Cry and MTF On
The other parents sitting with me easily slipped their daughters’ ballet shoes on. I held Evelyn steady with my right arm while my left tried to pry the end of the fake pink leather over the end of her plastic ankle-foot-orthotics. My index finger pinched between the hardened plastic that held her foot in place and the shoe that made her feel like a ballerina.
She had asked to do dance class after her preschool teachers taught her how to “nod, shake, move your hips” from Blazer Fresh’s hit kid tune “Banana, Banana, Meatball.” Kid hip-hop was hardly her first exposure to dancing, but I was delighted when she asked to ‘be a ballerina.’
Once I was cooking dinner with her, a soup in my new Ninja Foodi pressure cooker, and I danced around the island counter to get to the refrigerator.
“Don’t do that!” Evelyn said.
“It’s not nice to tell people to not dance if they want to,” I told her. “Do you want to dance with me?”
I can remember dancing when I was her age, often at random times. One time I put white mittens on my feet and danced out of my bedroom into the living room where my mom and dad sat. Look at me! I said. When they laughed, my anxieties about everything—making friends at school, our house burning down at night, someone breaking in, being kidnapped as I walked home from school—disappeared.
Despite my irrational fears in life, I always danced and sang. Or perhaps it’s because of my irrational fears that I did these things. It was something about myself that I always liked.
“C’mon,” I said to Evelyn. “Let’s dance.”
I went over to the stool where she sat and I held her hands. She slid off the seat, and as her feet hit the ground, we both paused. Her legs wavered, the right more than the left. That knee was still weaker and bent inward. Valgus her orthotics maker and physical therapist called it.
It’s also called knocked knees, they told us at every appointment, as if we would forget from month to month, or perhaps just needed the layman’s term to understand.
Evelyn’s knees touched every time she stood from a chair; she couldn’t stand up with space between them. Valgus is a tibiofemoral angle (or the anatomy of the shin and thigh bones meeting at the knee) that measures greater than ten degrees. Evelyn’s right foot turned outward when walking, up to ninety degrees if we didn’t remind her to use monkey foot (a term Evelyn came up with on her own as recommended by her physical therapist, Ms. Sherrie) to remember to walk with her foot at forty-five degrees. Forty-five degrees was not normal. It’s not the angle my own foot points when I ambulate. But it would be good enough for a child whose tibia rotates outward from below her knee.
“Whoa,” she said.
“I got you,” I said. “You ready?”
Evelyn nodded, saying no then yes in the way she often did. Maybe her brain needed time to vocalize thoughts before landing on the right one. Or it could be that she liked to try and trick me. Either way, I knew it wasn’t because her brain had a misshapen part like my high-risk doctor had said all those months ago. Even if her brain parts were more ‘triangular’ than it should have been, it almost seemed to make her wiser.
The song was something by Ed Sheeran. Something with a drum beat, an acoustic guitar, and lyrics of love and loss.
“Let’s do this,” I said.
Evelyn hung on to both of my hands as we began to sway. She had difficulty picking up her feet. Her right one shuffled more than the left. Her weakened hip flexor muscles didn’t allow her knees to rise the way a marching soldier could. Instead she alternated her weight from hip-to-hip.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
Right then left. Right then left.
With each shift, her white sparkle tennis shoes stomped the floor. If the little pieces of glitter weren’t glued on so well, shiny shards would have covered our kitchen like snowfall dusting a field.
At ballet, with her leather slipper shoes now clinging to the outer edges of her heels, I helped Evelyn stand up. I held her hand as she stepped down the three shallow stairs to the dance floor.
“Let go, Mommy!”
“I’m sorry, Evelyn,” I said. “I want to make sure you are safe. That’s my job.”
She wandered away from me and toward the group of girls who took off running toward Ms. Ashley, their teacher. Evelyn’s gait was lopsided, her right foot still dragging more than the left. She often said watch me run fast, Mama! when she tried to run, yet she was capable of little more than a shuffle.
