Our life when we leave the house

Some days ago, I took the kids to Prague to see a small park featuring large models of dinosaurs. Shaye had been showing some interest in dinosaurs, not much but a little, and I am grateful for any interest beyond her continuing distress over differing skin colors. She has been acting out a lot more than usual, since she brought up the issue of her fear of “being black.” She rejects books with pictures of brown-skinned people. At night, she cries, “I have no eyes. I have no hair. I have no hands…” She insists that she is ugly and she can’t be “a princess” like her friends. She throws unexplained tantrums far too often. She talks a lot about hating anyone who is mean and wanting to hit people with her wooden sword.

So, dinosaurs are a wonderful interest. But getting to the dinosaur park requires the ordeal of packing, getting the kids out the door, walking to the train station and two full hours of public transportation one way. We had to get up early and Shaye was in a bad mood, as usual. She whined, complained and resisted at every step of the process of getting dressed and ready to go. I initially tried to give her the choice of not going, but it seemed clear that she would choose to resist and not go and then be inconsolable and intolerable to live with for the rest of the day as a result. So, I muscled my way through.

Once we finally got on the train, after a 20 minute walk through muddy fields, everything looked good. I sat back with a feeling of accomplishment. The kids were happily looking out the window. The worst was over… I hoped. Shaye did try to hold her leg out all the way across the aisle, so that Marik’s slightly swinging feet could be theoretically perceived as “kicking” her. She shrieked and carried on over that but such that really doesn’t even count as an incident by our reckoning.

Once we reached the city, we walked through the crowded railway station. I convinced the children to walk in a line with me in front, wielding my white cane, then Marik and Shaye bringing up the rear, as theoretically the more responsible of the two. I could hear people hissing in disapproval and drawing back from us as we moved. This had the advantage of clearing a path but I do wonder how long it will take Shaye to notice that I draw so much public scorn and be troubled by that as well.

The problem isn’t that I’m carrying a white cane in and of its self. People here are solicitous and make a point of trying to “help” blind people, although they shy away from any other category of disability. It appears that blind people are the fashionable ones to be seen helping. Rather the problem is that I have children. I have heard people hiss on a number of occasions, “How dare she have children?” or “Those poor children. What an irresponsible woman that is. How could she risk passing it on to them?” I have resisted the urge to confront them and point out that the children are adopted, partly because I don’t want the kids exposed to a scene and partly because that would seem somehow disloyal to all the blind women who do have biological children.

This time I couldn’t hear any words in the whispers, but I could hear a rolling wave of whispers as I moved and people do not generally whisper in crowded train stations. Still it was again only really a minor irritant. I do not need those people and, as far as I am concerned, they might as well not exist. We reached the escalator heading to the lower level and the subway stations. Neither of the kids can navigate getting on and off of escalators alone, so I have to do a tricky maneuver, grabbing one kid under each arm, while still keeping hold of my cane and backpack and skipping onto and then off of the escalator. As I executed the final part of this, I heard a loud whisper from up ahead, this time in a quite different tone: “Now, that’s a Mama!” My heart fairly skipped a beat. I do wish I heard more of that sort of comment.

We got onto one subway train and then off at a transfer station. We then had to navigate some super fast, long distance escalators to reach the other subway line. These escalators turned out to be too fast for me to hustle both kids on at once safely. I tried but Shaye panicked, seeing the speed of the escalator and as I was getting on, she squirmed out of my grasp and landed on the floor, as Marik and I were swept upwards. Shaye started to scream in terror. Given that these escalators are in fact dangerous, I had to do something fast. I detached Marik’s clinging hands from me and raced backward down the escalator as fast as I could, while he screamed above me. I grabbed up Shaye and then ran back up to comfort Marik. I was well winded after this and was glad I had reacted quickly. As fast as those escalators were, any delay would have made the feat impossible. Sometimes someone has helped me get both children onto these fast escalators but in this case our immediate area was deserted.

At the top of the escalator we approached the next train. There is usually a small gap between the platform and the subway, again just wide enough to make it difficult for the children to jump alone. I deal with this by holding them each by the hand on either side of me and holding my cane with only a spare finger, so that I can correctly judge the gap and tell the kids when to jump and make sure they don’t fall. Just as we were approaching the gap this time, I felt someone seize me from behind, by the same arm that I held both a child’s hand and my cane.

I glanced back just enough to catch the impression of a middle-aged woman. Then, she wrenched my arm upward as if to haul me bodily into the subway. At this violent movement both children lost their grip on my hands. Marik sprawled on the ground inches from the gap and the wheels of the train. Shaye staggered back a step. “Leave off!” I cried and shook myself free of the woman’s grip, grabbed Shaye’s hand and Marik by the seat of his pants, before he could be trampled by the crowd surging toward the open doors of the subway and barreled my way inside. To the woman’s credit, she did later alert me to our stop, when the subway’s speaker system failed, and I couldn’t tell where the stops were. She was well intentioned, though I still have a hard time understanding what would possess someone to ignore “help” the blind adult and ignore the presence of toddlers trying to get across a gap.

We reached the final subway stop and headed for yet another escalator, where an older man did actually ask if he could help one of the children on and, after receiving permission, he did so quite competently. We emerged from the subway maze into the open air again, feeling disoriented. I wished I had printed out an actual map rather than relying on memory, but a mother with two young boys cheerfully helped me figure out which direction to start in, which is always the greatest chore. Still, we had to wander around for a few blocks, as the streets did not seem to match my recollection of the online map. Finally, Shaye shouted that she could see a dinosaur, which turned out to be a giant plastic dinosaur head helpfully mounted on the front of the park. I can’t wait until she can read street signs.

