An old comic strip called Frank and Ernst shows the two characters standing in front of a movie billboard with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together. Frank (or Ernst) says, “Sure he was great. But don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels”.
The phrase has been applied to women’s achievement in general, but I also think of it in regards to my daughter Mei, who has to put some extra effort into ordinary things. For those who don’t know, Mei was born missing her right arm below the elbow. Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS) left her with a boneless and non-functional “little hand” the size of a hazelnut on a shortened arm. Mei, who has never known anything different, just chugs along figuring out how to do what other people need two hands to accomplish. Getting dressed? Check. Swinging from monkey bars? Check. Zipping her coat? Check. I’ve tried out all these things one handed myself so I could help her learn. Turns out she mostly doesn’t need my help but figures things out herself, in her own time.
I tried swimming one armed, which is hard, and I worried Mei might never learn. Despite several swim classes, she still couldn’t keep herself afloat. I found little paddles you can strap to a stump, but considered them a last resort. I finally put her in a class for disabled children last month, thinking she might get the help she needs, but they kept putting her in a float belt instead of really teaching her to swim.
Last Monday we had a family swim and I left her floatie at home on purpose. I said, “Swim to me, Mei”. She waded over. “No, without touching the bottom. Kick your legs”. So she ran over. I moved further away. “Try again” And then she SWAM! Legs kicking behind her and arms churning she moved in the water, not even realizing what she had done. She never stopped for half an hour. She kept swimming, from me to the wall and back. In shallow water, then in deep. She laughed and laughed and I cried.
I realize now that her two handed sister learned to swim when she was five and a half, too. And that Mei has met every challenge she has set herself. And although she may need some extra support, she figures everything out, eventually.
Yesterday, after another successful swim session, Mei said, “Helen is a gymnast and I am a swimnast. And Supergirl.”
She is both, backwards and in high heels.