Marie, as I watch you teetering
precariously between coffee table
and armchair -- between fear and
hope, between security and discovery
-- engrossed totally in your moment,
how could you ever understand what
your first steps mean to me?
will surely succeed in the end.
I know that, but you don't. For
you, this is a classic voyage into
the unknown, but uncertainty doesn't
stop you. Already you are finding
that your arms are too short. It's
one of life's basic truths:You cannot
reach your dreams unless you are
willing to let go of what you already
hold. When do we learn to be afraid
of failure? How do we learn it?
If you are going to triumph, Jessica,
I know you will have to fail repeatedly.
There is no other way. If I could
spare you the falls, I would deny
you the growth.
pull yourself to your feet by the
table. Watching you stare longingly
at the chair, when you could so
easily and so securely crawl to
it, is like watching some ancient
drama. What drives you? I know the
power of your longing to walk, but
is it biologic destiny, such as
calls the geese to the northern
skyways, or is it more plainly and
sinfully, human envy of all those
people you see around you walking?
I wish I knew.
once wrote, "walking is simply a
process of continually interrupted
falling." Poor soul! He had lost
his awe for the wonders of childhood.
As you release the table, gravity
stalks you like a circling jackal,
ready to pull you down the moment
you expose your unwary center of
balance too far right or left or
forward or back.
incredible that without a thought
for anything other than the beckoning
armchair, you would, and could,
trust your whole weight on one small,
pudgy foot, fall toward your goal,
and in the falling, catch yourself
with the other foot, then transfer
your whole weight and fall toward
your goal again. Even when you crash
into the waiting carpet, you quickly
reject its solid security, pull
yourself back to standing, and set
out on your high wire again.
there it is! One, two, three, four
steps, each one more precipitous
than the last, until you crash headlong
into the chair, relieved and triumphant,
surprised and gleeful, eager to
try again. Call it clumsy and unstable,
even for the moment useless --certainly
no improvement on crawling--but
it is anything but trivial. Dozens
of muscles with exotic names responding
to marvelously coordinated volleys
of nerve discharges ... all that
and much more in response to a single,
infantile desire to reach the chair
ever a mother watched her child's
first steps with more tangled emotions
than I? I was once just like you,
Jessica. How I wish I could remember
the intoxicating rush of those first
steps. They say that I was soon
running everywhere, legs churning,
full of the excitement of it. And
then one night a fever swept down
my spinal cord. The nerves, mortally
wounded, enraged their muscles into
painful spasms before abandoning
them forever. Only feeble strands
remain of all those muscles with
their exotic names.
Marie, still so dependent upon me,
only ten months out of my womb,
and yet you are already far more
capable on those toddling feet than
I will ever again be on mine. What
feelings entangle my joy and pride
at your new accomplishment! Will
I be as envious of your walking,
hopping, dancing, and running as
I once was envious of my siblings
and my classmates? Am I grieving
all over again for what I lost?
Am I hoping finally to live out
my lost childhood through you? And
could it ever be fair to place that
burden on your tiny frame?
am fearful, too. With your first
steps, long suppressed vague adolescent
fears and fantasies have suddenly
become all too clear and present.
How can I be adequate as a mother?
If my child should run into the
path of danger, what could I do?
How could I bear it, if something
should happen to her because of
me, because of my paralysis?
What will my daughter think of
her mother as she grows?
Will she some day reject me?
have always cringed before the honest
curiosity, the uninhibited stares,
and the ingenuous cruelty of children.
Remembering children I have known,
am I fearful now of my own child,
my own guileless and utterly dependent
am ashamed to be afraid, Jessica,
but you have already given me so
much, perhaps I am also afraid you
will one day take it back. I would
be embarrassed to tell you how much
my self-esteem already depends upon
you. I had hated my crippled body.
I was ashamed of it. But Jessica,
you came to me through this body.
You affirmed my body as you swelled
my belly. You affirmed my body as
you burst lusty and strong --"normal"--into
the light. You affirmed my body
as you grew and flourished by drawing
your sustenance and your security
at my breast.
you I have realized those hopes
and dreams that so wounded my adolescence
because they seemed so hopeless.
You have brought me new self-acceptance.
I cannot express my joy in knowing
you have been dependent on me and
I have been able to sustain you,
when for so long as a child I had
felt I was a burden to everyone
around me. But the more I receive
from you, the more I fear to lose.
have you taken these first steps,
and I am thinking you too will soon
"be running everywhere." You will
be able to run away from me, to
elude my grasp, to dance beyond
my protection. You will soon grow
too heavy for me to lift you when
you are tired or sick. You will
become a willful two-year-old, to
try me and to demonstrate my inadequacies
in countless ways. How many things
does a "normal" mother do with her
growing child that you and I will
never do, or be able to do?
