Watching 5-year-old Christen Yarbrough enjoy herself on a special trip for children with chronic or terminal illnesses in Disney World today, obeying her mother and being a very nice child made me think of myself when I was that age.
Christen suffers from spina bifida, the often painful ailment caused by an unclosed spinal column that often results in paralysis and mental retardation. But she acted quite ladylike and offered no complaints.
It was in stark contrast to my memories of childhood. I was about to have my tonsils removed and, as we said in those days, I pitched a fit at the prospect of losing my neck.
I tried to bribe the doctor, in fact persuaded him to promise me that I would receive a box of new toys for consenting to the surgery. When I awakened to find out that there were no toys, I could not wait to start acting up.
For hours on end I whimpered and sniffled in a most pathetic manner -- and when I realized that eating ice cream was no fun, hours turned into days.
I asked Christen's mother, Carolyn Yarbrough of Upper Marlboro, if her daughter ever acted up, and was somewhat relieved when she said yes. But it was not quite what I expected.
"Sometimes she gets irritable, especially when she sees other children running and playing," Yarbrough said. "But we have our talks and she's beginning to understand.
"Basically, she's a very nice girl. She tries real hard in school and is unusually considerate of other people's feelings."
Christen looked up at her mother with an angelic smile and laid her head on the woman's lap. Christen's routine, according to her mother, is most rigorous for a 5-year-old. Her day starts at 6 a.m. when she rises for school. Her mother said she sometimes tries to help with breakfast but mostly watches attentively as it's being prepared.
Then she catches a bus to a preschool about a mile from her house where she stays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. in a valiant effort to keep up with and learn the ways of students who are not handicapped.
She then goes home again, rushes through lunch and heads out again to a special education school where she stays from noon to 4:30.
For Christen, whose progress has been remarkable considering the severity of her illness, the best times are "when everybody's together," she said, meaning her mother and father, a Prince George's County school teacher, and her 2-year-old sister Lauren.
"When she was born, the doctor said she had spina bifida -- something I had never heard of before," Yarbrough said. "He told me the best thing I could do would be to raise her like an ordinary child and that's what we are trying to do."
Yarbrough said she has taken in stride the fact that her daughter is severely handicapped and her life expectancy is shortened. While Christen is in school, her mother cares for other handicapped children.
Like the 1,250 other youngsters who yesterday took the flight to Disney World sponsored by the Sunshine Foundation as a favor to sick children, Christen was no ordinary child. There's something very special about her. It was as if being seriously ill had given her a kind of wisdom and maturity that you don't see in ordinary children, for instance the one who only needs a tonsillectomy.