It’s a summer day in 2016 and I’m at an indoor pool with some friends. A couple months before today, I had publicly shared – first at church and then on Facebook – a part of myself I had been hiding for 27 years: my disability. In 2020 I like to call it a limb difference, but in 2016 I call it a disability. I was born with a left hand amputation.
At the pool I try not to hide my hand like I used to. But it’s still a struggle. My body remembers all the years of hiding and it’s itching to cover my hand. It’s especially reflexive around toddlers. Babies are ok because they don’t even know what their own fingers are; toddlers are a different story.
My friends Daniel and Selyun are here with their three-year-old Lily. Lily is a quiet toddler. Always cautious and thoughtful. Lily is so proper and ladylike for such a tiny human, it makes me giggle. At church services she sits with better posture than all the adults – back straight and hands folded in her lap. I watch her and wonder if she comes from a royal bloodline.
My favorite moments are when she acts like a dismissive queen. For instance when she eats a donut, decides she doesn’t want it anymore, hands the leftovers to the nearest adult – whether she knows them or not – and walks away with a look of disdain. My friend Jane and I like to narrate the scenario: Here, peasant. Enjoy my garbage.
Lily is also highly aware of her surroundings and people. I love this about her, but as a recovering disability-hider, it makes me anxious.
Today Lily is as quiet and careful as ever. She’s scared to go in the pool but she’s enjoying sitting at the edge and kicking her feet in the water. After about an hour, Lily becomes comfortable going a little farther in the water: ankles, knees, waist, neck. The pink frills at the collar of Lily’s baby blue swimsuit dancing in the sparkly water, bringing out the pink hue in Lily’s adorable droopy cheeks.
We’ve established a good routine after four or five banana bites. I start peeling the banana when I see Lily getting out of the pool. I watch carefully in anticipation because, with my left limb difference, it takes me a little longer to peel the banana.
I see Lily is on her way for the sixth bite. I’m trying to peel the banana, but I’m struggling. By the time Lily is in front of me, I’m still fiddling with the banana with my little hand. I start to tense up because I don’t know if Lily has ever noticed my hand before. I try to play it cool, kind of laugh, and finally get enough banana out of the peel to feed Lily. But she’s distracted for a moment because she’s noticed it. She takes a bite of the banana, shifts her body, and tilts her head a little to get a better look at my hand as I try to hide it behind me. She has a blank stare. She points with her index finger and makes a questioning noise, “Uh?”
I don’t know what to do. Do I address it or keep hiding it? Should I give her a better look? I decide to put it out in front of her so she can see it better. She stares – again a blank stare. No judgment, just curiosity. Point. “Uh?” She looks at her mom.
Now my body tenses up even more. It starts to tingle with anxiety and I can feel the sweat in my armpits, leg pits, and my upper lip. I’m so sorry, Selyun, now you’re being pulled into my awkward situation. You probably feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say and don’t want me to feel weird and I don’t want you to feel weird. But it’s weird. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Why was I born this way? I’m sorry.
I’m about to pull my hand back behind my body when Selyun says in her native Korean, “Oh, that’s auntie’s hand. 예쁘지 (Yeh-bbeuh-gee?) Isn’t it pretty?”
Selyun points to Lily’s left hand, “Just like you were born with that hand, Auntie Elise was born with this hand.” She points to my left hand.
예쁘지. Yeh-bbeuh-gee. I have never heard this word used to describe my hand, let alone in Korean, a language rarely used in my household to even talk about my disability. Or “problem” as my mom calls it in her limited English on the rare occasions that she does mention it.
My hand is cute, I think to myself.
Lily doesn’t say a word. She goes back to the pool and moves on with her life.
At church, Lily and I share a few more moments over the next few years where she sees my hand and curiosity strikes her again. I put it out for her to see and let her touch it. I say to her, “Yeah! This is auntie’s hand. Isn’t it cute? It kind of looks like a baby’s hand, right?” Lily giggles and nods. I giggle with her. She goes back to playing with the other toddlers.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I will have to address my hand with my niece. And one day, hopefully, my kid(s). It scares me. But I’m thankful for Selyun’s example.