“What’s your name? My name is Meggie!” My family and I had just returned from living first in Jerusalem, Israel and then in Kabul Afghanistan. My older brother Peter and baby brother Teddy were inside the house already with my Mom, as my Dad brought in the groceries. Noticing a little blond boy playing with a ball outside the house next door, I went over to join him. Unbeknownst to me in that moment, my new neighbor would turn out to be one of my closest friends growing up. His name was William and, as time passed, he and I would spend hours playing basketball outside with Peter and making snowball forts with Ted. In high school, William would even accompany me (as a friend) to school events when no other boy would think of asking me. I would be the one to comfort William at our house after his father’s funeral, when he simply needed to get away from everyone else.
From the instant we met, unlike most of the kids I encountered, William was entirely nonplussed about my one-fingered hands (and one-toed feet). It was as if he already had some greater sense into what mattered and what was otherwise insignificant in life. But what? A few days later, although I was too young to connect the dots, I had my answer. One morning I noticed William outside, standing near what appeared to be an older brother whose name I later learned was Jonathan. Severely mentally disabled, Jonathan used to sit on his pebbled driveway and play with rocks while William and his older sister Melissa watched to make sure he didn’t run into the street. In a clear role-reversal, William already had “parental” responsibilities and pressures in his life that I couldn’t possibly fathom.
It was Thanksgiving Day and we had moved to Egypt a few months before. The day before, we had trekked to a visit a local mosque where I had been the subject of gawking eyes, “tsk tsk’s,” and pity by strangers. But as much as I loathed going out in public and hiding my one-fingered hands and shortened forearms as best I could, looking around at my family I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. At my mom’s request, I had just set the table and called everyone sit down. My older brother Peter, at fourteen, had been teasing me about a boy in his grade I had a crush on, while my younger brother Teddy, only in fourth grade, had been making me laugh hysterically at a joke only the two of us could ever understand.
I stared at the roasted chicken, plain potatoes, bread and some unrecognizable vegetable, then around the table at my family. The prior year we had been living in Urbana and our Thanksgiving meal was spent, as per usual, with our close friends the Shapiros. From my table this year, I imagined joyfully eating my Elizabeth Shapiro’s juicy turkey, and could practically taste my favorite holiday food of all, my mom’s own homemade cranberry sauce. Yet this year it was just the five of us in a strange land with no cranberries or turkeys within a thousand mile radius of our apartment in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. Still, I was happy. Repeating an old Weinbaum-Shapiro family tradition, my parents began to belt out a tune, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing….”
At home, I was not the object of stares, whispers or finger-pointing by those who had never met me. At home, sitting with my family around the table at Thanksgiving, even with no traditional turkey or trimmings to eat, I felt an incredible sense of gratitude anyway—at home I felt normal.
Not surprisingly, I have been thinking a lot this week about gratitude. Reflecting on Thanksgiving Day’s past, I couldn’t help but recall the days as a child when I believed the only people around whom I could ever truly be myself were my immediate family. They were the ones that clearly understood exactly what it meant to face the world with my own version of challenges. Of course, I was also always grateful for friends who had known me forever or had just gotten to the point where they treated me no differently and even forgot that I looked so different.
However, I had come to accept that most any kid who had never met me would have to adjust and it was up to me to make that happen. My theory had a flaw, though–there were simply certain children that just seemed unfazed. For those few, I didn’t have to work at all. What was it that made them so immediately accepting?
Last year Ethan had told me about his friend Ryan who had moved to our hometown from Florida with his family. Ethan described the first day of 6th grade when he met Ryan at lunch: “Mom, there is a really nice new kid I met at school named Ryan……” He reported as he spoke animatedly using own one-fingered hands for emphasis. I couldn’t help but wonder and blurted out, “Did Ryan ask about your hands?” Ethan turned to me, clearly happy, “No, he didn’t seem to care at all.” I made a mental note that Ryan’s indifference to Ethan’s blatant physical difference was unusual and wondered why? It would take a year, but I would eventually come to understand.
Recently, Ryan and a few of Ethan’s friends came to our home for a sleepover. When it was time for his mom to come pick him up, she mentioned that four years earlier Ryan was diagnosed with Stage 2 Burkitt’s Lymphoma. I was surprised to hear the news and incredibly happy to hear Ryan is now in remission. I also listened to Ryan’s mom describing something that sounded oddly familiar. “Meg, most kids were sweet but, as you know, some were curious, some stared, and others just didn’t know what to say.” She continued. “And some people just blurt out comments without thinking. I will never forget being in the post office mailing Mother’s Day presents. He was out of the hospital so I took him with me for the brief outing. We had forgotten his baseball cap, but I didn’t want to drive back home. A gentleman in line said, ‘Hey buddy, you are a real fighter. You beat that cancer.’ Ryan later looked at me and said, ‘How do you think he knew I had cancer?’ As I looked back in the rearview mirror, I saw his shiny bald head and said, I don’t know sweetie, maybe in was your Lance Armstrong bracelet.’”
Ryan recently posted a Kid Flaunt on Don’t Hide It, Flaunt It. In his essay, he shared some of his life experience and the challenges he endured at such a young age. He also wrote, “In the end, I can tell you that I am a VERY lucky guy. I have family, friends and teachers who have loved and supported me through all of these challenges.”
Let’s face it–the likelihood of our children coming across another kid with a limb difference is pretty slim. Realistically, we have to be mentally prepared for those kids who will gawk and stare and make us feel weird from the first encounter, and we even get why they are curious. However, on this Thanksgiving, I am so very grateful there are also children who, whether from their own life experience or from their own innate sense of compassion, give us a break on those first encounters and don’t feel the need to have us explain our appearance. What a pleasure it is for us to meet kids who already know what really matters.