“Parenting is a big responsibility,” everyone said, eyeing my growing belly and the baby already on my hip. “You think it’s hard with one? Two is a hundred times more work! You better be sure you can handle it.”
While I loved caring for my girls, I took that part about it being my responsibility a little too seriously. I had a hard time letting anyone help — including, sometimes, my husband. Eventually, people stopped offering. Even when Freyja, our younger child, was diagnosed with a severe neurological disorder and I knew I was in way over my head, this was how I operated: I got it. No thanks. We’re okay!
From time to time I wondered how other families had aunties who took the kids for weekends, grandparents who took the whole family on vacation, or friends who pitched in here and there. We had none of that. It took me years to realize that this was because of the space I put between us and everyone we knew. Then, when Freyja was about 6, I referred her to Make-A-Wish, and everything changed. I no longer had a choice; I had to let people in.
For so long I’d acted so stoic that people did not realize how serious our daughter’s disability was. I write about it, but I don’t talk about it much, and Freyja is so full of life that it’s hard to believe her condition is terminal. I don’t think people had any idea what we were dealing with until I posted something on social media about her qualifying for Make-A-Wish. She chose to go to Disney World to meet the princesses.
A typical Disney vacation is beyond our financial means, but Make-A-Wish made it possible. We decided to extend the trip by a few days so that Freyja could rest when she needed to and we’d still have plenty of time to see everything. But I worried about the cost of that extra time. Someone started a GoFundMe page to cover our expenses, but I hated the idea of asking people for money. I hated that people might think I was begging, that they might make assumptions about me, that they would think I was taking advantage of them.
Enough friends told me to shut up and just let people help my daughter make her wish come true that I swallowed my pride and shared the link. Before long, friends, colleagues, family members and a handful of generous anonymous strangers had raised $5,000. I was uncomfortable, but at the same time my heart was warmed by how many people loved my daughter and wanted to help her have the time of her life.
There were other acts of generosity. A former classmate I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade reached out to offer us her home and car for the days Make-A-Wish did not cover. Another old friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in more than 20 years messaged me after noticing how much my older daughter loved Harry Potter. Did I know that he worked at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? He gave us free tickets and devoted an entire day to being our guide. I got a text from another person whose good friend worked somewhere she thought we’d really love to visit; soon we had a private, accessible tour lined up. And all of this happened before we even left the house.
Still, the idea of traveling 1,300 miles made me feel sick. How would we manage kids, a walker, a wheelchair and luggage? Would everything fit in the cab? How much would it cost to check all of that baggage? I had visions of us surrounded by bags and medical equipment, sweaty and stressed, trying to make our connecting flights while our kids roamed through the airport terminals. I nearly backed out. Disney vacations were for other families, not for us. Imagine my surprise when the car that pulled up to take us to the airport was a stretch limousine. Everything fit, and I breathed easier, not because of the luxury, but because it seemed like we just might pull this off.
They told us to wear our Make-A-Wish buttons. On travel days, my daughter wore a bright blue T-shirt with the Make-A-Wish logo. I learned quickly: That big blue logo is a sign that says “Help me, my child is dying.” I hated it. I felt so exposed, so vulnerable. That same feeling I’d had during the fundraiser came back: Please don’t pity me. I got this. She’s fine. We’re all fine. But when you wear that button, you can’t say “No thanks” to everyone who wants to help, because almost everyone wants to help. Reluctantly, I let them. And then something happened that I didn’t expect.
It wasn’t the gate agent who upgraded our seats — or the Disney cast members who gifted us food, stuffed animals and more — who finally helped me see that I’d been doing it all wrong all this time. It wasn’t the person who, after seeing us struggling one day with the walker, the wheelchair and all the stuff we bought, insisted on shipping our purchases home for us. It wasn’t the princesses who spent a little more time with our daughter than with other kiddos.
It wasn’t the Guest Relations person who presented us with a two-day park hopper pass for the four of us to keep the magic going a little longer, a gift that made me teary with gratitude. It wasn’t the volunteers at Give Kids The World — the resort where all Wish families stay — who are there to pay it forward the way someone had done for them when their terminally ill child was granted a wish. It wasn’t even the other wish families we saw everywhere we went, who met our eyes with a look that said, “Us too.”
It was Mickey Mouse.
After dancing with my daughters, twirling Freyja’s wheelchair around and around, he tapped me on the shoulder. I’d just turned to leave, calling in my mom voice “Let’s go girls, there are other kids waiting to have a turn with Mickey too.” I turned back. Mickey stood before me with his arms open, and he pulled me into a hug that I had not known I needed. I let myself be embraced. Then, with his fingers, he made a shape of a heart and pointed to me, just as he had my girls a few minutes before. I love you. He made a muscle and pointed at me again, nodding his head toward my daughters. You’re a strong mama.
I didn’t feel strong. But I suddenly felt seen by this stranger inside a Mickey Mouse costume, and finally, I felt the love that had been pouring from so many hearts over the past few months and years, which I’d refused to see because I thought I had to do everything by myself. I teared up as I walked away from Mickey. I wiped my eyes and took my husband’s hand.
“Did you see that?” I asked him.
“I did,” he said. “It’s the way people have been looking at you since Freyja was born. Have you really never noticed it before?”
Aimee Christian is a freelance writer and parent living in Concord, Mass. Find her online at aimeechristian.net.