What the Girl at the Park Has Taught Me

Last summer I wrote about a girl I met at a park, here. Today the essay is featured on The Huffington Post, here.

Softball has started up again, and a couple weeks ago I took the children to one of Andy’s early games. As usual, we spent more time at the playground than we did on the bleachers, watching the game (thankfully, Andy is understanding about this). The girl at the park was there again, a little taller, a little wiser—just like Sophie. I believe she’s often there. She and Sophie played again, raced again, played tag again, had fun again.

That night I decided to straight-up ask Sophie about the girl’s missing arm. I felt like last summer I sort of glossed over it and I have long wondered if that was the appropriate thing to do. So I asked her about the girl at the park. I asked her about the girl’s missing arm.

Sophie didn’t believe me. She said it wasn’t missing. “She was hiding it,” Sophie said, “behind her back.”

My heart broke a little bit when she said this. It was as if she couldn’t accept the fact that someone might be missing something as important as an arm.

“No, Sophie.” I said. “She wasn’t hiding it behind her back. She only has one arm. But that’s OK. It doesn’t hurt her. And did you see all the things she was doing on the playground? She climbed everything you climbed. She ran just like all the other kids ran. When you hugged her, she hugged you back. She’s just like you and me, except she doesn’t have an arm. And some people only have one arm.”

Sophie shook her head. “That’s not true!” she said. “She was just hiding it!”

I so wanted to tell her she was right. I so wanted to keep her in the bubble of innocence she—we—had built around her. But I knew I couldn’t. That I shouldn’t.

“No, Sophie,” I said. “I’m telling the truth. She wasn’t hiding her arm. She only had one arm.”

And then, I kept going.

“Some people,” I said, “don’t have any arms at all. And some people are missing a leg. Or both legs.”

Sophie, on the verge of tears asked, “Then how do they walk?”

I told her about legs that doctors can make. I told her about wheelchairs. I told her about all the wonderful things medicine and society has done to help people.

And still, I kept going. I told her that some people don’t have an eye, or they’re missing fingers or maybe some toes.

I kept going, not noticing Sophie’s quivering lip, not paying attention to the little voice in my brain saying, STOP! YOU ARE TOTALLY FREAKING HER OUT!, not realizing that in her mind, she was probably picturing one single person without arms, legs, ears, eyes and a nose.

She burst into tears.

“It’s not true, Mommy! That doesn’t really happen! Stop saying that!”

Andy just looked at me, wide eyed, wondering what in the world I was doing to our daughter.

I then wondered why mandatory parenting classes for these types of conversations don’t exist.

I calmed Sophie down. I reminded her all the wonderful things the girl at the park was able to do. I assured her that most people who are missing something are missing only one thing—not all the things I listed. But I kept pushing. I wanted to make sure she believed that, for some people, this was their reality. And that missing these parts didn’t make them less of a person—rather more times than not people living life missing something on the outside gained a lot more on the inside—courage, determination, compassion. I felt like it was time she wasn’t so oblivious. I wanted her to know that if she saw things she had questions about, that she could talk to us. I needed her to know that there are hardships in life, hardships beyond me saying “no” to dessert after a poorly eaten dinner.

But it was past her bedtime. She was visibly shaken, her cheeks tear-stained. Andy insisted I stop. We put her to bed. I so wanted to bring it up again, to talk about it some more, but I bit my tongue. Another time, I thought.

I still don’t know what she thinks. Does she still really believe the girl was hiding her arm behind her back? Or did my words get through to her? To find out, I know I need to bring it up again. I think this, with a heavy sigh.

The few comments I’ve received on The Huffington Post have made me realize something else about myself and my family: I don’t do enough. I write. I remember. I’m grateful. I donate. I give money. But I don’t do enough. You can read readers’ comments to my essay here. (And I should note that I don’t associate the girl’s missing arm to poverty and I, honestly, don’t pretend to be privy to her economic situation—only that I simply wrote about what I saw.)

Here is the response I posted on the HuffPo site:

Thank you for your comments. You are so very right in action being as important as remembrance. We were given so many baby-related things when our children were born (and we still benefit from hand-me-downs from many people as our children grow). I’m thankful for that and continually try to pay that forward, as my children outgrow what’s been given to us. I used to volunteer as a mentor but gave that up once I had children, thinking I didn’t have enough time. But do I really not have enough time? I certainly have time to watch a TV show in the evening. I had time to write this. Your words have reminded me that awareness and donated items isn’t enough—more action is what equals more change. And now that my children are getting older (my daughter just turned 4) I love the idea about getting them involved, in hopes that throughout their lives they, too, won’t just remember the girl at the park but be inspired by the girl at the park—DO something about the girl at the park. So thank you.

