It was a chilly Saturday morning as I drank coffee and thought about a family activity that would be fun for both of our girls. I decided that we’d spend the day like many other St. Albert families, so we headed out on an adventure to Servus Place Rec Centre.
My husband and I were excited, as it was the first time our youngest daughter Addison was trying out her new hockey skates. We packed up all of the skates, snow pants, mitts and toques, piled the girls and all of their stuff into our mini-van, and headed out. We entered Servus Place.
And then it started.
I had tried to prepare myself on the van ride over: People will stare, I told myself. Don’t let it bother you. Just enjoy your Saturday. But, despite best efforts, it always gets to me.
“Mom, why are people staring at us?” asked Addison, 3, voicing the words in my head.
I’ve asked this question for seven years, ever since my daughter Jaina was born with multiple disabilities. But I wasn’t sure I knew the answer. Why was this simple question so difficult for me to answer?
Should I tell my younger daughter the truth? And, if so, what is the truth, or what version of it is she ready for? I want to protect her innocence.
I wish I could open it up to the strangers who stare. I know we are different, but because you stare silently, you magnify the differences.
I wish I could ask people: Why do you stare? Do we make you uncomfortable? Do you have questions? Do you feel sorry for us? Do you pity us? Do you love Jaina’s pink wheelchair? Maybe you have not yet seen a beautiful angel like our dear daughter Jaina. Maybe she is the first angel child that has crossed your path. You see, Jaina very nearly died before she was born.
In January 2006, my husband placed his hands on my belly and felt Jaina kick for the first time. I thought to myself, we’re halfway there!—halfway to fulfilling my dream of having a family. I was 20 weeks pregnant, and my baby would be born in another 20 weeks, sometime at the end of May.
Then the car accident happened. We were driving home from a dinner with friends. In an instant, the baby I had dreamed of suffered a major injury. My spleen burst upon impact, and my baby went without air for a few minutes. In those minutes her life changed forever. A key part of Jaina’s brain stem calcified, so she would never be able to walk, talk or breathe or eat on her own.
I’ve come to believe that our beautiful Jaina was specially placed in our family for a reason.
The reason wasn't clear to me initially. I went through all the stages of grieving the child that I thought I would have. When Jaina was in Stollery Children’s Hospital for the first months of her life, I was in serious denial. Then, for many years, I was angry. And now, I can finally accept.
I believe Jaina is here to guide us to a future where we all belong: a future where families like ours are not stared at, where we are welcomed with smiles.
Let’s open up the dialogue between us. Ask the hard questions. Bring your children and come over to say hi to our family. Ask me how we are doing. Ask about the weather. Ask me about Jaina. Just talk to me. Include us in your community.
Together, let’s abandon our outdated beliefs about what defines the “typical family.” Let’s work towards a future of acceptance and inclusion. Let’s create a supportive community, one made up of people and families of all types.
Some of us may look different, and some of us may speak different. And some may be angels walking among us. That is my Jaina. She is here to bring peace. She is a calm, peaceful force. She does not suffer, and she is not in pain. She has fought to be here since before she was born. She does not know any different. To her, she is perfect, just the way she is. She has touched many lives, and I hope that in some small way, she can touch yours.
Christina Herbers is mom to girls aged five and eight. She works part-time as a consulting engineer, and is a writer, volunteer and weekend warrior living with her husband and children in St. Albert, Alberta.