“I’m so proud of you!” my friend said to my daughter as she passed us in the daycare hallway. Her smile stretched ear-to-ear. The excitement in her voice was the kind that could have been so sugary it would cling to a donut like an icing laid on too thick. Instead, it was so genuine that it nearly brought tears to my eyes. Big-drops-of-honey-tears: honest, golden, and raw. It brought a glow to my daughter Evelyn’s face as she walked down the hall. It made my three-year-old nearly trip over her own feet in her attempt at showing off her new skill.
Evelyn was born into a paradox: with weak muscles and stiff joints. Her ailment–one that remains a mystery to us–caused her gross motor delays. Her life started with tiny casts covering her lower limbs. For eight weeks we worked to correct her clubbed feet. Cutting and replastering. Cutting and replastering. And still today, she wears special shoes when she sleeps to remind her feet’s arches that they shouldn’t bend in such a way that her toes from her right foot nearly kiss the ones on the left.
We make frequent long drives to physical therapy and coerce her into doing her exercises in the evenings. Ten to twenty crunchies for a strong core, twenty “x-marches” to work her hip flexors, and at least one painfully slow trip up and down the stairs. At a pace not much faster than my 96-year-old grandmother’s, her balance is wobbly and her coordination is a constant reminder of the complexities of life.
“Put your foot over here. No, not there. Where is your other foot going to go? Now move your hand. Move your hand up here. Further. Evelyn, it needs to go in front of you. Nope, that’s too far. Ok, good, now push up!” Repeat fifteen times.
All of this has to happen before getting to the typical toddler bedtime routine: potty, bath, pajamas, snack, potty, brush teeth, books, potty, water, potty, screaming…and sleep?
Just recently she began putting her walker aside, choosing instead to glide with her free hands swinging wildly as most toddlers do. With this new independence comes more worries: When will she fall next? What will she fall into? There she goes down. Is that a real cry? Was it a fall onto her bottom? She’s ok. Did she hit her face? Oh God, please no broken teeth…
While this is what most young parents deal with when their child begins walking, it is infinitely worse when your child is old enough that she should be ambulating well and yet can be tripped up by the smallest of misstep. Everything becomes an obstacle: the toe of her shoe grazing the side of my foot, the sneaky corner of a table leg, or a rogue long carpet fiber. For an already anxious mother, my fight-or-flight system gets a workout everyday.
So when my smiling friend, a friend proud of my child, took the time to congratulate my daughter on her progress, my heart grew bigger. My husband and I work tirelessly to give Evelyn every advantage possible. We want her to reach her biggest potential (and quite frankly, she’ll probably pass that, too.)
But our work is done at home. At night. Just the three of us. No one else sees when Evelyn flips onto her belly in protest of yet another crunchie. No one else hears her cries when she falls over and over again. No one else spends ten minutes per trip upstairs reminding a child to move her hand on the railing as we ascend the steps. No one else drives each week to physical therapy, only to have to ride the giant swing hanging from the ceiling to coax Evelyn to try it, build a tower out of large blocks to make her want to “play the games”, or walk the hallways trying to entice Evelyn to “go quickly” as we test her endurance. No one else has to pretend to run when Evelyn tries so desperately to move quickly like her friends. No one else has to hear Evelyn’s little voice say “I don’t want to wear these” pointing to her braces when she sees her friends walking barefoot. But we do it all just to make her feel like she, too, is a special human being. Because we know she is.
But there are others who have seen just how far Evelyn has progressed too. My husband and I don’t know when they take note, or who notices. Perhaps we are just all-consumed in a world filled with repetitive struggle. So, when someone takes a moment to acknowledge an achievement, a sense of community settles in.
Young parents talk about having a village. A village to help when their children are sick. A village to cook when parents are sick. A village to take the children to school, pick them up from dance practice, go to their soccer games, bring over presents on Christmas. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins–any relative close enough really–to babysit at any time frazzled parents need a night off or to drop the kids at grandma’s for the weekend. As a child, I had a grandparent who lived in the same town. She was part of my village.
My husband and I moved many times over the course of 15 years, and despite my having voiced desires to live near family–to live near at least part of our village–we ended up with the nearest grandparents six hours away. Phone calls work for weekly check-ins, Skype is nice when Evelyn wants to see Nana and Papa, but they hardly replace a hug or a snuggle or a good night kiss.
Yet even with many miles between us and our relatives, we still have a local village.
Our village is filled with the multiple physical therapists who have stretched Evelyn’s limbs when she was a baby, worked with her to roll over, army crawl, stand, and now walk. Each step of the way, with each therapist she has had, there was a cheering section by her side. Their investment in her well-being goes beyond their name badges and athletic gear. Evelyn’s infectious giggles makes them love her. Her tenacious spirit makes them proud of her. Their support of my husband and me as we forge this path for our daughter makes me honored to pull them into our village.
Our village has teachers. So. Many. Teachers. At daycare, Evelyn has changed rooms several times. When she started at six-months-old, she wore brace shoes connected with a bar 23 hours a day. When she began to roll around, her teachers sent us a video so we wouldn’t miss it while we worked. They helped her get outside when her toddler friends could walk themselves and she couldn’t. Shortly before we moved to a new state, she attended her last day at her first school. We brought two boxes of donuts as a thank you to the staff, and they returned their appreciation with hugs and tears.
Now she attends a preschool and a daycare. Every new teacher has invested herself into Evelyn more than I could have predicted. Former teachers who only knew her with a walker now see her free-wheeling it down the hall. They stop to give her a high-five. As they walk away, I hear them mumble “I love to see her walking like that.”
Our village has other children. Evelyn is an only child, but has no shortage of little buddies. Evelyn’s friends from daycare and school love her personality and don’t worry about her need to move around slower than they can. They bring her walker to her when she leaves it behind, they call out her name when she arrives to school, and show up at her birthday party or for play dates. She speaks their names when we are at home and sings silly songs about them. Our daughter is not alone. She is not alienated. These children, without even knowing it, are part of our village.
The most surprising addition to our village are the other parents like my friend who cheered my daughter on when she didn’t have to. She could have politely said “hi” and went about finding her own child. Instead she spent a few moments from her busy day to stop and acknowledge what she saw. She knew Evelyn walking was not just another child leaving the classroom. It was a long-awaited milestone in my daughter’s abilities, and she recognized the miracle that it was. And she’s not the only one. Many of Evelyn’s peers’ parents share in Evelyn’s well-being. They are not afraid to allow their child to play with one whose differences are more apparent than most. They drive their children to our house, invite us over, and ask about her every chance they get.
So, while having family around is wonderful, a village can be comprised of many individuals. I never expected the very people who would have been strangers to us had it not been for Evelyn to also be the ones so important to our everyday lives. And I never expected a few kind words to my daughter as she walked out of school that day to make me appreciate just how much these people mean to my daughter–and to us.