So this is where I ask your help. What do you do? What organizations are you a part of that address poverty, specifically? How do you get your entire family involved so that the innocence bubble is not just replaced with sometimes-sad reality, but the idea that yes, this is the reality but we can change that reality. Because I want to help change it. I want my children to help change it. I think we have a responsibility to help change it.

The girl at the park has taught me so much. About me. About how my children view the world. About our world. And I think doing something is the best way I can thank her. For it is good to be grateful, yes. But it’s much better to give someone else something to be grateful about.

“Seldom do people discern
Eloquence under a threadbare cloak.” —Juvenal

The Girl at the Park

Andy had an early softball game tonight so the kids and I met him there to cheer him on. And by cheer him on I mean I tried to catch him at bat at least once while watching Sophie climb all over the bleachers and feeding tiny cut-up grapes (dinner) to the boys. Schmidt Field has a nice playground area, and Sophie knows this. I think Andy was only into his second inning when I finally gave in to Sophie’s pleading and took the kids to the swings.

We had almost reached the playground when a little girl who looked to be about Sophie’s age ran up to us. She said she liked our stroller. She helped me push it. She tried to unbuckle Owen while I was putting James in the swing. Once the boys were in the swings Sophie pushed James and the little girl pushed Owen. She wanted him to go high. I said not too high. She listened. I noticed she was staring at the boys’ shoes. She looked up at me. She said she liked them.

I looked down at her bare feet, caked with dirt, bits of long-ago red polish on her toenails. Her plaid green skort and halter top were soiled and stained—and not the kind of dirty that clothes get after a hard day’s play. But the kind of dirty that clothes get when they’re worn often and not washed. She was missing an arm and as such her halter top was skewed sideways so that one nipple was exposed. She had a wide scratch underneath her chin and a small one above her right eyebrow. A young boy walked past—someone she obviously knew—and she scowled at him and said, quietly, “dirty bastard.”

I thought so many things at that moment. I thought about her home life. I thought about those words, “dirty bastard.” I thought about her mother. I knew her mother wasn’t there because at one point a teenager slowly walked over and said “Be good or I’m going to tell your mama on you.” The little girl scowled at her, too. I thought about the girl’s scratches and hoped they were akin to the bruises covering Sophie’s legs—signs of playing hard rather than hard living. Looking at the girl, I should have felt blessed with all I have but instead I felt ridiculous. I thought of my Amy Butler diaper bag, the expensive Stride Rite tennis shoes and sandals on my children’s feet, Sophie’s Dora-branded, fancy flip-top water bottle, the smart phone in my purse. Although I am not rich, I felt spoiled. I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry, for all of us, living in a world in which so many have so much and so many have so little.

Sophie, of course, wasn’t thinking any of this. She was just delighted to have someone to play tag with. The girls chased each other all over the playground. They slid down the slide together, hand in hand. They climbed up the rope ladder together and sat on a platform together and at one point, when the little girl was elsewhere and Sophie was swinging and fell, the little girl ran over, concerned.

They were friends.

Eventually the little girl joined some teenagers and children at a picnic table. And Sophie found someone new to play with. But when it came time to leave, Sophie insisted on saying goodbye to her. So we walked over. And said goodbye. Sophie gave her a hug. The little girl hugged her back.

We left.

While walking back to Andy’s game, still in progress, I asked Sophie about the little girl. Sophie said she had fun playing tag with her. And then she paused. I braced myself. For questions about the little girl’s missing arm. The scratches. The dirty clothes. The words, “dirty bastard.” And then Sophie said, “She wasn’t wearing any shoes.”

“No,” I said. “She wasn’t.”

“Well, I don’t want to wear any shoes then, too.”

The little girl was admiring my boys’ sneakers. Sophie was admiring the little girl’s bare feet.

I love the way very young children so quickly friend each other, without thought to sex, class, race, popularity, appearance. I hope Sophie maintains that sense of openness, always. Especially during those oh-so-difficult middle-school years, when absurd things like a shirt’s brand name matters. (And, let’s be honest. For many of us, it still does.)

And while I loved their short friendship, I hated the fact that I met a child tonight who was forced to wear such dirty clothes. Who was missing an arm. Who knew the words “dirty bastard” at the age of 3. It made me hate what I have. And hate what she didn’t have. And hate that some—many—have much, much more. And then I hated all the hate that was flowing through me. And so I tried to be grateful. Grateful for the two girls’ smiles and laughter, for their quick friendship, for their goodbye hugs. Grateful for what I do have, even if it makes me feel spoiled. Grateful I had the childhood I did and grateful my children have the childhood they do. And grateful that, despite it all, a game of tag is still a game of tag—oblivious childhood fun.

I hope I remember that little girl always. Especially on days when I want. And I hope I can embrace Sophie’s attitude and instead, turn it around and wish for bare feet.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” —Nelson Mandela