And will you force me to remember
my own childhood, which I have tried
not to remember for fear that the
cold, black waters of depression
would swirl in around me again?
You will grow older. Old enough
to compare me to other mothers,
to yourself, to your playmates,
your teachers. You will see how
they all can walk and skip, climb
and play; and then perhaps you will
be old enough to regret the mother
you haveto be ashamed of her
and to envy the others. I don't
know if I could bear that.
Strange how I have built my life
convincing myself that I was accustomed
to my disability, that it didn't
bother me. Convincing myself that
all those painful things were behind
me. Yet they are still there. Because
you are so normal, and I love you
so, it is as if you alone, in the
entire world, could utterly destroy
me if you should reject me.
It is one of life's basic truths:
Our arms are too short. You cannot
attain your dreams unless you are
willing to risk what you already
hold. There is no way to triumph
except by failing repeatedly. If
God would prevent the falls, we
would lose the growth. This is the
archetypal voyage of discovery for
me, also, and I have to remind myself
that I, too, will most likely succeed
through repeated failures.
am already comforted to know you
will be unlike any child I ever
knew in all my lifeunlike
those who cried, or who ran and
hid at the sight of my braces and
crutches, or those who laughed and
mocked, or those who stayed so unattainably
far away across the playgrounds
and the ball fields and the hopscotch
courtswho never got to know
me. You will never be like those
who still stare after me in the
marketplaces. You will be unique,
because before you ever realize
that other mothers don't need to
strap their legs into braces to
stand, or lean on metal canes to
walk, you already will have come
to love me and trust me and know
me as the most wonderful and powerful
person in your world.
will be a long time before you understand
my "difference," and longer still
before you realize that the rest
of the world assumes it is "bad"
and "unfortunate" and "sad" and
a "problem" to be paralyzed. It
has been the most normal and natural
thing in the world for you. That
is almost more than I can comprehend,
something I never thought about
before you were born. You will pretend
at being "mommy" and want your own
crutches and wonder when you will
grow up and be paralyzed, and it
will be good for you... and for
believe we will play a game together.
I will sit on your bed and take
my braces off, and I will say, "Oh,
I hope Jessica doesn't move my foot."
Mischievously, you will push my
foot to the side, and I will struggle
and strain and twist to bring my
feet back together, knowing I cannot.
And I will say, "Well, I guess I
will just leave it there. I hope
Jessica doesn't cross my legs."
And of course, you will. "Oh, please,
Jessica! Don't cross my legs!" And
you will gleefully take my foot
and cross it over the other one,
and squeal with delight at your
power over me. I will struggle and
twist and strain until the foot
slips back across the other and
flops to the bed, and say, "There,
now it is uncrossed and it will
stay there." Giggling, you will
lift it back across, and make me
try to uncross them again, as I
plead with you in mock earnestness.
I will delight in your laughter
and be healed by watching you play
with my helplessness without a flicker
of shock or pity or confusion or
fear on your face, and I will not
be ashamed. I will not. I will not
be embarrassed, and something deep
inside me will be healed.
I will let you help me. I have never
like to be helped--hated itbut
I will let you help me. I will let
you feel proud and grown up and
important to your mommy. You will
do it without a trace of pity and
I will not be ashamed. I will rejoice
that my disability can give you
so much self- esteem and boost your
competence and your confidence,
because in needing you, I can be
a mother. You can learn give-and-take
from a mother who will absolutely
not be able to suffocate you with
the end, you will have learned
lessons no one will have to
teach you, from me and from
the true values of life and the
true worth of people, about how
all of us have our strengths and
our weaknesses, about how useless
and hurtful are stereotypes, about
using what you have without worrying
about what you have not, about patience
and self-giving, about pushing on
when things are tough, and about
triumph through repeated failures.
day, perhaps you will learn about
all those muscles with their exotic
names, as I finally did. Then you
can come to me and say, "Mom, how
did you ever do all those things
you did? Balance on your braces,
and walk and climb stairs and even
get up from the ground without help?
Carry your pregnancies and raise
your children without any strength
in your legs and hips, just with
your canes and your arms and your
sense of balance? How did you make
it all look so sure and smooth?
That's incredible, Mom! You were
like a ballerina, a high-wire artist,
a gymnast! You are Olympic class,
And I would believe you. I would
feel your wonder and your pride
and know that at least one person
in the world understood my accomplishments.
Something deep down inside me would
be healed. Step by step. It is never
good to consider anything "useless"
which God has made. Certainly not
these crippled legs. Thank you,
God, for Jessica Marie, for these
first steps, and for all the steps
1994, Kenneth Tittle, Mariposa Ministry.
Used with permission.
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