Dear young Jenny,
Happy World Cerebral Palsy Day! Wait, before you stop reading, let me explain. There are all sorts of special “days” now. National Pizza Day, Baseball Card Day, Twin Day. There’s even an International Left Handers Day.
You’re probably wondering why I’m choosing to acknowledge World Cerebral Palsy Day when we could be talking about pepperoni pizza or your growing stash of sports cards (side note: you’re going to be really glad you didn’t toss those one day!). If we’re honest, you’re probably cringing at even having to read the words “cerebral palsy.” That’s OK; you won’t always. That’s what I’m writing to tell you.
I recently found your "Ramona Quimby" diary; the one you got for Christmas when you were in the second grade. An entry scrawled in pencil under a section called “The Sad Place” caught my attention.
"Sometimes I feel sad because": People make fun of me. I have CP.
"I usually cheer myself up by": Sitting on my Whoopee cushion.
I know it’s been hard. Having a disability means dealing with challenges and questions that others never have to face. I know you resent it.
I also know you’ve spent most of your years trying to hide it. CP isn’t something you wish to acknowledge, much less discuss, so you don’t. When people approach you about it, the walls go all the way up. When they ask you what’s wrong with your legs, you’ll tell them you hurt your ankle or you’ll simply say the first thing that comes to mind to end the conversation: “Nothing.”
While CP affects people differently, yours is limited to your legs and pretty mild — just mild enough for you to sometimes forget about it. And if you can forget about it, can’t everybody else?
You want so badly to be accepted for who you are, not judged, ridiculed and constantly reminded about what you have.
Most of all, you just want to play.
You came into this world with sports baked into your DNA. You’re the kid with two Joe Montana posters on her bedroom ceiling. The one who sharpens her throwing accuracy by taking target practice through a tire hanging from a tree in the backyard. The one who, in 1990, tells 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo about her intent to one day shatter the glass ceiling and take snaps in the NFL. And the one who plays basketball in the driveway until it’s so dark outside, the hoop is hard to see.
This consuming love of sports gives you life and makes you whole. It’ll even influence the career path you decide to take. It also makes you a target for bullies, young and old.
There’s the youth soccer coach who refuses to let you play in games, forcing you to spend Saturday afternoons on the sidelines while other 8-year-olds run around on the grass. There are those girls on the Mt. Pleasant High School basketball team who insist on making your life hell every time you run past their bench.
I could tell you these hammer blows don’t matter, but the truth is they do. You’ll feel each one. They’ll test your courage and rattle your confidence, but here’s the thing. The sting won’t last forever. What feels earth-shaking today will become a source of strength tomorrow, I promise.
And here’s the other thing: You’re not alone.
Approximately 500,000 children in the U.S. have cerebral palsy. I know you don’t necessarily care about that now, but it will help knowing there are others out there who can relate to your struggles.
Let’s consider actor Ashton Kutcher. You’ll get to know him in a few years thanks to a popular TV series called “That '70s Show.” He’s a twin too, and his brother, Michael, also has CP. Like you, Michael was determined to hide it, both from shame and for fear of being labeled "the face of CP.” He never talked about it, never recognized it. But keeping secrets is pretty hard when your brother is a big-time celebrity, and Ashton will spill the beans during an interview in 2003.
"(He) did me the biggest favor he’s ever done because he allowed me to be myself," Michael said later.
Your own twin won’t expose your disability on national TV, but there will be moments when you'll feel strong enough to spill a few beans yourself. While away at college, you’ll take a deep breath and give a speech in front of 100 classmates, finally acknowledging your disability in a truly public way.
Nearly 10 years later, you’ll swallow hard and reference it in a column ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. You’ll call out authors of a training manual given to volunteers of both the Olympics and Paralympics that is so loaded with stereotypes, it requires a rewrite. The next day, your sports editor will get a phone call from a father whose son has CP. He’ll thank you for standing up for his child through your words.
These things may seem insignificant to you now, but trust me, they aren’t. They are worth celebrating and acknowledging because each one will bring you one step closer to accepting yourself fully.
So let me say it one more time: Happy World Cerebral Palsy Day, Jenny!
World Cerebral Palsy Day is October 6.