The beach vacation we had originally planned never included a leg brace or Cerebral Palsy. Diagnosed just weeks before our trip, we were still functioning in a fog of disbelief. Going out in public was suddenly filled (in my mind at least) with stares and awkward glances exchanged between mothers and fathers of typical children. I couldn’t help but notice every single one.
It was summer and our 16-month-old 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.
Sitting at a beachside pizzeria 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 friendly mom conversation under normal circumstances. However, I was not in a good place. My surly mood only intensified when I noticed her glancing over at my daughter’s leg brace.
I was angry about her staring. At that moment, I was angry about everything. I had not yet met anyone else in our situation and I assumed that no one would ever understand our pain.
When we finished eating, we paid the bill and packed up our left over slices. I refused to look over at her table as we left. As we pushed the stroller back toward our beach cottage, we came upon a playground a few blocks down. Naturally, our daughters wanted to play. It was the first time we were at a playground with our daughter who had just started walking with her brace. I was terrified to let her go but I had decided that I would never hold her back. I was so focused on helping her navigate the equipment that I didn’t notice the mom from the pizza place standing in front of me.
“Hi, I saw you back at the restaurant,” she said softly, completely taking me by surprise. Before I could respond, she looked down at my daughter with a warm smile and motioned to her brace. “Do you mind if I ask why she wears the brace?”
It was the first time someone had asked me about it. Oddly, it felt good. The words didn’t come easily at first but I managed to explain how we had noticed some developmental motor delays as a baby and had been through a great deal of testing and doctor visits. I told her how we had just received the diagnosis of Hemiplegic Cerebral Palsy a few weeks earlier.
My voice cracking with emotion, 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, “Is it okay if I give you a hug?”
At 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 about 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 as she listened with kindness and empathy. She confessed 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 me. I realized it was my own defensiveness that caused me to think the worst this lovely mom back at the restaurant.
Our children played delightfully together for quite some time that afternoon. She patiently followed beside me as I anxiously shadowed my daughter. When our time was done that day, we went our separate ways. 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. Let’s all be that kind of a stranger to each other. You never know what kind of impact you may have on someone’s journey.