The mother’s always come forward first. They are filled with apologies and explanations. “She’s shy.”
“He isn’t feeling great today.”
“She doesn’t love physical activities.”
“This is new.”
“He’ll come around once he sees everyone having a good time.
This is how it always begins, but by the end of a social event for kids with facial differences I guarantee with my magic touch there will be smiles.
The child slowly approaches, closed off, anxious, staring at the ground. Then I begin phase one: begging and prodding, during which I feel immense guilt. I feel a tremendous amount of kinship and shared pain with the child. I know what it feels like when people are talking at you, pleading with you to do something you do not want to do. In the past, all I ever wanted was for them to go away. Now, in my modern role of the hypocrite, phrases like “Come on. It’ll be fun” leap from my lips as my heart strings are pulled as loose as noodles. In response, I get furious head shaking, stares at the ground, over and over.
I would have done the same.
Then, phase two, the transformation, begins. The child, after enough talk, walks up to the activity epicenter. Sometimes phase two involves another friendly, supportive human encouraging participation in the activity. In this case, we were bowling, so just getting the child to the bowling return ball area was a major milestone. Then I say, “Come on! I’ll do it with you. It will be fun.” I say in a saccharine sweet voice, while pieces of my past inside my die. I work on healing those wounds every single day. We, the child and I, are in this together. We both will grow from this shared experience.
I discover my talk is cheap and I can’t get them to the end of the bowling alley with ball in hand. Another volunteer comes up, takes a ball in one hand and the child’s hand in the other. Off they go to the end of the lane. The child takes the ball, releases it on the alley and quickly runs back to her mother’s side. She did it! We all cheer like she hit a walk-off grand slam in game 7 of the World Series. Slowly, slowly, again she takes the ball and rolls it down the alley. And again, she flees to her mother’s side to release the anxiety. I’m all smiles and high fives. Who cares if the ball is in the gutter. We won just by participating. By living.
Soon time snaps forward in double time. Before I know it, the girl is throwing ball after ball down the lane. She is laughing with her brother about her performance, she is stealing my turn on the lane, hopping back and forth from lane 1 to lane 2. The smile on her face is big and lights up her face in a way that makes her once dull eyes sparkle shiner than any gem. The smiles and laughs continue. Food comes and she eats with the other children. One of the other kids has the same facial difference that she does. Not even the best writer in Hollywood could come up with this script.
I’ve met my goal. I brought some joy to four families. Kids had the opportunity to see other kids that look just like them. A young girl overcame her shy nature; burst through the protective shell and wall she so carefully built to try something new in an environment filled with kindness and acceptance. She had her childhood back for a few hours in a life filled with medicine, doctors, and more reality and cruelty than most face in an entire lifetime. All I hope, and ask of God is that when she grows older, she pays it forward to the next young girl with a facial difference.