Five years ago, I sat in a theater watching little girls in tutus with tears streaming down my face. My response emerged in part from pride—my sister was the director of the dance studio and the girls were doing a beautiful job. But sadness lingered underneath those tears. Our daughter Penny was five months old. She had Down syndrome. And I couldn’t imagine her ever being able to do what those little girls were doing.
That memory had faded until Saturday afternoon, a few hours before Penny’s first ballet recital. As I wrote yesterday, the dress rehearsal did not go well. Penny awoke at 5 a.m. on Saturday, which didn’t bode well for the 4:00 performance either. But I was better prepared this time. We got to the auditorium early and Penny’s teacher took her up on stage and we talked about how much fun it would be to dance with her friends.
She was excited, but nervous too. She clutched the feathers of her costume and refused to let go. “Two hands,” I told her. “When you dance, use two hands, okay?”
She nodded and off she went to line up backstage with her friends.
Peter and I sat in the auditorium, our whole bodies tense. “I just want her to be able to come on stage and not cry,” I said. I didn’t care if she danced or twirled or sang. I didn’t care if she stood as an example of the amazing things that children with disabilities are able to do. But I wanted her to have a sense of accomplishment. I wanted her to be proud of herself.
The music for their dance started and the girls ran on stage two by two. And there was Penny, no longer holding the feathers but instead, poised and confident, singing and dancing without even a glance at her teacher. Penny’s partner got distracted at one point, and Penny bent down to help her back up. At the end of the dance, she smiled and waved. And afterwards, when I asked her how she felt, she smiled again. “Happy.”
Peter and I sat in the audience and I remembered back to that day five years earlier. Once again, tears were streaming down my face. But this time they were tears of pride and love and joy.