At my building, I have several classrooms of children, some with extreme special needs. Severe handicaps. Situations that make you wonder how they have survived to this day, and how they manage to smile, be sweet, and carry on.
Our classrooms are for three to five year old children, and unlike schools that follow a birthdate qualifying calendar, children join our classrooms as they turn three. New kids throughout the school year.
On occasion, one of my staff members will ask me if I have met “____________” yet. Many times, it has been my father, the custodian. “Hey Tracy, have you met Betsy yet?” “Well no, I have not.” I am asked to go to a classroom to meet a child. I want to make it clear that this is not a “Hey, let’s go look at the newest zoo exhibit!” situation. Ever. When a staff member wants to introduce me to a little person, it is because they are special. Because they grabbed someone’s heart. Because my life will be enhanced by being introduced to a small person who is overcoming obstacles every day.
Many years ago, I was asked to meet Betsy. I entered her classroom during a free play period, so as to not interrupt education or therapy. I stood behind her while a teacher said, “Hey Betsy!” When she turned around, I found myself looking at the most beautiful little girl that I had ever laid eyes on. She had a type of Down syndrome. She had the biggest, most expressive eyes that I have ever gazed upon. I squatted down to get to her teeny, tiny level, and I say, “Hi Betsy! I’m Tracy.” Betsy, in some unexplainable, fundamental way, took my measure in less than three seconds, and then came into my arms. She took three toddler steps towards me, reached her little arms under my underarms to put her hands on my back, and laid her head on my chest. I, in turn, wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close. I breathed in the shampoo smell of her hair, and I was transported. All of my worries were gone. All of my plans for the rest of the day were gone. I suddenly remembered why I had become a speech therapist twenty years before. I remembered why I had opened my company. I simultaneously forgot everything that didn’t matter, and remembered everything that did matter, and I found a place of peace that I hadn’t had in a long time. Some of you believe in love at first sight, and some of you don’t. I’m just here to tell you today that when Betsy came into my arms, I felt overwhelming love for her. A fierce protectiveness where “Mama Bear” reared her head and said, “I would do anything to protect this child.”
This “hug” that I got from Betsy was everything that you have ever wanted from your lover. (Don’t get skeevy on me here). You know that feeling when your soulmate pulls you into a full body hug and cups the back of your head while laying their cheek on your cheek? The unspoken love and adoration….the thought that pops into your head “This person loves me beyond reason. If someone hurts me, they will cut them.” The safety. The ability to be 100% yourself. It’s the same hug that many of us wish that we could get from our parents. That moment when you are telling them that you are moving and the other person won’t be coming, and they have a choice between going, “Oh that’s too bad, I hope you’ll be okay,” and the choice of pulling you close and whispering in your ear, “Oh my baby. I’m so sorry. You are broken and in agony….do you want me to go kill them?” You don’t want them to kill for you, you just want to know that that is the way that they think/feel about you.
The “hug” lasted forever, except when it was over, I didn’t want it to end. I don’t know….religious experience? Karma? The Universe? Did we connect on a level that most of us don’t even recognize in our normal daily lives? It felt that way to me.
The hug ended, and we pulled away. I remember feeling grateful, extremely grateful for this moment in time. Then I looked around. At the teacher, and the aides, and my father. They had a knowing look. I realized that they had all experienced this transporting hug. It is why they wanted me to experience it.
What I had thought was a special moment between Betsy and I was, in fact, not about me at all. Betsy had a unique gift. Betsy could give an adult a hug that made the adult recalculate, reset all of their buttons. I, and dozens of others had experienced the same thing with Miss Betsy.
It has been years. I honestly don’t know exactly how old Betsy is, or where she is, or how she is doing. I hope that she has not lost her gift of hugging another human being and transforming their life.
Today, when one of my sons is struggling, is in pain, is trying to make decisions, I pull them into my arms. And I hold them. Tight. I cup their heads, and lay my cheek on their cheek, and I breathe deeply. I hope they feel my overwhelming love for them, my protectiveness, and my desire to fix everything in direct competition with my desire to have them be independent and handle their own issues. I hope they pick up on the knowledge that mom would do anything for them, within reason. That mom is always on their side.
People with special needs, those who are “not normal,” often have abilities and characteristics that actually are “super powers” when looked at with an open heart and an open mind.
Betsy reminded me that people with a “diagnosis” also have amazing abilities. Betsy reminded me to not give “air kisses,” but to pull those I love into a full body embrace.
Unlike the rest of us, Betsy and people like her don’t care about the other person’s financial situation, or educational level, or sex life. When Betsy met me, at three, she didn’t think any of those things. Her quick assessment was, “Are you a nice person? Could you like me? Would you be careful with me?” She saw an affirmative answer in my eyes, my smile, my body language, and chose to come into my arms. Nobody made her do that.
For my friends online, I’ll close with this: “Betsy is kind. Betsy is non-judgmental. Betsy believes in hugging. Be like Betsy.”