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"Ice Cream": Third Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011

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That is the attitude that has brought her to this place. The music swells. The flag bearers begin, followed by the principal and staff. Students then enter, the middle aisle filling with bodies, some walking solemnly with eyes straight ahead, some scanning for family. As the faculty members take their seats on stage, I glance across their faces, smiling toward the various teachers who have assisted my daughter on her journey. Her special education teacher is one, but there are many more. My throat tightens as I remember those teachers who spent extra hours helping my daughter know what was expected, find her best self, feel relevant and succeed. I remember a blur of experiences: her joyful firsts and hard-won triumphs; the kind gestures and painful snubs of others; commiseration and isolation; and hours upon hours spent with doctors, therapists, and tutors. I remember her delight in every birthday, every gift and gesture of love; I remember my ambiguous pangs of pride in her achievements and sorrow in recognized delays, marked by each anniversary of birth.

I remember where our story began. It could be said to have started with her birth, but for me, it was a few years later. My hands were full, pushing her in the umbrella stroller, carrying her infant brother in a sling around my shoulders. I had learned from past appointments that the double stroller was too wide and cumbersome in these rooms and halls. Looking back, I am not sure if I was hazy with sleep deprivation or with denial. My robotic state cracked slightly with the doctor's words: "People don't come alone to appointments like this." These were her first words to me as she entered the exam room.

"I am not alone," I replied stupidly, gesturing to my two children. She shook her head in annoyance as my son began to fuss. My daughter, as usual, slumped contentedly in the stroller. Perhaps realizing that my competency was low, or wanting to be sure she could move things along efficiently, she called out for a nurse to take the baby. I compliantly passed him over. Then she told me the test news. The world tilted on its axis with her words. She handed me papers with research cases to support her findings, suggested additional medical specialists to see, and told me to contact the local school district for intervention. My mind was reeling with the acronyms and medical terms she had been tossing at me. I caught the word "intervention," though. Dumb, numb, I had only heard it in the context of substance abuse. "Intervention for what?" I asked. "For mental retardation," she replied with an air of the obvious. Even the cut of those words did not fully break through. She proceeded with the prognostication that my daughter would never learn to read, that she would at best attain the cognitive abilities of a kindergartener. "It's all supported in those studies," she added, gesturing to the pile of papers now in my lap. "Call my office if you have further questions," she concluded as she rose to proceed to her next appointment.

With mechanical movements, I wheeled my daughter out of the room, toward the check-out desk, while scanning for my son. Collecting him, I could tell he needed to be fed before our drive home. Oblivious to my surroundings, I sat back in the waiting room to nurse him and to hold a bottle for my daughter, although she was a toddler. She rarely cried, but I had learned to feed her whenever I had the opportunity. After only a few moments, she tired from the effort of drinking and stopped.

I don't remember driving home. All I remember is unsuccessfully trying to reach my husband, then calling my mom. With the news, she started to cry. I did not. Not until a year later, when I cried and cried and cried.

I am crying now, with happiness. I see my daughter pass by. Her face lights up with its characteristic smile as she spots us. She takes her seat just a few rows in front of us. Like the other graduates, she dreams of her future, of finding an occupation, and of finding love. Her grin is full of optimism and pride. I have some fears about what lies ahead for her, but the look on her face reminds me of the power contained in her sweet body. I do not see disability; I see possibility.

Her smiling face, her serenity, her satisfaction, this is what I will remember. This is my ice cream.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.