“Wow, you can really see how much thinner your right leg is when you wear tights,” my son, Ethan, says.
I have cerebral palsy, a disability that affects only one side of my body. As a result, I walk with a limp and the musculature in my legs is uneven. And Ethan’s right. In the outfit I have on—short skirt, slouchy boots—it’s pretty obvious. On the left, you can fit two fingers in the gap between my calf and the boot’s loose leather. On the right, you can slide in a whole hand. I know he didn’t mean to be critical, but I suddenly feel like I’m the thirteen-year-old in the room, the one carrying the heavy funhouse mirror that magnifies my faults.
We’re about to head for Greenwich Village—land of ex-boyfriends and you-never-know-who-you-might-see. I should change, I think. I glance at Ethan, who looks great. Tall and lean in his white jeans and black jacket. But I can tell from the way he’s frowning into the hall mirror that he’s battling his own distorted reflection. And I remember it’s my job to model rejecting that rejection.
“Extra storage,” I say, shoving my hand in the baggier boot. “In case we buy something.”
When I was Ethan’s age, I took the long subway ride from Queens to Greenwich Village whenever I could. I’d meet my friend Deb in front of The Waverly and we’d wander the narrow streets, browsing in bookstores and Indian clothing shops and fantasizing about the brownstone we’d live in when we were famous writers. What I loved about the Village was that I was okay with myself there. The people around us seemed comfortable with who they were. No cookie cutter Farrah Fawcetts crowded Bleeker Street the way they did the halls of my high school. No one I passed seemed to care if my hair feathered correctly, if I wore brand name sneakers, or if I had an awkward walk. In Greenwich Village I saw a man in a skirt and another who wore colorful snakes as though they were scarves. And so it was in Greenwich Village that it first occurred to me that a limp could be seen as an interesting uniqueness, like a well-placed beauty mark or tattoo.
It no longer seems so unusual to me to be in a place where people are accepted, oddities and all. Maybe it’s because high school is 30 years behind me. But even the teens I know seem to embrace individuality in a way I didn’t experience growing up. Nonetheless, living with one, I’m painfully aware that self-consciousness and angst are alive and well in adolescents. The thirteen-year-old I once was would be surprised to know that a kid like Ethan—handsome, popular, athletic—can get down on himself. It might even buoy her up to know it. But I’m his mother, not his peer, so when he aches I ache along with him.
Even while those hormones wreak their havoc, I’m proud to say Ethan has stayed close to me. Not that he comes home and immediately opens up about what’s on his mind, but I’ve learned ways to create the space for it to happen. Often, I take him to the Village.
I’m not exactly sure what Greenwich Village means to Ethan, but I can actually see his body relax when we get off the train. We wander those same streets I loved as a teenager and I point out my personal landmarks.
We head to Washington Square Park where Ethan plays a game with a gruff-looking guy at one of the chess tables. Afterward, we stop to listen to an A capella doo-wop group sing “Under the Boardwalk.”
“I’m getting hungry,” he says, so we walk to John’s Pizza where the dark wooden booths have graffiti scratched in them like old school desks. It’s there, between bites of our half mushroom/half olive pie, that my beautiful boy tells me what he sees in that mean-spirited mirror. I can’t talk him out of his perceptions, but I cross my uneven legs in their baggy boots and I listen. And I let him know I know how he feels.
Ona Gritz writes a monthly column about motherhood and disability at Literary Mama. She is also a prize-winning poet and the author of two children’s books. Her essays have been published in numerous anthologies and journals.