She grabbed a mat from the bin and walked it out to the middle of the floor. I wanted to run out there. I wanted to grab the mat. I wanted to spread it out for her, neatly between two other toddlers who had already done so and were lying flat giggling. I wanted to tell the other parents to stop staring—because I was sure they were staring—at the girl who walked with yellow braces and whose right knee buckled in.
I watched carefully, calling out “are you all right?” when her toe grazed an uneven surface and made her fall. She started to stand without responding. Her legs slowly pushed her back up. She tipped forward and caught herself with her hands on the floor. The second time she pushed up, she made it all the way.
I turned away. I knew she needed to do this for herself. I knew that the older she got, the less she would want my help. The other parents were talking. Some wandered out into the hallway.
I distracted myself: a text message, a Facebook post, an email. The new featured items at Aldi for the week.
I wondered if doing this made me less of a mother, or more of one.
When I looked back up, Evelyn had her mat out. She had found her place between Ms. Ashley and a little blond-haired girl. Her legs out long; her body folded in half. Her flexibility amazed me. For all her constricted joints and muscle tightening, she could touch her toes as easily as I could clasp my hands.
The girls got up from their stretches. Most ran back to the bin, throwing their mats in. Evelyn stayed on the floor. She started on the short end of the mat and rolled it. Each flip of the mat turned it into a beautifully cared for piece of equipment. She tried to stand. One hand on her mat, the other on the floor, her feet tried to get beneath her. Her butt up in the air as if she were doing a yoga pose. She scooted her feet forward. I assumed the deep lunge in her knees burned her thighs as doing chair pose always burned mine. Her right foot pointed outward. Her right knee skewed inward.
I held my breath…
She pushed up…
C’mon, baby, I thought. (Or maybe I said it out loud.)
Her right leg gave out. Her foot slipped from beneath her.
She was no longer doing a down dog yoga position. She was just down.
“Aw, man,” I said.
I closed my eyes. For a moment it was dark. The sorrow came in like the disappointment when the protagonist dies at the end of a play. My eyes dampened.
But then the house lights came on. The curtain reopened. I saw Evelyn out there, standing. Carrying her mat. Smiling. Waving at me.
I stopped the impending cry. Barely. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, I hide in my bedroom and shut the door. I cover my face in my hands and let tears wash over my palms. The cleanse feels good. It feels bad. I often wonder, how can I cry so much when Evelyn doesn’t?
Dance class carried on. Ms. Ashley had the girls line up. In front of them was a mirrored wall.
“And plié!” Ms. Ashley said. “Do this, girls! Girls! Look here. Like this!”
The line disintegrated. Girls started twirling (not a plié) or running (also not a plié).
Evelyn held Ms. Ashley’s hand. She steadied her balance. Her feet already naturally turned outward. Her muscles long, lean, flexible. She bent her knees.
When ballet class was over, Evelyn walked back to me. She had gotten her hand stamps from Ms. Ashley, the sign of a class gone by. A dance completed. Now she was ready to put on her tennis shoes and MTF on.
The ballet shoes fought coming off as much as they did going on. I felt the skin on my finger stretch as I won the battle with the elastic band that had attached itself to her Velcro.
Evelyn kept smiling.
She was excited to talk about the scarves they twirled and the stuffed monkeys they threw into the air.
“Did you see me, Mommy?”
“Of course I did, baby.”
“Did I do good?”
“You did! I saw you twirl and chassé and plié.”
“I fell a lot.”
“It’s okay, baby. You know what I liked?”
Evelyn shrugged. Her right shoulder, the one with little muscle tone covering her bones, didn’t make it as high as the left.
“I liked that every time you fell, you got right back up. That’s what you need to do.”
We put our coats on. She held my hand in the parking lot.
“No cars coming!” Evelyn said.
“Then let’s go!”
We Moved The Fuck On.
Laura Gaddis holds an MFA from Miami University (in Ohio). She has published literary nonfiction and poetry in Thin Air Magazine, The Avalon Literary Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Ligeia Magazine, Pif Magazine, Vita Brevis Press, Scary Mommy, Tiny Buddha, and The Mighty. She has forthcoming essays in The Kitchen Sink and Evening Street Review. She resides in Oxford, OH with her husband, daughter, and pug Rocky.