A few months ago, I found Mary Evelyn's blog, What Do You Do, Dear? through another blog Love that Max, and immediately became a devoted reader. Mary Evelyn writes with emotional honesty but also light-hearted humor about her adorable son, Simeon, who has spina bifada.
My son has an elephant.
It’s been with us so long, I hardly notice it anymore. I know that may sound odd— elephants are quite uncommon, after all—but I really mean it. By now, our elephant just blends in—like my son’s diaper bag. Or his favorite sippy cup. Or his unmanageable wisps of blond hair. It’s there—I just don’t see it anymore.
Other people are not so lucky.
We used to leave his elephant at home. We went shopping, we visited the library, we made friends with strangers. But now that my son is getting older, he prefers to take his elephant along with us—he needs it more.
I guess I expected the stares. I expected the surprised smiles. The whispers of “how cute!” It’s not everyday you get to see something as charming and novel as an elephant out on the town.
What I didn’t expect was the silence—and the distance. No one feels comfortable striking up a conversation while that elephant is hanging around. How can a person think about the weather, or football, or any of the usual small talk when they’re standing beside a real-life elephant?
So even amidst the smiles, and the waves, and the nods of recognition, I find it hard to make a connection. It can be lonely having an elephant around.
I know people are just curious. They want to know how we got saddled with such a high-maintenance pet. They want to understand and relate. They really want to ask us about our elephant.
But everyone knows that would be rude.
So they stay away. Because what if they accidentally imply that they’re curious? What if, in a momentary lapse of judgment, they ask about the giant mammal that’s milling around behind me? They’ve heard that people can be very sensitive about their elephants. So it’s safer to smile from afar than to risk offending me.
And I think it’s silly. How are we supposed to make new friends if we begin with what we can’t say? How are we supposed to connect if we know that something so big is off limits? We have to break the ice—and I think that means being willing to share all of our stories. It means that we have to be open. We have to be brave.
The problem isn’t that you might ask me about my son’s elephant—it’s that you might never get close enough for me to tell you about it.
So last month we went to the library. We visited the children’s section. We picked out books. And the other patrons were kind. The mothers smiled and encouraged their kids to say hello. Then, after 45 minutes of silence, it happened.
One gutsy lady ventured over, told me how adorable my son is, leaned in and said, “Do you mind me asking why your son uses a wheelchair?”
So I told her about my little boy. And about spina bifida. I told her about our life. And as our kids played together this woman and I talked for two hours—about family, home-buying, and local restaurants. No one was thinking about the elephant anymore.
We have to be willing to recognize our elephants.
Because revealing our differences makes them seem so small—and leaves more room to appreciate our sameness.