Recently, John, the kids and I were having breakfast in our kitchen, early in the morning before school and work. I flipped the news on to check traffic and weather. As I waited for the update, there was a story about a couple who had two baby girls that were born last March conjoined, attached at the abdomen, who together shared critical organs. To the delight of their parents and two-year-old older brother, the girls had just been separated during a complex, life-threatening, yet ultimately successful surgery. I listened to both parents describing how grateful they were, and thought about the unimaginable stress they had just experienced. The mother began to describe the day she had first discovered that the girls were conjoined. “First, we received word we were having twins. We were elated.” She went on. “But then, when the doctor told us they were connected and my heart dropped…..their recommendation was to terminate.” And then her husband finished her thought. “But we both agreed it wouldn’t be fair to them to not give them a chance.” I sat down for a moment, sipped my coffee, and watched intently. The mom continued, describing the moment the twins arrived. I heard her say, “I instantly said they were gorgeous, they both had ten fingers, came out screaming, and we knew we made the right choice.”
I looked up at my boys, hoping they did not catch the comment about the “ten fingers”. John seemed to be engrossed with the paper, so I didn’t bother complaining aloud, making a mental note for later. Thankfully, the boys seemed unfazed, and so I turned off the television, gave them, Savanna and John each a kiss, and dashed out to the door to make the next train. At the parking garage, I had the sudden urge to let loose a stream of profanity—sort of like Yosemite Sam, the short-tempered nemesis of Bugs Bunny. “Why is it that people are so darn hung up on having the perfect, ten-fingered baby?” I thought to myself, aggravated. Here’s a couple whose babies came out conjoined, with a potentially life-threatening situation, and she is relieved they have ten fingers?
But as always, by the time I arrived at work, I had spent a fun train ride listening to music with my friend Mike on his iPhone, and quickly forgot my frustration, at least for the time being.
One day late last month, Ethan’s 5th grade class went on a field trip to visit a center in New Jersey for the elderly. I recalled my own high school years when I worked part-time at Clarke-Lindsay Retirement Village in Urbana, and I was glad he was going to spend time there. The exposure made such an impact on me, as I hoped it would for him. That said, I have spent many conversations talking to all three of our children about respect for the elderly, and how much we have to learn from people who have had a full life experience. The kids in Ethan’s class, along with the rest of the entire 5th grade, were going to the center to play games with the residents, and also sing holiday music with them. Being a working mom in New York City, I couldn’t be one of the volunteers going, but I would have liked to attend this one.
The following week, as I hung up the phone after a conference call, I noticed an e-mail from John. The subject line read, “Take a look at this.” Included in the message were the following words from my husband, “Look at how Ethan folds his arms!” I opened the link to see an article in the local paper and a photo of Ethan’s class at that senior center. There he was, in the front row, the only kid with his arms folded, hands seemingly hidden. I stared at the picture, feeling regretful that I didn’t join his class trip. Maybe if I had, Ethan wouldn’t have been hiding his hands in front of all of those strangers. That same evening, on my way home from work, I swung by Ethan’s basketball practice. I made it in time for the final ten minutes, waved to Ethan, but then held back, periodically peering into the gym where the boys were pushing hard with drills. As I peered in, I noticed one boy in particular (a year older than Ethan, but who was on his team) that appeared to be particularly focused on our son’s one fingered hands. Instantly my heart deflated, and my mood darkened, wondering what kind of season Ethan was to endure, given the boy’s fixation.
And then, at the end of practice as we began to walk to our car, I noticed that the same 6th grader had grabbed Ethan’s right hand, placing it on a ball. I almost interjected, but stopped myself in time to watch the boy trying to show Ethan how best he might be able to grip the basketball for dribbling. Slightly annoyed (and mildly defensive), I looked at the other boy and stated matter-of-factly, “You know, Ethan has already been playing basketball for years.” “It’s okay, Mom!” I heard Ethan say, clearly wanting us to move past the topic. But then, the boy said something that surprised me. “Oh, that’s so cool! Ethan, see you soon!” He was totally sincere.
And there it was, the boy was actually just curious (after all, it’s not every day you meet a one-fingered basketball dribbler) and even being sweet. I, on the other hand, had jumped to the (wrong) conclusion that the boy was going about to react negatively, or with pity. In fact, he was just interested in showing Ethan what he believed the best way he could grip a ball using one finger.
When we arrived at home that night, I began to reassess the day, this time wearing glasses a much rosier shade. After Charlie and Savanna were in bed, I came into Ethan’s room—he was just finishing his homework. “E—I have a question. When you were singing to the senior citizens at the center, how come you had your arms folded in front of you? Did you feel self-conscious?” I waited, expecting him to confess. But instead, Ethan turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “Of course not Mom. I was cold in the room. Why would I do that? Older people wouldn’t care about the way my hands look!”
After Ethan had gone to bed, I considered the day’s events. Not only was I making assumptions about the intention of others, I was even making assumptions about the actions of my own children! It occurred to me that I spend so much time writing, speaking, and living my life so that people don’t make assumptions about me or our children, and here I am doing just that. If I deserve a chance, then I need to remind myself that so do others.
As I sat down to write this piece, it was originally going to be written with a different slant. But as I researched more on the mother of the conjoined twins, wanting to make sure I quoted her perfectly, I learned that she in fact said something different than what I had thought I heard. Here is what she actually said: “I instantly said they were gorgeous, they both had held on to my fingers, came out screaming, and we knew we made the right choice.”
Clearly, I should have given her the benefit of the doubt too.