On a lush spring day in the first year of my marriage, I sat on the grass in Washington Square Park people-watching, the novel I’d brought forgotten in my lap. In front of me, a family of three tossed a Frisbee. The girl, a toddler, leapt and giggled each time the disk sailed through the air; but it was the mother who held my attention. She had long legs and an easy grace about her that left me feeling wistful. That will never be me, I thought as, running backwards, she reached up and effortlessly caught the Frisbee. Never.
Having married an athlete, I assumed our son would be born in love with sports. I imagined that, soon after he could walk, Ethan would be mountain biking and leaping off ski slopes on a snowboard like his father while thinking of me, with my limp and lack of coordination as, well … lame.
For much of Ethan’s childhood, it seemed I was wrong. He loved books, drawing, and games of pretend. At the park, he preferred a round of hide-and-seek beneath the jungle gym to climbing his way to the top. Richard worried that he wasn’t getting enough exercise and was missing out on opportunities to learn sportsmanship. I argued that if he wasn’t interested in sports, I didn’t think we should push him. What I didn’t say was that I felt relieved. If my son wasn’t focused on athletics, maybe he didn’t have to see just how inadequate I was in that realm.
Toward the end of kindergarten, Ethan was invited to a birthday party at the local YMCA. His friends gathered in the gym for a game of soccer. Ethan clung to me, whispering into my neck that he didn’t feel like playing. When the kids moved on to dodge ball, I encouraged him to join them. He held me tighter and shook his head. I began to feel guilty. Somehow I’d transferred my inner crippled girl’s lack of confidence to my son.
Richard and I had been divorced for two years by then — a good decision for both of us — but I started to feel guilty about that, too. Maybe if Richard lived at home with us, Ethan would have a more balanced array of interests. I spoke to Richard about playing sports with him when they were together, but as a weekend father who worked long hours, he had adopted my old philosophy. If he wasn’t interested, why push him?
From time to time, over the next year, I worried about it. Yet I felt there was not much I could do. I enrolled Ethan in a karate class, which he seemed to enjoy, but when I suggested he sign up for little league, his answer was the same as it had been the spring before: “Maybe next year.”
Then, towards the end of second grade, something shifted. I was sitting in the park with Ethan for the first time in a while. He’d run off to play on the swings and I was engrossed in a novel. All of a sudden, he called to me.
I glanced up to find him standing on top of the tunnel, arms akimbo. He proceeded to do a little dance from his high perch to show just how steady on his feet he was. I stared in amazement as he performed one acrobatic feat after another. He swung from pole to pole. He hung upside down. All with a confidence and verve I didn’t recognize. I knew Ethan spent time in the park during recess and after school while I was at work. Somewhere in there, I’d missed the process, but he’d found his way. He was truly comfortable in his body.
Ethan’s karate class ended each year with a special family event. Parents were invited out onto the floor to spar with their children. For the first two years, I’d managed to avoid it. Richard had arranged his schedule to be able to attend with Ethan. But in Ethan’s third year, Richard was away on a business trip. I told Ethan I’d stay to watch the class but I wasn’t comfortable getting out there and trying karate.
He pleaded, using his secret weapon: a head-tilted, wide-eyed puppy face. He won.
At forty two, I felt the same awkward, self consciousness I had felt in gym class when I was twelve. I hated attempting the kicks and punches in front of an audience, but it was important to Ethan so I did it anyway. Stumblingly, ungracefully, I did my best to spar with my boy. Afterward, Master Rob, Ethan’s teacher, approached me.
“You were really brave out there,” he said. “That was such a great thing you did.”
His response surprised me and, for a few minutes, I felt pretty good. But by the time I got home, something about his comment had begun to trouble me.
That night, I called my boyfriend, Dan. I knew that, being blind, he’d had many similar experiences.
“Ethan’s karate teacher is a fireman,” I told him. “Yet here he is calling me brave.”
Dan was able to articulate what I couldn’t. “He would find it easier to run into a burning building than to stand out as different.”
* * *
A few weeks later, we visited Dan in Philadelphia.
“I want to play catch,” Ethan said, after we’d spent the morning on the front porch, helping Dan put Braille labels on his C.D. collection.
“Okay,” Dan agreed. The two of us followed him into the backyard.
I wasn’t sure how this was going to work, but Ethan and Dan figured out pretty quickly how to adapt the game. Ethan called out to let Dan know where he was and Dan threw the ball to him. Then, instead of throwing, Ethan rolled the ball back to Dan.
I thought about Ethan’s karate class, how embarrassed I felt in my different-moving body. And now watching my loved ones play ball in their own unique way, I realized that was a choice I was making. It’s not about bravery. It’s simply a matter of self acceptance. Dan had to do a lot of things differently; yet he moved with ease and self assurance in the body he’d been given. There were areas in my life where that was true of me, too. Dancing free style. Making love. I didn’t have to let sports intimidate me.
I had begun the game as Dan’s assistant, handing the ball to him so he wouldn’t have to feel around for it. Suddenly, I wanted to play.
“Roll it to me,” I called to Ethan.
Smiling, he obliged.
I threw it into his waiting hands.
“Hey, you have a good arm,” he said, surprised.
I grinned back at him. “I do, don’t I?”