One October day in 1967, I was born in a White Plains, NY, hospital to a married couple who had already had two other children. The son was born "perfectly normal."
The daughter was born with problems — birth defects. This second baby died within three days. Then I came along — another girl with birth defects
— physical deformities of the arms, hands, legs and feet. Diagnostically, the condition was called Diastrophic Dwarfism and today, politically-correctly-speaking,
Diastrophic Dysplasia. I was left at the hospital and never went home with my biological parents. At three months of age I was transferred to Blythedale Children's hospital, where I remained until 18 months old.
Social Services had decision-making over my care and somebody thought I should not stay hidden away in an institution — that I deserved a chance of living with a family out in society. My picture was placed in the local newspaper with the caption requesting a home for me. Told long afterwards, I was heartened that several inquiries were made. When the application process was completed I was taken home by Bill & Doris Mariano in March 1969, to be their daughter and youngest sister to Joanne, Beth and Andrea.
Not only would I be part of a loving family but the doctors had also decided I should be given a chance to walk. Because of the limb deformities of the legs and feet and hips I could not bear weight in order to stand or walk. Doctors and technicians fitted me with braces and over the many years since, unbending prosthetics that cover over my own legs like casts. My mom has always delighted in telling the story of when I first figured out I could go where I wanted if only I walked! Apparently I was initially unsure and uncomfortable at being forced into straight braces. One day shortly after coming home, I was fussing about wanting to go outside but I was also still fussing about not wanting to move my legs in the braces. Every once in a while we must admit our parents have good ideas and on that day my mom did. She saw my coat on the far side of the room and told me, "Geri, if you want to go outside you must wear your jacket and you have to go get it." My mom then left me to my tantrum — probably stamping my new fake foot — and went about her housework. A few minutes later she heard me shriek and turned to see me way across the room holding my coat up like a trophy.
I also went to public school, which surprised lots of people years ago. Apparently it was a big deal although I certainly wasn't aware of it as a five year old. In 1972 when I was eligible to start Kindergarten, no public school was legally obligated to accept a special needs student. My mom carted me around to several school districts, introducing me to administrators, and awaited decisions. Well, one district did accept me and so I went to Kindergarten through 12th Grade at Byram Hills in Armonk, NY. When a senior, I thought nothing about applying to colleges — after all it was what kids did at my school — especially those with good grades! So in the fall of 1985 I began my college education at Smith in Massachusetts.
Often people would ask if I preferred to be called handicapped or disabled. "Just call me Geri" was — and is still — my standard reply. Growing up, I always thought I could "conquer the world," get married, have children and raise them with the values I was raised with. There were times, though, during the horrendous teenage, adolescent, puberty period of shattering self-confidence and no self esteem that I'd cry out in my bed, "Why? Why me? Why do I have to be so different?" No answers came then.
I graduated from college in May, 1989 and had hopes of making my mark in Washington, DC, but my expectations didn't allow for the all-too-real world of discrimination. I did not have my driver's license then and I could not simply "crash" at friends' apartments anywhere in the country while job hunting because they simply weren't set up for me with my specific needs for access. I lost the brave girl I had been who would shake my mom's hand free while crossing a busy NYC street. While I did try job interviewing in DC, I couldn't live there without a job or continue job hunting from NY. No longer did I trust myself to make decisions, so I wouldn't make any for years.
Then, in my mid-twenties I made a big mistake by obtaining my birth records from the hospital. On top of all the copied medical papers was one note stating "NO PICTURES TO BE TAKEN OF THIS BABY." This crushed me and brought out all the barely submerged insecurities again — that I was ugly and that people wouldn't want me based solely on how I looked. After all, my biological parents had rejected me as a newborn. They wouldn't take a chance and would never know that I did well in school, that I liked to tell corny jokes or that I loved singing loudly in children's choir even though I couldn't stay in tune, or that I was a loyal friend, that I love America and am called a Yankee Doodle Dork by some.
