quickly. I pushed Maya's arm with the accusing finger down and Sandi swooped her away.  I apologized to them.  I told Sara that Maya has a hearing loss and that she wears hearing aids. I explained that Maya often teaches other kids about hearing aids because they don't know anything about them.  This was the first time I was grateful for Maya's hearing loss.  I felt it somehow made the offense of her insensitivity slightly less grievous.  

Sara went over to check out some of the impulse buys and I quietly asked her mother, "I am so sorry. Does that bother her?"  

This opened the whole conversation up and in the next few minutes (I tell you, it was a very slow line) we connected as moms, as moms with kids that need some special consideration in the world and in general as human beings.  She told me that it doesn't bother her daughter too much when kids are curious or insensitive but it does when it comes from adults.   She told me about how Sara did a presentation at her school for Dwarfism awareness month recently.  She does well with her peers.  (This made me feel immensely better knowing just how mean kids can be.)

I felt this indescribable pride for this mother and her daughter to be such brave souls in the world where people do stare and point (people such as my children) and to just go on being who they are.  I was grateful for her openness with a complete stranger because in those minutes of waiting we got to the have the experience of connecting instead of being isolated which is how so many people function in this world now.

I can't help but think that this is always a good thing.

We had a long conversation with our kids about it, of course.  We especially focused on the aspect of people being born into whatever body they are born into, that it matters who people are on the inside and that you cannot know someone by assessing their physical body.  We also covered empathy and how it might feel to be born with a condition that was so obvious to people and that you could not change.

We also had the experience with our girls of watching the Canadian mogul skier, Alexandre Bilodeau and his brother,  Frederic, who lives with cerebral palsy.  If you have not heard of this story please Google it now.  It is the most touching story of a brother's devotion.  It was truly life altering for our children to understand that this man has a perfectly functioning mind but cannot use his body in a normal way due to his CP.    It moved us to tears.

Thank you L.L. Bean for your slow line last weekend.  Thank you Sara and your mom for helping to teach our children an immensely important lesson and thank you for helping me continue to believe that being open and loving is the way to change the world.  You may be small in stature but you have a heart as big as the ocean.

*Just in case it would matter, I changed her name.  


Jeannine said...

You and your words, and your (both of your)parenting - make my heart happy!!!

Zoe Kreitzer said...

My heart grew three sizes just reading that. Cripes, I miss you!!

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