It is no wonder that growing up, one of my favorite stories was, “The Little Engine That Could.” In the tale, a long train must be pulled over a high mountain. Larger engines, are asked to pull the train, but for various reasons they refuse. The request is sent to a small engine, who agrees to try. The engine slowly advances over the mountain while repeating: “I-think-I-can”. The little train eventually succeeds, overcoming a seemingly impossible task.
I had been at it in my room in Urbana for hours with only marginal success. Yet, I was determined. Earlier, my parents had taken me and my two brothers, Peter and Ted, to Windsor Swim Club, our town pool. As we began to get dressed after our swim, I looked around to see if anyone was coming. “Mom, can you please tie my shoes?” Believing all clear, I sat on the wood bench and lifted both my feet and pressed them against my mom’s thighs. And then they came. From around the corner, four girls about my age walked into the room to change. To my mother’s surprise and frustration, I struggled to wriggle my shoes from her grasp so they wouldn’t see her helping me, but it was too late. As the girls stared, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
Up in my room later that afternoon, I was determined to tie my shoes independently. By this point, my desire now became a present ‘need,’ not simply a ‘want’ for someday in the future. I knew I was only one summer away from being old enough to ride my bike with Peter to the pool, and for that I would need to be able to manage my shoelaces without help. As the only person in my family missing digits, I had no role model to show me how to overcome my physical challenges. And when it came to tying shoes, there were few options. After all, the idea for Velcro on sneakers was still years away.
Suddenly, I heard my mom’s voice calling out from the kitchen. “Meg, come downstairs! It’s time for dinner.” I knew I would not come down, at least not yet. I needed to figure out how to create leverage to pull the laces, without the assistance of multiple fingers. Once accomplished, the next step would be to unravel the lace just at the time I would need to make one loop pull through the other. Time and again, I would try. And fail. Eventually, I heard the clinking of silverware against plates and chatter downstairs by my family. I was hungry, but refused to abandon my challenge. So many people already wondered aloud about my ability to write or use scissors. For those tasks, I could never understand why they were seemingly so in awe. Learning to tie my shoes….now that would be a real accomplishment!
I was closely surrounded by about thirty eight-year-old girls, deliberately watching me write. Actually, I had invited them to stare. I knew exactly what was going on in their minds. How in the world can someone with only one finger on each hand possibly write anything?
Right before I spoke to the group of inquisitive and precious “Brownies,” (young Girl Scouts) the librarian at the school I was speaking at reminded me that they would be curious about even the “little things.” She gave me an example of a time she once taught children and brought in a blind man to speak to them. She paused before saying, “He told them that no question was too personal. So, they proceeded to ask him how he could go to the bathroom without being able to see the toilet or his own body parts.” Once I heard this I was ready for anything these girls would ask. They entered the room and at that very moment it occurred to me that with all my blogging, parenting of children born with my condition, and public speaking experience, I had never actually spoken directly to other children about my condition.
Among other topics, I focused on the word, “courage” with the girls. Courage, I told them, was “the ability to face difficulty, uncertainty or pain without being overcome by fear.” Borrowing from one of my recent blog posts, we discussed the topic in the context of the YouTube videos of young girls posing the question “Am I Pretty?” and inviting public comment. Using the video postings as an example of fear, we discussed the importance of their having the confidence and moxie to believe in themselves, rather than being swallowed by the opinions of others. I challenged them to become their own heroes.
It wasn’t until the very end of our discussion did one of the girls raise her hand to ask me if I could write. “Sure!” I responded, relieved I was not asked how I wipe myself or something similarly awkward. “In fact, thank goodness I can write, since law school would have been much harder if I couldn’t.” That went over all of their heads, so I moved right to the demonstration.
As the girls crowded around me to see my special talent, I wrote one word: M-E-G, and then followed it with a picture of a heart. From their focused stares, they appeared to find it fascinating to watch. But to me, writing my name was something I had always taken for granted. My choice of what to write for the girls was simple, yet purposeful. At the end of the day, I get through it all by loving myself, and having the determination to try and ultimately manage not only what may come more easily, but also the seemingly impossible.
Long after my family finished their dinner, I finally figured out the right action plan. Without the additional fingers on each hand to help me hold a strong grip, I realized my own shoe laces were not sufficient. I ran into my dad’s closet and found some old, long laces and inserted them into the lace holes of my shoes. Success! As I suspected, the only way to tie my shoes independently was to wrap the longer laces around each finger in order to create leverage and tension. That night, even if it was almost time for bed, my mom’s spaghetti and meat sauce never tasted so good. By the following summer, Peter and I would be riding our bikes together to Windsor. One day in the distant future I would be helping my own kids tie their shoes, even their soccer cleats.