The shoes’ glitter twinkled from within the pink fabric. Woven into the bright neon hue, the audacious silver screamed under the overpowering brightness. The black outline was draped over the velcro strap; an afterthought, it was like a thick layer of eyeliner desperately trying to make the eyelashes bolder.
Under the fluorescent lighting in the store, these shoes–toddler size 8, a good full three sizes bigger than Evelyn’s feet normally fit–hid amongst all the high-rise sneakers and dressy boots with heels unnaturally tall for a two-year-old. Even for one who maintained a steady gait.
The saleslady did not blink an eye when my response to her offer to help began with, “we are looking for shoes that will fit over my daughter’s new braces…” Pulling them out of the diaper bag, the unruly velcro clamped itself tightly to the strap of her bib. As I tugged harder, pieces flung about the floor, wildly displaying the contents of our haphazardly packed bag: a changing pad, the plastic chip that belonged with her brace, a rogue tissue. Yet, I won the first battle in our quest; amongst the scattering of our child’s items, I held the new plastic brace in my hand.
“Sure, I can help. Parents come in often looking for shoes that will fit over those. You’ll need at least one or two sizes bigger than what she normally wears.”
My breath halted. All the prepared words that constantly circulate my head deadened; explanations and excuses constantly sit in waiting, like a rolodex of ways to protect my daughter’s feelings and abate my anxiety. Scrolling through the mental cards–the tricks I have collected over the past two years–none of them proved useful in this moment. She simply understood our plight.
“It is so hard to find shoes that will fit,” I said.
“I understand. Just know you are not alone,” she replied.
Stale cigarettes blended with a floral arrangement–likely lavender and roses–creating an oddly pleasant yet repulsive odor from her white sweater. Her middle-aged face had the wrinkles of a long-time smoker, her voice was deepened and openly raspy; yet, her fresh makeup and darkened hair revealed a woman whose soul yearned to be much younger.
Her words offered an unexpected acceptance, crumbling any lingering wall I had built. I no longer clung to the fierce protector I often felt I needed to be, and gave in to purely being a mother shopping for her young daughter’s shoes.
This kind woman had already begun her search of the shoeboxes that lined the shelves. She expected no response, no more explanation of our stressful plight as her legs carried her sideways, her eyes scanning, her hand quickly reaching out to grab the first option she found.
Our struggle to get our daughter walking is never ending; our battle with her leg weakness is met with her strong will to stand, walk, and be just like her friends at school. Her mind is running a marathon while her abilities falter to keep up. As her mother, I fight to find the balance: How much should I push her? How long should I let her rest? How can I allow her the independence she craves while keeping her safe? How do I let go of the guilt when I cannot help her more—or even merely find the right shoes?
The woman returned, time and again, with blue shoes, Mickey Mouse shoes, sparkly shoes, gray shoes. She offered a shoe horn when I fought the stubborn heel that refused to pass over the rivet holding the brace’s velcro in place. When I casually mentioned that I should start a shoe line of affordable adaptive shoes, she listened with intent. Her kind eyes never laughed at our troubles.
As the pink shoes came out of the box, the blue of Evelyn’s eyes grew, the prospect of wearing something so bold enticing. Her limited words were not minced, “These, right here,” she said pointing to her feet.
The shoes were wide, they had one simple strap, they slid on with little muscling. Bounding down from the bench, her tiny hand clasped in my husband’s hand, she took off wandering the store. Each step, still belabored, was now engulfed by something beautiful. For the first time, she walked without wanting to stop. She took big steps, stopped by each mirror for a peek, and was on the verge of a fit at the prospect of taking them off. She was finally wearing shoes, just like her friends. Walking, just like her friends.
The pink shoes rarely come off. She insists on napping with them. She finds a special “safe place” for them at night, and insists on helping to pull them on in the morning. She says “no, walk” nearly every time I try to carry her.
The sparkles, the pink, the black outlined hearts were perfect. Alone, they cannot make Evelyn’s muscles stronger, her balance better, or her strides more even. But while on her feet, they are magic.
Leaving the store, our heads held high and smiles on our faces, we had conquered what we thought would be our nemesis. We have a long way to go, a lot of practicing and exercises fill our days ahead, but we won this battle.
Along with those pink shoes, we left that day with something else. Something free. Something to cultivate and pass along to Evelyn as she fights her arduous struggles. Accompanying the lingering scent of the saleslady’s multifaceted aroma that clung to my sweater, a fraction her confidence, kindness, and acceptance seeped into my soul. And that was worth every penny of those shoes.