All these years, though, I continued to go to church and even taught Sunday School despite my sometimes wavering faith in God. Each year I'd also talk to the three- and four-year old students at our Nursery School — talking about people who are different and that there is nothing wrong with me or others who look different. I'd pray and pray for a direction, for guidance about what I was supposed to do. Well-meaning people from time to time would insist I had a special purpose. I'd beg for a sign — clear directions — because I must be missing them. How about a signal in neon lights?
Five years ago, I found myself recuperating from a total left hip replacement at Helen Hayes Hospital for 3½ months — a place far from my home back in Armonk. The fact that I was being fitted with new prosthetics even was something of a miracle as so many doctors I had seen were truly skeptical I'd ever walk again. One brave surgeon from NYC decided I was a challenge and he liked challenges. The new hip joint was specially designed and in it went perfectly. It took time for the swelling to go down and for the new prosthetics to be made with allowances (because I was not the standard text book model). I also discovered the Therapeutic Recreation Department there, discovered it was an actual profession. Who knew? Spending many evenings with the staff, I became friendly with them and even with many other patients. Shortly before my discharge, Bert, the Director, would advise, "Geri, you should consider doing this — you'd be great." Being vulnerable, I'd question him and my new friends. Finally one day, someone told me point blank, "If ever there was a neon light — Bert is!"
In May 2007 I finished my master's program in Therapeutic Recreation. October arrived finally and with it the 40th Birthday. Friends and church folks planned a surprise party at Coffee Hour after worship. When arriving that Sunday morning and seeing no food out before service started, I knew it was "hmmm"-worthy since we Methodists take our coffee hours seriously. In fact, during worship, Coffee Hour had magically been turned into an Italian-style bistro setting. There was a sing-along of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with new lyrics penned by our resident songstress of special occasions. This was a wonderful Birthday/Farewell party before my "Master's Achievement-Turning 40-Honeymoon for One ('cause I can't wait forever) Adventure."
Three days later I left on that jet plane in search of my own Michelangelo. When I first began dreaming of this adventure, I thought it was a major undertaking but doable. Some may have thought me crazy to go off by myself — and I do mean by myself; there was no tour group. But, this was something truly I wanted to do, to prove to myself and to others that I had still had it — whatever it is. Firenze, Roma and Torino — 3 cities for a prosthetic-wearing, two-cane using 4'6" single woman on her own.
While walking around in Florence I saw young boys pointing, staring and giggling at me. This was not a random occurrence as it happens more often than not. Looking back, I realized there were not many different-looking people out and about in Italy. I thought back to my biological Italian parents and wondered if there was shame attached to having an imperfect baby and if there are still imperfect babies, children and adults hidden away in parts of the world. Upon leaving one hotel, the staff and the Italian girls I had hired to be my day companions thanked me for my stay with them and told me that I had shown them something — but due to translation issues, I'm still not quite sure what.
Ten days later and on my way home over the Atlantic I felt good. There's a wonderful world out there, people to meet, history to learn, sites to behold and I certainly want to go see and do more. And maybe, just maybe, I have to do more by using my differences.
Since 2008, I have been speaking at schools — from Nursery and Elementary to High School and Graduate classes — talking about being stared at, about helping each other, about going scuba diving, about how there is nothing "wrong" with me or anyone else who looks "different" and much more.
A few weeks ago, though, those self-doubts feelings started again — especially when hearing a friend was expecting her first child. Not wanting to, I couldn't help but feel sad I would not be joining this motherhood club of women. And I hadn't found a new job yet because I was dragging my prosthetic feet. Soon after that, my minister's sermon seemed to be another "neon light" drawing my attention. The scripture reading that June morning was of Abraham being called to start a new life at age 75. Maybe age 40 isn't too late to figure out your life's plans.
I think about all the men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with life-changing injuries that will forever mark them as "different." They won't be used to people staring or people wondering if there's something wrong with them. Perhaps I can help children — though not my own, but far many more — understand we are all okay and that there is nothing wrong with any of us. I had always just wanted to be like everyone else. I forgot about wanting to be "just Geri" — and being me means being different. And yes, it's okay. My life's journey has led me to this intersection now when finally I see the neon lights straight ahead.