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Her doe-like eyes, alive with curiosity, watched me with innocent wonder. In sync with each move I made, her brow furrowed, little creases on her forehead growing deeper as she worked to grasp what she could clearly see but not quite understand. Carefully, she hid stolen glances behind the splat of a chair she knelt on, sinking farther into the cushion each time my stare caught hers.

The waiter came, breaking our connection for only a second before her inquisitive gaze fell back on me. Try as it might, The Mighty Grilled Cheese and its sidekick, Impressively Large Chocolate Milkshake, were powerless against this tiny spy’s strong will to solve the mystery of The Woman Trapped in the Large Machine with the Even Bigger Wheels.

It was impossible not to chuckle as I watched this bright-eyed gumshoe’s own wheels turning: “How did she get in that thing?” she asked herself. “Does it hurt?” she wondered. Big questions like “What does she need it for?” “How come I don’t have one?” and “Why isn’t she walking like me?” filled her little head.

I had all the answers and I wanted to give them to her. I held down a desire to motor over to the table she shared with her family and tell her that this is called a wheelchair and I sit in it because my legs aren’t as strong as hers. I’d ask if she likes to dance (she’s wearing neon pink ballet slippers and a glittery tutu over her jeans – it’s a pretty safe bet) and tell her I do, too. I needed her to know it’s perfectly okay to ask questions and it’s absolutely fine to wonder why people look or act differently than she does. And it’s especially important to love all our friends, even if they aren’t quite the same as us.

I settled for a toothy grin and a quick wave before returning my attention to the conversations bubbling up around my table. Taking a sip of water, I could see her face through the foot of my glass and I hoped our silent spiel was enough. I hoped I made the right kind of impression and taught an observant child a lesson in being comfortable with people and things different than what she’s used to seeing.

When I looked up again, she was out of her seat. I had been too busy picking at whatever was on my plate to notice that she had bravely walked up to me. I turned toward the little voice saying, “You’re pretty, can we pray for you?”

We. I knew then that she hadn’t been the only one watching me. Adults are just a little better at being subtle. I also knew that while I enjoyed dinner conversations with my family, this family was having their own conversations about me.

I had a nano-second to react before mom was beside me, too.

“You are stunning,” she told me. “You look just like that girl in that movie, but, oh shoot, I can’t think of her name.”

A small, nervous laugh escaped her lips and I thought maybe, just maybe she realized she should take her daughter and sit down.

Nope. That would be too easy.

“Anyway, we just came from church and I told my daughter we would not be doing our Christian duty if we didn’t pray for you.”

You mean from your seat over there or later tonight at bedtime, I thought, giving her benefit of the doubt. Oh, nope, you’re going to do it right here, right now. In the middle of a restaurant. In front of all these people. But at least I look like some famous chick?

Before I could make a beeline to the bathroom, the little one grabbed my hands. Ah, man. I was trapped. Well played, lady. Well played.

“God, we pray that you heal this beautiful woman,” she said. “Please fix what You are able and bring strength to her legs so that she can walk.” Plus something I don’t remember. But I do remember her parting words to me:

“Later when you feel comfortable I want you to try walking again. God performs miracles every day.”

Still waiting for that miracle.

I’d like to say it was, but this was not the first time a similar scenario had played out. I need more than my two hands to count the times perfect strangers approached me to offer their condolences for my “condition.” And to beg and plead with their highest power, wondering why “such a beautiful girl” was condemned to an “unfair, hard life.”  When they don’t get the answers they seek they are soothed by prayers for my salvation and healing.

I don’t know where this calling comes from or why people think it’s their charge to change me. If I ventured a guess, it’s ignorance bred from fear. It’s scary to look at things we don’t understand but we know could easily happen to ourselves or people we love. It’s uncomfortable. Well, lady on the bus or man in the grocery store, you are making me uncomfortable by putting your hands on my shoulders (or head – it’s like a bee to honey every damn time) and making an unnecessary scene. You are not God. Or a magician. Just stop.

After shaking off another delightfully awkward moment, I say a prayer of my own, for enlightenment. I pray for a day when our differences aren’t so easily seen. I pray for a day when the beauty of our souls matters more than the value of our temporary aesthetics. And I pray to let go of my own petty thoughts.

This time, though, annoyance that would be gone before I hit the parking lot was replaced by lingering disappointment. You see, most of these impromptu prayer circles are led by full grown adults already set in their ways. They’ve had time to form their opinions about the world and they’ve decided on their own how to act in it.  But this sweet, impressionable girl – no older than three – hadn’t been given that chance. Instead her mother was molding her right in front of me. And it made me sad. She was learning that differences are wrong and that they need to be fixed.

I can’t help but wonder, is this where it starts? Is this the moment when the distance and disparity is created? Is this when the seed of intolerance is planted?

The praying woman had an opportunity. She could have set an example for her child and quietly taught her that no one is the same and that’s okay. But she chose to use my disability as an example that our differences separate us. And that we can only come together if they’re remedied.

We’ve made practice of judging and convicting each other for the ways we look, think and feel. Why do we insist on expending energies this way, casting our brothers and sisters as aliens to fear and enemies to fight? This is what’s wrong. This is what needs to be fixed.

I do have hope – as I recall the kindness in the big, brown eyes watching me from a chair – that the grating rancor of today’s world cannot compete against the unlimited power of a child’s desire to understand.

I don’t know when love and peace will be restored to our world. I don’t know when we can feel safe to be who we are. I don’t know when we will stop fighting against each other and begin uniting together. I do know that it will start with the lessons we teach our children.

I pledge to teach my nieces and nephews and my future children how to love completely, without condition. How to speak kindly, without spitting hatred. How to notice and care, without making a scene. And how to accept fully, without casting judgement.

And I will teach them to pray.

For people: Happiness, abundant.  Safety, guaranteed. Understanding, given and received.

For the world: Peace, always. Love, unquestioned. Acceptance, universal.

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