After our two-hour train trek, the children were exhausted and a chill, late winter wind was blowing across the park. They only lasted about a half an hour at the dinopark. We then sought out the warm kitchen of a Facebook friend in the area. I will say that for “social media”.

A few days, later I was on the subway again, this time alone and I saw a man, clearly totally blind, being hauled along rudely by another middle-aged woman. I had been aware of his presence walking near me in the crowd for some time from the tell-tale rhythmic scrape of his cane and then I could make out the scene clearly as the crowd thinned while getting on the subway. I felt my blood begin to boil and I turned to the man, hoping to do something helpful. “Do you want an …?” My language skills failed me and I could not remember the word for “elbow”. The man, misunderstanding my intention, pulled furiously away. “Just leave me alone!” he cried. “I’m a mobility instructor for Christ’s sake!”

The woman on his other side managed to keep a hold of him, despite his protests. I was so frustrated that I spoke before I could stop myself, “Don’t grab people like that, woman!” She instantly turned him loose and he struggled toward the door on his own, stonily avoiding me. The woman who had grabbed him ended up standing next to me in the subway, so I explained it to her, including the dangerous incident with my children, and how you actually do guide a blind person, if you ever have to. She thanked me graciously and truly appeared interested in understanding.

But I was left feeling ashamed and utterly confused. I was ashamed because I had caused even more of a scene for the poor man, who clearly has to deal with this sort of thing every time he goes out, just as I do, and who was trying to just ignore the woman gripping him and get it over with. As I sat in a tram later that day, I watched as three people raced toward the tram from the back, hoping to catch the tram before it left. They were all close together, not a group but running in a line, briefcases flailing. Two of them hopped aboard and the third had his hand on the door, when it slammed shut. On the trams the doors are controlled manually by the drivers, who are required to watch for passengers near the doors in their mirrors. This was clearly on purpose. I craned to get a better look at the man and as the tram pulled away, I caught a glimpse of his face, not enough to tell his expression but enough to see the slightly tanned color of it… tanned in the late winter when no one should have a tan. I knew that was what I would see but it still made my insides curdle.

I had to blink back tears. I could see clearly in my mind an incident that had happened more than ten years before. I was on a tram, just like this one, when I was still new to this country and I couldn’t speak Czech well. I saw two dark-skinned, probably Romani, children get on the tram with colorful school satchels, clean jackets and smiling faces. A drunk man with straggly gray hair had grabbed both of them by the collar and the driver had held the door for him, while he threw them out onto the platform. Then, the driver had slammed the doors and sped away.

At the time, I had been so upset I could not speak for a moment. The drunk then careened up and down the aisle, cursing the Roma, while the other passengers sat in their seats, ignoring the entire incident. I finally gained the strength to stand and told him to get off the tram. I stumbled over my words, as I couldn’t speak the language well yet, so I garbled my threat to call the police on him on my cell phone and when I went to do it, I realized that I didn’t know how to call the police in this country and I knew with certainty that they would simply laugh at me. The drunk new it too. He laughed at me, spitting his fetid saliva all over me, while the other passengers continued to ignore everything. It was bad enough at the time but the memory now is doubly painful. The idea that something like that might happen to my children with their beautiful, slightly tanned faces is paralyzing.

Now, a few days later, Shaye has come to me and told me that it was not merely her bruised finger that made her terrified of being “black.” She says that her friend, a little girl named Kaja, at preschool told her she is “black and ugly.” After she told me, Shaye was so depressed that she could only sit on my lap and cry most of the evening and continued to be clingy and sad in the morning. I have tried everything I can think of in terms of comforting words, explaining, supporting, exploring her emotions, reassuring… None of my words appear to make any difference to Shaye. And why should they? Whether she consciously knows it or not, some part of Shaye senses what kind of society we live in.

And yet, I know this one thing. I know that it is possible to stand against the storm. If you have a strong family and even a very few friends. The social world may be a horrid, ugly place. But there is comfort and joy and hope around a family table and by a warm hearth. There is goodness in a garden and shared games. Why should it matter so much? I know it did matter to me, when I was a child. It mattered a great deal and it hurt a great deal. I wish it did not have to hurt my children as well. I wish I could somehow armor them against it, make them understand from an early age how fickle and ignorant people can be. Even in situations much less extreme than our own, you really can only depend on yourself and that small circle of trust that you have built with those you love.

(I apologize for the rough and unedited nature of the last few blogs. All this is quite exhausting qnd it is all I can do to get it down int he first place. Read at your own risk.)

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Julie Farnam
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 15:26:27

    It makes my heart ache to think of the physical difficulties — let alone the social and emotional ones. Amid the chaos and difficulty, I appreciate you sharing your understanding and compassion toward the blind man and his reaction. As well as your reaching out to the good will of the woman who was trying to help, despite how irritating her efforts were. These small comforts between people are what keep our hearts open — in a world that makes it pretty difficult sometimes.

    Reply

  2. Joya Feltzin
    Apr 13, 2013 @ 03:56:56

    Are there any “alternative” communities in the Czech Republic where you might find more support and less racism? It is so shocking to read about people’s negative reactions to people of color in these “modern times”. Gratefully this is happening less and less in the US (I think). Thank you for your frank descriptions and thoughts about the difficult experiences that you and your family are having. Hopefully your daughter will develop some understanding and come to accept herself and see herself for the beautiful person that she is. YOU are an amazing mother and woman! Hang in there.

    Reply

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