Tuesday, August 4, 2009


At this stage of Aria’s treatment she still had hair. It was short and coarse in texture but she wasn’t immediately identifiable as a kid with cancer. That day was only about a month away and I was at this time readying myself and her for the stares, the wonderment and the comments that people would inevitably make. This was the beginning of that process.

May 9, 2008
Subject: Innocence

Just the other day, Aria and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating a snack. Aria looked up from her ice cream and said incredulously, “Mom! You wanna know what Gabriella said to me? She said I look like a boy.” My heart sank like a stone smothering my spirit but as luck would have it, I had one those moments of clarity. I thought to myself in almost a whisper, “Be gentle. Your reaction in this moment will forever add to the foundation of her ability to cope with being different.” That may sound grandiose but it was in my head nonetheless. I took a deep breath and noticed that I wasn’t reacting to her comment. I looked directly in her eyes so she could see me taking a deep breath and pausing. I said, “huh...” Her eyes widened. “Tell me Aria, do you think you look like a boy?” She almost spit her spoon out of her mouth in response to my question. With a crooked smile, eyes filled with mischief and a wave of her spoon like a magic wand she emphatically declared as if Gabriella needed her eyes checked, “No!” I said calmly, “I don’t think you look like a boy either so why do you think Gabriella said that?” Aria was thoughtful scraping the sides of bowl for that last bite of ice cream. “I don’t know,” she said. “huh” I began. “Well, maybe she said that because your hair is short now and most boys have short hair.” “Yeah!” she said brightly, “Boys don’t have long hair, they have short hair!” I replied, “Well, some boys have long hair and I bet sometimes people think they look like girls.” Aria paused a moment and said, “oh. So, I have short hair and I used to have long hair and soon I’ll have no hair. And, I’m a girl!” I was completely choked up but managed to utter, “short hair, long hair, no hair, you are an extraordinary girl.” Aria furrowed her brow in disgust. “Mom, I’m just a girl!” I nodded but my mind again whispered, “but what a girl you are!”

This conversation happened about 2 weeks ago and it has been on my mind ever since. It isn’t the only time someone has said something like this. Recently another child said to Aria, “Your hair looks funny!” Once again, Aria handled this beyond anything she’s learned from me when she said, “Well, soon all my hair is gonna fall out and then it will all grow back!” Her friend asked, “Well how?” “I don’t know” said Aria, “It just will.” That was the end of that. I didn't witness either of these interactions. Aria told me these stories and it was obvious to me that she was processing them and their newness. I can't help but wonder if she was considering their implication as well.

I’ve mentioned these stories to a few people and the natural first reaction is one of sadness mixed with horror. Comments like, "Oh my God! That is so mean!" or I can’t believe some people!" As adults, we know all the layers involved in the emotions these kinds of comments elicit. Some have advised me to contact the parents and “educate” them about how to better prepare their children as well as hoping to teach them to be more sensitive. It is tempting to react and say, "You know, your kid said something to my child recently that wasn't very nice...." But I'm learning how not to react in this way and consider for a while the reasons why comments like these trigger my emotion. I'm learning that when I'm triggered in some way, it is because there is some truth that I need to examine. In this instance, Aria was fine. She was unhurt and was able to move on without a blemish to her sense of self. I, on the other hand, was caught off guard and knew I was being presented with a lesson.

Yes, my heart sinks when I hear comments like this but after some thought, it is very clear to me that the intention behind them is completely innocent and what’s more important is the comments are, in fact, honest. Indeed, they may be insensitive and even hurtful, but I sincerely believe that is not the meaning behind what has been said. Even so, it was worth thinking about in order to help me feel more confident in guiding Aria, who is more than likely going to experience sudden baldness soon inviting all kinds of new looks, stares and comments. I needed to think deeply about how to redirect children with more appropriate word choices that still address their natural curiosity and at the same show Aria that she is different looking but still perfectly Aria.

It is my belief that people stare and wonder because they are simply waiting to be invited into what’s happening in our world. I firmly believe that in these situations great compassion and understanding is needed to support both Aria and those who are interested in her. I waited for my inspiration and it came in such a peculiar and lovely way.

Yesterday, I was watching Bambi with the kids and it was Thumper who inspired me. In a quiet thicket resting beside his mother surrounded by forest animal friends, the young Prince awakens. Thumper is the first to exclaim that he, Bambi, is trying to stand. He is a curious little bunny watching Bambi closely and remarking immediately when he falls, “Kinda wobbly aren’t ya?” His mother is aghast and quickly utters disapprovingly, “Thumper!” He immediately understands his faux pas by the tone of her voice and he hunches down, ears flat in somewhat false shame. He quickly recovers his composure and under his breath as he stands and his eyes widen, he says rather sheepishly, “Well, he is.” Later in the movie a similar instance occurs and once again Thumper is reprimanded by his mother who reminds him, “And what did your father tell you this morning?” Thumper sighs and recites with resignation, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, then don’t say nothing at all.”

I’ve been told this many times too and it has caused me to think deeply and perhaps even differently. I come back to the idea of ‘being honest’ and the ability to ‘take honesty,’ which, I think, is infinitely more important. I think there is some truth to Thumper’s mother’s sentiment but only as it applies to the nature of gossip, untruths, misinformation, and the needless desire to elevate oneself by diminishing the humanity of another. Truth is truth and sometimes it is painful. Sometimes it comes out in ways that are harsh and tactless. Sometimes it comes out and hits us in the face after tremendous efforts have been made to keep it subdued or even hidden. With life experience and mindfulness, truth can be expressed, regardless of its darkness, with consideration and even kindness.

What Thumper said was entirely true and his intention was nothing more than to express an observation. Thumper was simply observing that Bambi was wobbly on his feet. He meant nothing other than that. Wobbly didn’t mean stupid, or ugly, or unworthy or anything negative whatsoever. Similarly, with the children who made comments about Aria’s hair. It is true that she looks like a boy if all your experience in life tells you that boys have short hair and girls have long hair. Her hair does look ‘funny’ particularly if that word means different and in this instance, I’m convinced that it did. I can’t imagine scolding these children or even telling them what they said wasn’t nice. I think it might be confusing to them, perhaps making them insecure because what they had intended, which was innocent, somehow backfired becoming something bad and regrettable. Instead, I see my role in this matter to model sensitivity, tolerance and acceptance. I certainly don’t believe that in doing so I have to squelch their curiosity that with time and age will invariably be suppressed.

With respect to Aria, it is my hope that I can be one who models being different all the while being confident and content. In some ways, the fact that I am examining this lesson now is a blessing. I hope I can help her build a strong foundation of self so that when the years of conformity become a real challenge she will have what it takes to stand her ground and take the honest truth. These ‘situations’ and expressions of honesty are providing valuable opportunities. It is a lot for a 4 year old to endure and she is certainly gaining life experiences that are unique and will define her differently from her peers. For now, however, preserving what is innocent about being 4 years old is what matters to me most for Aria and her 4 year old friends.


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