From staring to caring: an angel at the playground

From staring to caring:  an angel at the playground
Posted on Wed 16 Jan 2019

Written by Jennifer Farmer, international guest writer, New England, USA

 

The beach vacation we had originally planned never included a leg brace, or cerebral palsy. Diagnosed just weeks before, we were still functioning in a fog of disbelief. Going out in public was suddenly filled with not-so subtle stares, and sad glances exchanged between mothers and fathers of typical children. I couldn’t help but to notice every single one.

It was summer, and our daughter’s brace was obvious. Summer clothes do not exactly hide a leg brace. While most kids including her older sister wore sandals in the sweltering summer heat, she wore tall socks and thick sturdy sneakers along with the brace to help support her balance.  

 

The disability between us

Sitting at the beachside pizza restaurant waiting for our order to arrive, I saw her. She was a beautiful young mom seated across from us with her young family. I could have imagined myself striking up a conversation under normal circumstances. However, I noticed that she was focused on my daughter’s leg brace.

Suddenly, I was angry about the staring. In that moment, I became angry about everything. I felt so lost, spiraling out into the lonely universe of having a child with a disability. I had not yet met anyone else in our situation, and I began to assume that no one would ever understand our pain.

 

Encounter at the playground

After lunch we went to the playground a few blocks away.  I was so focused on helping my daughter navigate the equipment that I didn’t notice the mom from earlier standing in front of me.

“Hi, I saw you back at the restaurant,” she softly said, leaning in toward me.  She then looked down at my daughter with a warm smile, and motioned to her brace. “Do you mind if I ask what she wears the brace for?”

 It was the first time anyone actually asked me about it. Oddly, it felt good. The words didn’t quite come easily, but I managed to explain to her that we had noticed some developmental motor delays as a baby, and how after a great deal of testing and doctor visits, we had just received the diagnosis of cerebral palsy a few weeks earlier.

With my strongest voice, I explained that she had only worn the brace for about a week, and that she took her first steps just days before.

With tears in her eyes, she said, “I feel like you need a hug. Is it OK if I give you a hug?”

In that moment I realized how hard I had been trying to hold it all together.  I had been so strong, that I never stopped to think what I needed. As mothers and caregivers, we don’t really ever stop to think about that.

 More than anything in the world, I needed a hug. I needed to tell our story. I needed someone to truly listen, and care.  She hugged me, genuinely hugged me. I suddenly didn’t feel so alone.

I must have talked for an hour that day, and she listened with kindness and empathy. She explained that she saw us back at the restaurant, and noticed the brace. She had wanted to talk to me then, but didn’t know how to approach a conversation. She was terrified what my reaction would have been.

 

Lessons learned from a stranger

Meeting this lovely person taught me that those who stare do not necessarily mean to cause harm. She showed me that people genuinely want to connect, but may not know how. Over the years, I have become much more comfortable talking to people about our daughter’s disability. I embrace opportunities to inform and educate curious strangers.

As for the beautiful mom at the pizza place and playground years ago, I think of her often. I know our paths will most likely never cross again, but I will never forget her.  I am forever grateful for what she gave me that day: Comfort and kindness when I needed it the most.

 

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