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When the Shoe is on the Other Foot

How do you react when you encounter someone in a store or restaurant who has an obvious disability? Do you find yourself staring in curiosity?

When you or someone you love is on the receiving end of the stare, it is a different experience. Other people’s curiosity is something I am learning to adjust to when I am out and about with my granddaughter, Nora, who among her challenges walks with the help of a leg brace. In the summertime when she’s wearing shorts, you can’t miss the brace itself, but regardless, you would notice that she walks differently than other kids. Kids stare at her un-selfconsciously; adults are more timid. For the most part I can ignore them because I know what a miracle Nora really is, but sometimes the stares grab at my heart too much. Sometimes I get angry.

Cut to a hot August day and a shopping trip with Nora. As an important aside to the events this day, I have to also tell you that Nora has a fascination with oxygen/breathing tubes. I secretly think it is because somewhere in her infant memory she remembers having a breathing tube for five days after her brain surgery. But, what I know for sure is that she has seen them in a music video. Go figure, there’s a country-music video that she’s seen on YouTube that depicts a hospital patient with oxygen tubes up her nose. When Nora watches the video, she asks about it. I explain. Every time, I explain.

On this particular summer day, we have shopped for a birthday present for her mom, and in the process she and her braced leg have gotten their share of stares. Upon leaving the store, we end up following closely behind an elderly gentleman who is pushing along a portable oxygen tank on wheels. Of course the tubes extend to his nose, providing an assist to his breathing. When Nora sees him, she stops dead in her tracks. To her, it’s a music video come to life! I try to distract her, moving her along towards the car, but her stare is locked onto him. I know she just wants to go up to him and ask a million questions. THEN it hits me. I’ve put so much energy into resisting the stares of others, I have no idea how to handle her seven-year-old curiosity either! But, it does make me realize how natural and innocent it all can be. Whoa, talk about an abrupt shift in perspective.

I bend down so I am at her eye level. I explain to her that, even though the man is not in a hospital bed like the video she’s seen, he does have trouble breathing. The tank he is pushing holds the air that is going into the tubes in his nose. It’s making it easier for him to breathe. I tell her that when it’s hard to breathe it’s really hard to walk around and shop, which is why he brings the oxygen tank with him.

Finally, I tell her that I know that it looks interesting, but it is never nice to stare at anyone. If we thought that he needed help, we would help him, but he doesn’t so let’s just go to the car.

In my heart, I want her to talk with him and ask the questions I know are pulsing in her head. I somehow think she deserves that.

As I think back on it, I feel like I did okay. But maybe I kept her from a valuable experience? It’s confusing when the shoe is on the other foot. I still wonder if I could have done better. When I told Nora’s mother about the experience, she said she would have let her talk to the man. What do you think?

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