Tiny Human Failures

Since this is Gwinnett County’s Spring Break, my daughter and son are both free from their normal educational routines. And since freedom from the norm around our house is automatically translated to “Let’s go somewhere! Let’s spend your money!”, we naturally drifted out of the house this morning to buy Ella some new tennis shoes and take both kids to the park.

The shoe shopping was typical: Rachel and Ella moving slowly down the girls aisle, Rachel pointing to shoe after shoe with a hopeful look while Ella, her face puckered into a studious frown, repeatedly says, “No, not that one.” Meanwhile, I’m chasing Jon around the store as he laughs like a maniac. Suffice it to say that when we go shopping for just about anything, early morning is our best time; that way, we annoy fewer people.

With the shoes purchased, we decided the park was our next stop. Well, technically the house was our next stop because Ella decided she wanted to wear her new shoes at the playground, only she’d worn flip-flops out of the house and thus had no socks, which necessitated that we return home to get her a pair of socks so she could wear her new shoes and be stylish.

The child is a little spoiled.

Anyway, when we finally made it to the park, it was gorgeous. The sun shone, the breeze came through the trees at just the right speed and temperature, and there were some friends of ours from church whose kids were also playing. It was, to be frank, ideal.

Ella naturally sprinted off and Jon, as is his custom, wanted to swing. Rachel put him into the safety swing, gave him a shove, and there was nothing left but to enjoy ourselves.

Until the little girl showed up.

She must have been 7 or 8. Slightly taller than Ella, who is 6, this little girl had beautiful blond hair pulled back into a ponytail that was tied with turquoise and white ribbon. Her outfit was a turquoise skirt with a multi-colored top, and white sneakers with turquoise trimmed socks. She ran effortlessly around the playground for a moment before she decided to bolt for the swings.

And that’s when I noticed that she wasn’t “normal.”

She didn’t have Downs, but there was something particular about her pretty face that struck me as familiar; and then it hit me: she reminded me of a distant cousin of mine, Kathy, who was mentally challenged.

I remember Kathy strongly because whenever we got together for family reunions, she would move around the room, agitated, never really interacting with anyone other than her mother. And her mother, my great-aunt, would always patiently attend to Kathy’s needs, be they physical or emotional, with the utmost care and tenderness. In fact, the only other person that Kathy would remotely interact with was me. She didn’t do this very often, but there were occasions when Kathy would run up and give me the biggest hug; in her eyes would be an urgency that I couldn’t understand, couldn’t put into words, but it seemed enough for her that I would consent to being hugged and she would smile and then run away.

All of that came flooding back as this little girl came running to the swing next to Jon’s. She waited, dancing around in a circle, until her father came over.

“You want to swing?” he asked.

She waved her hands and shouted out something I couldn’t discern. Regardless, it was obvious that she very much wanted to swing.

Her father led her to the standard swings and tried to sit her down. She resisted and ran back to the safety swing.

“You’re too big for that one,” her dad said. He seemed tired. Nearby, a boy that was obviously her older brother hovered, restless. The little girl insisted on the safety swing.

Her father picked her up. “Watch your feet, now,” he said. She struggled to get her sneakers through the holes in the tiny blue bucket seat; as she tried her best, he held her, his arms shaking, his face tight but not angry. When she succeeded, he let her settle into the seat, making sure to tuck her skirt in behind her.

Then he gave her a push.

It wasn’t a huge push, not even close to the arc that my son was swinging on, but she reacted as if he’d just released her into a skydive free-fall. The smile on her face grew exponentially and she let out a squeal of delight.

I watched them, father and daughter, he looking happy but reserved, she full of joy in the moment. I watched them and all I could think about was the conversation happening on my local Patch website over Kris Parker’s blog post “Less Perfect. Less Valuable?”

And I wondered: does he regret having a child who will always be a child, even when her body is that of a grown woman? The lines on his face were drawn deeply, and I felt for him because, with every shift she made in her seat, every small movement that threatened her balance or safety, I could see the muted but present panic in his eyes. Would he trade her life for a day free from unending worry? And if he would, does that make him a bad person?

Then I looked at the little girl and wondered: what does it feel like, to be able to live each day with the knowledge that you are protected? Does she think of herself as disadvantaged? Does she know that the world looks at and thinks of her differently than she does?

These thoughts raced around in my mind until she turned her head and said something to her father. He gently reached out and grabbed the back of the swing and brought it to a gradual stop. Before her father was even in view, she raised her hands above her head so he could come up and lift her out of her seat. And when he did, she laughed as though he had tickled her.

Once her feet hit the ground, she was off running again, only this time her brother was her shadow. Dad took a moment to stand in the shade and breathe, but his eyes were never off his two kids racing around the playground. By that time, my own son was asking to do something else besides swing, so I reached down and pulled him up into my arms, and then I kissed his cheek. He wiped it off.

It wasn’t long after that I had to go into the office to do some work. I said goodbye to my crew and made my way toward my car, but not without one last look at the special family still at play. She was still running, still laughing, and the men in her life were still vigilantly watching after her. As their lives spilled out of the shade and into the sunlight, I ducked my head and got into my car.

People make choices everyday of their lives; some big, some small. Some over life, others over death. I don’t understand some of them, but then again, others may not understand mine. What I do know is that we can only do what we know to be right, even if some – or many – would judge our actions to be wrong.

In the instance of Kris’ post, there are some people who would advocate terminating an unborn child’s life as an act of kindness if severe genetic deficiencies become known and there are others who would argue that even the most imperfect life deserves to be born. Chances are, the two sides will never agree; each side seems, at times, more bent on pointing out the others failures in logic or compassion or respect for personal freedoms. As of now, it’s become a real slug fest.

Me, I’m just shaking my head.

Everyday, tiny human failures surround us. Which ones you see depends very much upon your perspective.