Some People Run Different
Scarlet, mustard, and ochre leaves parachuted above our heads. The sun warmed us enough for my two-year-old to pull off his outer layer of pants to reveal black Darth Vader pajama bottoms underneath. He lifted his arms to try to snatch leaves out of the air, limping after them as they scattered like crabs across the ground.
I noticed the nanny noticing Reid. She gently bounced her charge on one end of the seesaw while Reid toddled around the other. He scrambled onto the seat.
“There’s a baby!” Reid said. “She’s so cute!”
“She’s six months,” the nanny said. “How old is he?” she asked.
I looked at him and said, “How old are you?”
“Two,” he said, holding up his fingers in a peace sign. “I’ll be three in December.”
She laughed, then started talking about her grown children in her home country. Her eyes followed as he limped to the slide. She asked, “What’s wrong with his leg?”
“What do you mean?” I said, stalling for time to formulate an answer. Reid stumbled, grabbing onto my leg to steady himself.
“Was he born like that?” she said.
My mouth opened and closed but no words came out. It felt as if she had thrown a glass of ice water in my face. While Reid’s leg was so stiff that he hadn’t bent it since we arrived, I couldn’t believe that she would ask something about my son so bluntly, in front of him no less.
Her face registered understanding. “Or does it hurt?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s pain.” I said, the dam released. I remembered what our pediatrician suggested saying about how to explain it. “He has chronic leg pain.”
“Be careful,” she cried out as he deftly scrambled up the slide, turned around and slid back down. Left leg stuck straight as an icicle the whole time.
“As you can see he doesn’t let it hold him back,” I said.
I wanted to say something else, but I didn’t know what. When clouds took over the sky, we packed up the stroller and headed back up the hill.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter. That day I realized I needed to come up with a better response to these types of questions. I turned words over in my head for days and weeks, polishing them as if the right ones would emerge smooth like river stones.
On some level I actually appreciated the nanny asking at all, of showing concern. Many others avert their eyes, neighbors and acquaintances and even friends, where a kind word could quench an elemental need. Maybe people don’t know what to say.
But my child is clearly limping. Pretending it is not happening does not make it go away. Those who ignore or are afraid to talk about it only increase the gulf between us.
It makes it all the more meaningful when someone tries.
A couple of years later, on one afternoon at preschool pickup, Reid’s face brightens when I enter his four-year-old classroom. I kneel down and open my arms to wrap him in hug.
As we walk from the classroom to his cubby, Reid’s limp is pronounced. His body is tired at the end of a day trying to keep up with his friends. I stuff his lunchbox, water bottle, a red transformer, and sheets of artwork into his backpack.
After we pack up, the mother of one of his classmate’s arrives. Reid presses his shoulder against the wall for support. It takes him so long with his lumbering gait to make it down the hallway that Sadie and her mom pass us on their way out. Sadie’s mom holds the front door open for us. As she watches Reid hobble up the ramp out of the entrance she asks me “Is he limping?”
“His leg hurts,” I say. “He has chronic leg pain.”
I follow him to the stroller, put my hand under his shoulder to pull him up into it, then stuff his backpack underneath.
“He doesn’t have as much cartilage in his knees,” I explain and pat mine.
“Oh, I asked because I wondered if maybe he was stalling because he didn’t want to go home. Sometimes Sadie walks more slowly when she doesn’t want to leave school,” her mom says. “But I get it now.”
She opens the car door for Sadie to climb in.
“When I come for pickup he usually does ask me if he can stay longer,” I tell her. I retrieve an apple and tin of crackers from the basket at the base of the stroller and hand them to Reid.
“I know, right!” she says. “Sometimes I wonder, why bother to pick her up at all! Just wait until he’s in first grade, like my oldest. Then it really is every day that they beg to stay with their friends.”
“Something to look forward to!” I reply.
“Hope that he feels better,” she says as she buckles Sadie in. “Have a good one.”
The kids shout their own goodbyes to one another.
This exchange buoys my spirits. I didn’t say something that elicited a blank stare. Sadie’s mom kept the conversation going rather than retreating into the safety of silence. After acknowledging a difference, we connected over a similar experience. Instead of feeling drained, I am refreshed.
But of course, more vital than me finding the right words, as Reid gets older I need to prepare him for how to respond. The thought of the questions and comments he will get when I’m not by his side floods me with anxiety. Especially the words from other children. Even innocent questions formed out of curiosity may erode his self-esteem and pride.
On a playground a few months later, Reid and another boy are the only kids there. He approaches the other boy to say “I’m four and a half.” My extrovert, so confident and excited to find a potential new buddy. The boy is a little older. At his suggestion, they start up a game of chase.
Reid has no stiffness on this day, his knees bending with ease. Still, when he runs his gait appears different; he pumps his arms widely as if their momentum could propel him further and faster. His hips swing noticeably and his heels slam the ground. Reid giggles as they pass the slide, though he isn’t close to catching up with his new friend.
The other boy looks back and laughs, but for a different reason. The boy stops and asks, “Why are you running like that?”
Reid shuffles a few more paces to face the boy. “That’s just how I run,” Reid says. “Some people run different.”
The boy picks up into a jog again, Reid follows, and their game continues where they left off. Next they hide and they seek, dig for treasures in the sand, become trolls hiding under bridges.
In the space in my chest that holds fear, hope bubbles up. I love that Reid has the language to advocate for himself. I love that the boy accepts Reid’s explanation without question.
The boys play together until the sky darkens.
Francesca Dalleo has a decade of experience writing and editing for nonprofits. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology from Georgetown University. Located outside of Philadelphia, she and her family enjoy wandering around their neighborhood as well as getting to know a new one.