She was talented. The way her separated, outstretched fingers reached out extended throughout the piece she was teaching us, elegantly. She was stunning. The way her raven-colored straight hair was neatly combed, framing her long face and dark eyes–the most exquisite face I had ever seen. She was a natural. The way her long and lean body gracefully moved to the music, effortlessly. She was thoughtful. “Meggie, stretch your arms out as far as you feel they can reach. It doesn’t matter how long they are, as long as you feel inside you are reaching for the sky.” She was perfect, at least to me. She was my mother.
“C’mon girls, follow my lead!” My 2nd grade dance class was to perform at the International School in Islamabad, Pakistan later that month, and my mother, a former ballet student, was our teacher. I smiled up at her, with pride, but then looked down at my own, disfigured body. Alongside the rest of the girls, wearing black ballerina slippers, my own feet were covered with a dark leather-type “wrapping,” a local Pakistani shoe peddler had made to fit my feet. No matter my effort, and notwithstanding my own mother’s encouragement and her excitement to share this experience with my peers, my one-fingered hands and shortened forearms failed to accomplish any type of fluid movement, at least to anyone watching.
But again, I felt a deep sense of urgency. It was not only desirable but somehow critical for me to perform with the other girls. That evening, after I had a long warm bath, I ran to find my Mom. Not only did I want to continue to try ballet, I decided I could also try bell dancing lessons.
“Mom, why didn’t you end up pursuing dancing?” As she looked at me, I followed up with what felt like the obvious, “I mean, professionally…..you loved it so much.” We were sitting on my parents’ bed in Urbana, staring at photos of my dance performance back in Islamabad. She turned to me softly, stroking my hair behind my ear with her finger. “Meg, when I was close to your age, I began to realize that every time I danced, I inadvertently leaned too far to one side. By the time I danced in toe shoes, it was readily apparent something was wrong. After going to the doctor, I finally realized that the reason that I struggled more than my peers was because I had scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. I think it happened as a result of a car accident I was in as a child.”
“But Mom, you danced for years afterwards, right? And all the teaching you did? It must have not been too terrible?” She looked at me, but her mind was clearly elsewhere. “I loved dancing so much, I pushed through the discomfort, at least until college when I decided to study English, write and teach. It was worth the struggle, even with my setback.” I couldn’t believe it. Like me, my Mom was imperfect physically too. It was the first moment in my life I felt as if I wasn’t the only one in the family that struggled with a physical setback. In that moment, I couldn’t speak (a rarity for me), but offered my mom a hug. Then I rushed down to the living room to twirl around to music playing on the record player, hoping my parents would come down to watch.
“Savanna, it’s almost time to register you for after-school activities.” Our seven-year-old turned to me. “Mommy, I want to play soccer, but not art and I want to take a break from piano. I am not sure I want to continue with gymnastics anymore either.” I looked at her and, if I could have raised a single eyebrow it would have arched high. “Savanna, you already tried and quit ballet and hip-hop this past year. As important as it is for you to try out new things, I think it’s just as important to remain committed, at least to some activities.”
This past week I published a new Teen Flaunt by 17-year-old Caroline Nycek called, “Dancing With a Curve.” In it, Caroline describes her life as a dancer with inherited scoliosis, initially focusing on the understandable negative. “All my life, I hated my back. I was so scared that I looked crooked to everyone.” However, Caroline continued, demonstrating that her setback actually motivated her. “I have taken numerous dance classes, and although sometimes having scoliosis might make doing something on my left easier than doing it on my right, that just makes me want to work harder. Proving people wrong and showing them that I can do things they thought I couldn’t just made me want to dance more.”
I thought a lot about Caroline’s Teen Flaunt this past week, on several levels. First, it inevitably brought back thoughts of my own mother’s struggles with scoliosis. Whether it occurred recently for Caroline or more than fifty years ago for my mom, both women accepted their physical difficulty as a challenge to overcome, to do what they loved. And although I may not have been born with a crooked spine, their drive resonated with me on a personal level, for my own life and as a parent. From the moment I grabbed (with my arms instead of fingers) onto monkey bars as a young child and swung fiercely, to my insistence on playing trombone, (where the slide length was not made for the likes of me), to taking up sports like tennis, (where I have no substantial palm or fingers to ensure a tight grip on a racquet), my challenges sparked a need to press on through adversity. Similarly, I have watched my own children who share my physical condition commit to wearing a baseball glove that could never perfectly fit, play the piano (quite well I might add) with limited functionality, and dribble a basketball down the court with only one finger. They demonstrate such admirable resolve.
And that brings me to our lovely daughter, Savanna. Of the three, with no physical difference like her brothers, she has unlimited opportunities. The question has never been what is p for her, but rather, what activity she might fancy trying? But it occurs to me that Savanna is one to try many things but then easily drop them on a whim for something new. Quitting becomes an easy, available option.
And so, as I reflect this week, inspired by Caroline’s thoughtful Teen Flaunt, it reminds me of a strange sense of irony that applies to our family. Any stranger that takes one look at us would presume that, at least in this context, our family’s challenges lie with finding activities suitable to our sons’ apparent limits. The reality, however, is quite different. It is our daughter, the one who understandably takes it all for granted, that still needs to learn from her brothers (and her mother and grandmother before her) that quitting is not in fact the best option.