The Juggler

by Jesse Gardner Michener
- Reprinted with permission from The News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington -

She is fearless, a warrior-child whose battle is known to everyone but her.

In her half-silent world, she plugs along, making her own sense to things and ordering life perfectly. I envy her confidence.

She's four now. When she was younger, I thought of her as has having pure joy - joy that was distilled and encased within one tiny body. Now she's more reserved, but her confidence remains admirable and glimpses of her joy still emerge frequently.

At a New Year's festival, she wanted to volunteer in the main stage juggling act. She raised her hand along with the other kids. At first I thought she might just be mimicking them, but after she persisted, I knew she understood. She wanted to go on stage.

I cringed, thinking of the performer asking her for her name.

I imagined her silently smiling as he prodded, "Little girl, what is your NAME?"

I'd yell, "She's not stupid, you know. She's half-deaf." The crowd would stop, and silence would fall over the entire festival. He would walk to the end of the stage where he could see me. "So what does that have to do with it?" he would say to me. "Why can't she talk?"

Then I'd stand and point my finger at him and explain as the crowd listened intently. "We didn't know until she was 21/2 and by then her speech was delayed. So you be nice. Be gentle on her. She's come a long way, all right?"

Then my daughter would cry because I was yelling. Or she'd cry because I had once again given too much information to a complete stranger and had not let her find her own way.

I can't win. Mama guilt is powerful stuff, I tell you.

My child was resolute. She wanted to be on the stage. I know the feeling. I quickly coached her. "Violet, when he asks your name, you say, 'My-name-is-Violet.' "

"By name ish Bi-wet," she responded.

"Yes, good. How old are you? Say 'I-am-four.'"

"I four. Mama, ca I Bi-wet tur?" I know that means she wants a turn. She raises her hand in the middle of the act. Her eagerness once again comes at the wrong time. "Hold on, baby. Almost," I say.

Too quickly, the juggler thanks his volunteers on stage and announces that he and his assistant will need one more volunteer for the grand finale. Dutifully, I nudge Violet's hand in the air.

She takes the cue with gusto. Her hand goes up, and her chin goes forward. Without being called on, she walks toward the stage, hand in the air.

She is out of my grasp and couldn't hear me if I called. Panic sets in. I can't save her.

The world stops around me as my heart walks through the great crowd and up the stage steps. The performer laughs at her determination. "Well, OK, I guess we can have two volunteers." The crowd loves it.

Don't make her talk. Please, I beg silently, don't make her fodder for the laughter of the unknowing.

"And what's your name?" he asks as he shoves the mike to her mouth. I see her assess the situation and choose her response. "Aiee," she says with a grin.

"Ai-what?" He shakes his head. The crowd laughs, not knowing what to think.

"Ai-mee-cha," she says, still smiling.

"How old are you, curly?" He ruffles her curly hair.

"Boooeeee," she answers.

The crowd quiets, just a little. They know. They get it but don't know what to think. The child is off. Something is off. They laugh. Of course they laugh.

I wonder if they imagine the terror I feel as my child volunteers herself to be judged by the crowd. She knows nothing yet of evil. Knows nothing of suffering. She remains the center of a world where she is the star of her show.

I can only pray that when she awakens to our world, it is a gentle awakening. I pray she retains the confidence she has now as she stands unapologetically in front of the audience.

"Ohhh-kay, I don't know what you're saying, but I like you!" the juggler says with a shake of his head. He places my daughter center stage with the other volunteer, an adult.

I'm sure the juggler is worried she will screw up his act by not following directions. He has no idea if she understands what he is saying. It's a risk, for sure.

She just smiles and makes faces at him. He, in turn, uses her obliviousness as the punchline to his antics. The audience just keeps on laughing.

"Stay there," he tells her, making good eye contact. She responds by sticking out her tongue. He makes determined eye contact with his partner, and they begin to juggle twelve pins around the two volunteers. My daughter stands in the center, unfazed and unimpressed by the danger.

Somehow, in that moment, I know with certainty that my girl will be okay. Not just for now, but for a lifetime. Standing in the center of life's great juggling act, daggers on all sides, she'll be the joy others seek out. Perhaps, if we are lucky, she'll share that world of hers with the rest of us.

We need it.

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