I went to Guatemala two years ago to study at a writer’s workshop. The host encouraged us to pack a second bag of shoes for the local children. I did as she asked and was thrilled to help. One by one the children came up to where the shoes were spread out and, with many others waiting behind and no time to try them on, they picked a single pair. Some went for appropriate — sneakers looking to be the right size. Others, mostly the little girls, grabbed the sparkly “there’s no place like home” shoes. One little girl even took my old ballet slippers.
In a pile of shoes that had come from all over were my son’s blue sneakers with corduroy trim. I don’t remember if anyone grabbed them. They were for a baby, so perhaps someone took them for a younger sibling. But I took a picture of his shoes sitting on the ledge in this small lakefront village. I needed to know his shoes, which normally are such a source of anxiety for me, were doing good work.
Those were the last shoes I bought for him with such ease.
Even before Benjamin could walk, his physical therapist had been suggesting he needed orthotics. Now, I wear orthotics in my sneakers, but these are not like those. These are braces that go up his legs to his knees, like Forrest Gump. I fought it at first, postponing it until it was what was needed.
I pouted and was probably (OK definitely) a little rude to the guy as they fitted the molds. I soon realized this was actually happening and pouting would do us no good. So once Benjamin stopped crying from being restrained, I realized I needed to invest in this with care. So we decided they should be two different shades of blue, with matching straps with dinosaurs.
I was assured that shoes would fit over them easily (read: I could hide them). And so when they arrived we raced down to the cool sneaker store on Main Street to get the blue Vans I had been eyeing for a while in the window.
But no amount of coaxing or size increasing would work. The braces have treads on the bottom with two big straps across the front of the foot, getting shoes to fit over them is a science. And I left the cool sneaker store, as I would four or five other shoe stores, dejected and feeling sorry for myself, for my son.
Feeling sorry for your son is a dreadful place to be. He seemed perfectly happy though. Other than those first few months where we battled each time we put his braces on, he settled into them. Eventually they just became a part of him, of his routine. And because they had treads on them he went out only in his braces.
I would still dress him in long pants looking to hide them as much as possible. Occasionally someone would even compliment his cool dinosaur sandals. And then, as most life lessons go, I realized that I did not want him to think that there was anything to be ashamed of. And so, if it were hot, I put him in shorts. Judgments be damned.
But still I dreamed of shoes, not in the Carrie Bradshaw way, but in noticing the shoes of other kids. I do not desire cool heels for myself, but rather I’d give everything to be able to buy New Balance special edition Oscar the Grouch sneakers. Being able to give to your child, to provide, feels good. And this most basic provision, shoes, did not fill me with glee, but with dread. And his braces served as a constant reminder of the struggles that he faced and the battles we didn’t ask to conquer.
But conquering he was.
Eventually he got strong enough and his braces were cut down from his knees to his ankles. We found knowledgeable staff at Harry Harris Shoes and were able to get shoes to fit over them so that when it was cold out his feet were protected. And then joy of joys, just last month, his doctor determined he did not need the big braces anymore, just the ones that slip into his shoes, like the ones in my sneakers. I was overjoyed and excited for him to be getting stronger and rushed out to the shoe store to buy any and all shoes he so desired.
But he didn’t want any other shoes. I had been letting him wear his cool blue Converse without orthotics while his new ones were being made and he got used to it. When the new ones arrived, more tears and hysterics.
Each day is a struggle, but we’ll get there as we have with each hurdle.
I need to buck up. I know it is just a shoe and that not everybody has shoes or has access to the same medical care. I know that when I take him down to Children’s Hospital to have them fitted that we are extremely lucky, if not beyond blessed, to only be there for that.
But sometimes all you want for your child is to be able to step up to a ledge full of choices and choose something that captures the imagination, that fills them with belief to step out confidently into the world, something not restricted by disability. Even something as simple as a shoe.
Rachel Zients Schinderman lives in Santa Monica. She can be reached at Rachel@mommiebrain.com.