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To the Parents of Children With Disabilities, I'm Sorry for Staring

To the parents of a child with disabilities on vacation,

I’m sorry for staring. I didn’t mean to and I tried to look away. But my gaze kept returning to you.

I watched as you transferred your son from his wheelchair to a boogie board. I watched as the two of you took an end and trudged through the sand and into the water. In a sea of people splashing, I watched you out there with your child, navigating the waters, other people and him.

I watched you, and it felt like home. I understood.

You see, I too had a child with disabilities. She died nearly four years ago, but watching you felt so familiar.

Mother and father swimming with disabled daughter

I saw the way you studied his face closely, searching his eyes and sounds for nonverbal queues. I saw the way you looked at each other, speaking volumes with a mere glance and jumping into action like ninjas, without anyone around you batting an eye. I saw how you navigated the open ocean and unpredictable actions of jubilant vacationers with caution but fierce determination. And I saw how seeing your child experience a “typical” childhood joy made it all worth it.

I doubt you really noticed me. I imagine you’ve grown an armor since your child’s diagnosis and stares no longer get through the Teflon you’ve learned to wear. But still, I tried not to stare. Because I remember that, too.

But what I see now that I didn’t know before is that stares can be filled with longing. For me, it was a gift to get to witness your devotion and unconditional love. Moments like this are intimate to a family, and the tenderness with which you live was truly beautiful to behold.

I wanted to tell you all of this. But instead, I just stared.

As you were leaving, I got up the courage to say something to you, “It’s a gorgeous day today.” You smiled and we exchanged niceties. But, really, it was your family who contained the real beauty.

A version of this story originally appeared on Gwendolyn Strong Foundation’s Facebook page and Instagram.