When our older daughter Layla was born, the matter of immediate concern was the unilateral cleft in her lip and palate. The cleft was obviously a physical blemish which could be corrected with plastic surgery, and it was also a hindrance to the way our daughter ate, making it also a health concern. Within the first 11 months of her life, Layla underwent four different surgeries to correct her cleft and to reconstruct her mouth and nose. The results were incredible.
But that was a tough year. Our lives revolved around appointments and pre-ops and flights to and from the Boston Children’s Hospital. There was so much happening that the problem with her hand was hardly talked about. You see, she was also born with only two full fingers on her left hand; the other three did not grow to completion and are various sizes. We knew that fingers don’t grow overnight; we had an initial meeting with a surgeon who mentioned removing the little ring impressions that had settled at the start of the finger growth, but that was really it.
Layla grew and blossomed and that first year faded away. She turned 1 and then 2 and then 3 and most people who didn’t know about her birth did not realize there was anything different about her. She herself, even now at 3.5, looks at pictures of herself as a baby and doesn’t bat an eyelid. Her cleft lip and palate are no longer a day-to-day part of our lives at all.
Right before Passover, Layla came home from school with an absolutely beautiful Haggadah that she made with her teachers. Each page was a work of art, and as a preschool teacher myself, I was so impressed with the craftsmanship that went into it.
As we sat down and perused it together, I couldn’t help but stop and stare for a few seconds at the second page. The page was about urchatz, the ritual washing of hands at the seder. The children had painted their own hands and stamped them down onto the page. A little washing cup that could swing from a pin hook completed the craft.
It was suddenly all too clear.
The teachers had chosen to use both of Layla’s hands, regardless of her missing fingers. So there on the page, in dark blue paint on a cream backdrop, was a perfect little right hand and a left hand that sported a thumb, an index finger, and then three little circles in descending order. I waited to see if my daughter would say anything, but she merely pointed out the paint and the stamps and turned the page.
We had begun speaking to her about her hand recently, trying to see how she felt about it and how much she noticed it. Each conversation was very brief, usually beginning with her pointing out that she has some “little fingers” and me answering that, “Yes, God gave you special little fingers. But that’s OK, right?” She would nod and the conversation would swiftly change.
Her hands are not baby hands anymore, tightly clenched and balled up into little fists; they are little girl hands, broadening and lengthening, holding onto markers and scissors and deftly doing what all her peers are doing. No, her fingers do not hold her back in any way, thank God. She has almost full usage of the hand, but the hand is… noticeably different. And in that moment, it hit me just how noticeably different it was.
Fast forward to a recent Thursday in May. I took Layla out of school early to treat her to some Mommy and Layla time, something I began implementing recently to give her her own time separate from her adorable but attention-grabbing baby sister. In my pocket I had a surprise for her, and when we sat down at a cafe with our smoothies and cookies, I took it out.
A bottle of nail polish.
Her eyes lit up. For a while she had been begging me to paint her nails pink, usually after I returned from the nail salon myself. Without any judgment on others over here, I don’t believe in taking children to a nail salon for various reasons, and so I had promised to buy her nail polish and do it for her myself.
Finally, I had kept to that promise!
Excitedly, we unscrewed the cap and began painting her right hand. One, two, three, four, five beautifully painted nails.
We waited a couple moments for the right hand to dry somewhat and then she put out her left hand.
“Only two fingers on this hand, right, Mommy?”
“That’s right. Two cute, little fingers.”
“Because you have a special hand! Some people have special noses—maybe it’s crooked!—or special ears—they can’t hear properly. You have a special hand!”
She was looking down at the hand as I painted the two pristine nails on her thumb and index finger.
“But… I don’t want a special hand, Mommy,” she said in a small voice.
Something inside me stumbled and rolled over flat.
I don’t even remember how I responded, what I answered. There was nothing I could really say or do, and nothing I can ever say or do, that will take away that fleeting sense of disappointment that may pass over her every so often. Her words gave me a glimpse of the future, where we will perhaps have heart-to-heart talks over cups of steaming tea and talk about her hand. And perhaps we will dissect it and try to understand the sometimes confusing ways of God. Or perhaps she will accept it easily as who she is and how she was meant to be.
I don’t know. I do know that all I can do as her mother is love her to death, something which I am more than happy and able to do. I can see completely past that teeny, tiny flaw and marvel at her talents, her endless energy, her feistiness, and her tendency to look at life with an excitement and a passion that leave me breathless and wanting to join her.
I can’t ever make it right, but I can make it just another part of the incredible person she is becoming.
And I hope I do.