My husband points over my shoulder at a picture of our son and says, “Ooh, that’s a good one; send that one in.”
I’ve gone through a shoebox of photos and whittled them down so we can send the best 15 to his kindergarten teacher for his featured week on the “I’m Special!” bulletin board.
I pick up the photo and smile at the sleeping 4-month-old baby wedged in the corner of the couch. “Yeah, I love that one too,” I say. His little baby lips hang open and I can almost hear his deep breathing through the photo.
“I’m just not sure if he wants everyone in his class to see his shoes,” I murmur as I put the picture into the reject pile.
They probably wouldn't have even noticed the corrective shoes, because there are so many other aspects of the picture that catch the eye. He’s wearing a vibrant red-and-white striped onesie with matching red socks, and one hand is holding the pacifier that recently fell from his mouth. But on top of those precious red socks are stiff white leather shoes with a black steel bar between them that holds my son’s feet shoulder-width apart and at an outward angle.
He was born with a clubfoot, which sounds like a malady that you only hear about in biblical times. When I was pregnant and the doctor told us our son would have a clubfoot, I instantly envisioned a cave man carrying a bulbous wooden stick and hobbling along without any toes.
Thankfully we do not live in the caveman era, so with the wonders of modern medicine we corrected our son’s clubfoot. If he is wearing shoes that cover the long scar around the side of his foot and the two shorter scars on the top of his foot, you would never know that when he was born the bones in his left foot curved so severely that his foot looked like the letter U.
As I continued sorting through the pictures, I was disappointed in my instinct to hide this defining part of his young life. This elementary school picture board was supposed to show all of the things that have made him into the awesome person that he is today. His clubfoot does not make him who he is, but it has contributed to many of my favorite things about him.
I watched his story unfold as I added more pictures to the reject pile. I saw a baby that learned to roll over by throwing his heavy cast across his body so he could create the momentum to instigate a roll. I saw a baby who learned to crawl and pull up to stand with his feet locked together in those wretched shoes, as if he was strapped into a snowboard for 23 hours a day. I saw an unstoppable 4-year-old who was determined to play soccer regardless of the battered red cast that went from his toes all the way up to his left butt cheek. I laughed in admiration at the 4-year-old who figured out how to ride a bike and play basketball with a Carolina blue cast from his toes to his knee.
The clubfoot didn’t define him then or now, but I’m sure that it shaped him. He learned to look for alternate ways of doing things. He acquired a determination that borders on obsessive, because he learned from infancy that if he stays focused on something long enough, he can figure out how to achieve what he wants.
But kindergartners are cruel; they don’t understand and often don’t like things that are different. Perhaps they would misunderstand the images and assume that he is “special” in a different way, in a way that suggests something is wrong with him.
I tucked the pictures of my 5-day-old baby in a royal blue cast and the 4-month-old sleeping in the corner of the couch in his torture shoes, and I put them into the Super Special reject pile. I am proud of these pictures and this journey. I am astounded by how much this little guy endured in the first 5 years of his life, and I know that those experiences have impacted him in ways that I may never recognize.
I am somewhat ashamed that I didn’t send in any of the pictures of him in his casts or corrective shoes. I didn’t even include them in the small pile I made for him so he could approve the final 15. Instead of showcasing the story of the infant who changed casts every week and the toddler that persevered in those tortuous shoes, I sent in pictures that told the parallel story of his young life: the giggling baby eating cheerios off the floor, pulling tissues out of the box with glee, and catching a baseball at a baseball game.
I anguished over this decision for weeks afterwards, because I do not want to edit out parts of his life story. This is his life and his story to tell. We all have multiple storylines running simultaneously in our lives, and we choose which stories we allow people to access. I should have at least given him the choice, but I let my desire to protect him win.