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My Baby's Different
Today, I took my five year old daughter to the park in our small suburban neighborhood in central Indiana. The sky held the kind of sun that required sun glasses and the few white clouds were high and wispy in the atmosphere. An ice cream truck pulled up alongside the park, and the line of children waiting to enjoy an ice cold Popsicle stretched all the way to the giant red slide on the far end of the playground. Saturday afternoons during an Indiana summer are usually scorchers; I could see the little beads of sweat on the bridge of Asha’s nose as she waited beside me in her favorite blue sun dress.
“Would you like some money for some ice cream?” I knelt down and slung my bag from my shoulder.
Asha’s black eyes lit up and a smile split her face. “Yes, mommy, please!” She held her two little brown hands out in front of her and in them I placed a five dollar bill.
With a stern look, I stopped Asha from darting off right away. “You’ll remember to bring back all of the change this time?”
“Uh-huh.” Asha wiggled from under my arm and dashed off to join the line of children. She was immediately joined by two of the girls she had met on the playground. All three were only about as high as my waist and they jumped up and down and laughed as if they had not a care in the world. I watched Asha stand on tiptoe when it was her turn at the truck and I saw the stooped old man inside hand her an ice cream sandwich wrapped in shiny paper. Looking back towards me, Asha waved and held up her ice cream triumphantly, as if it were the trophy of a race she had just won.
On their way back to where I was now sitting with some of the other children’s moms, two boys stopped Asha and her friends. I instantly sat up a little straighter so as to better see what was going on. The two boys, Freddy and Ashton Eder, were known as the neighborhood rabble rousers. They were known to tease other kids in their class and I was ready to move in if they showed even the smallest sign of bullying my daughter or her friends. I felt like an overprotective mother hen, but I was sensitive about Asha. I needed to be.
The Eder boys were too far away for me to hear what they were saying, but I saw Asha’s face as she frowned and listened. Then the Eder boys left and the other two girls ran off, leaving Asha alone. Never before had I seen her look so lost; she was usually quite a gregarious child but now, she looked as if she were a dancer frozen in the middle of her routine because she had forgotten the next steps.
I was halfway out of my seat and on my way to comfort her, when she slowly peeled open the wrapper of her ice cream sandwich and headed back toward the playground. Thinking she had gotten past whatever had given her pause, I watched as she stopped at the edge of the playground near the swings. For several minutes, she simply watched the other children play and all the while, that frown was still stamped onto her little face. When she sat down on the plastic barrier that kept the woodchips of the playground in, I got up and went to sit beside her.
“What’s up, kiddo?” There was a woodchip digging under my left thigh and I shifted slightly to make myself more comfortable.
Asha’s dark eyebrows were drawn tightly over her exotic eyes. “How come I don’t look like them?”
My heart constricted at her words as I followed her gaze and watched the other children playing, all of whom had skin as white as mine and the clouds above. “Asha, sweetie, do you remember where I said you were from? You were born in India.”
“But we’re all from India,” Asha insisted, pointing at the other kids. “All of my friends said they were born in India, too. It’s only me that looks different.”
I suddenly understood. “Our state is called Indiana, honey. Not India. Did that confuse you?”
Asha’s gaze left mine and returned to the laughing and running children. “Why can’t everyone look the same?”
I rubbed small circles on her back. “Because being different is what makes us who we are.”
Asha looked at the children playing and then at the ice cream sandwich in her hands. Before I knew what she was doing, she had peeled off the thin, soggy cookie on top and ran the ice cream over her arm, leaving behind a leaky trail of milky white against her brown skin.
A thin film of tears over her eyes, she held her ice cream covered arm out and asked, “Can I be like them now, mommy?”