My son, Aviv, sat perched on his Uncle Gil’s lap as Gil read him a book. Aviv cocked his head to one side, took Gil’s hand in his, and squeezed it. The look in his eyes changed and he looked down, opening his hand. “Where is your hand? Dod Gil, where are your fingers?”
Three and a half years–and more than half a dozen visits with his uncle–and this was the first time that Aviv noticed that Gil was missing all of the fingers on his right hand other than his thumb.
“I was born this way, Aviv,” Gil explained gently. Aviv wasn’t satisfied. “But where is your hand?” He changed his grasp and held Gil’s left hand in both of his small ones, examining the full set of fingers on Gil’s hand. Next, Aviv held up the right hand, and tried his best to reconcile the difference between the two hands. He pushed and prodded the places on Gil’s hand where Aviv expected fingers to be, pulling his thumb to the side, willing four fingers to grow where they had never been. Gil silently allowed Aviv time to explore, a smile creeping across his face as Aviv became acclimated with a reality that Gil had always known.
My husband, Oded, and I slowly stopped what we were doing and turned our ears in their direction, listening to the conversation as it unfolded. Aviv is barely 4, so I suppose it is surprising that this conversation had not happened already. That said, Oded and I had not given a lot of thought to how we would explain this or any other similar occurrence to either of our children.
Sickness, death, and where babies come from (why did I live in your belly and not in Aba’s? Aviv wanted to know?) were all issues that Aviv has already asked at his somewhat tender age. Our responses thus far have been as competent and age-appropriate as possible. But difference was not something that Aviv has had great exposure to, and rather than handle it ourselves, we had full trust that Gil had the best answers.
At 25, Gil is one of the most self-assured, emotionally mature young men that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, much less being related to. When he arrived in the world four fingers short of a full hand, his family had a variety of responses, from sadness to surprise to worry. They took their concerns and turned them into a proactive strategy to make sure that Gil never felt “less than,” and always felt as prepared to take on the world as equally as his three older brothers. Gil’s mom, my mother-in-law, told me recently that she worked with his first daycare teacher to make sure that Gil was given independence, a practice that was intended to teach him to operate the same as the rest of the kids–to eat, to paint, to play–with one full hand and just his thumb on the other hand.
Since then, not only has his left hand become just as strong as his right, but that early independence instilled in Gil an inner sense of confidence and direction–as well as a wicked sense of humor. It was in hands (literally) that we left the conversation, and Gil handled it beautifully.
There are moments and questions that Oded and I feel unprepared for as parents. It is hard to know at what juncture these questions will arrive, and it has been our experience that the simplest and most honest answer does the job. Gil’s explanation, that this is the way he was born, followed the same wisdom and seemed to resonate with Aviv.
Two days later, Gil was helping me walk Aviv and Maya home from his house to Gil’s grandmother’s house. Gil took Aviv’s hand in his left hand and offered Maya, who just turned 2, his right hand. Maya grabbed his thumb, and looked stunned.
“Where is your hand, Gil? Where is your hand?”
Same question, same response as Aviv had, just a few days before, by a child 20 months younger. Before Gil could even respond, Aviv, ever surprising and funny, looked straight at Maya and said in Hebrew, “Cacha who nolad, Maya. Cacha who nolad.” That is how he was born, Maya. That is how he was born.
Maya’s response: “Oh, OK.” Each of my children took one of Gil’s hands and that is how we walked home.