Lucy has always been a flincher.
When she was a baby, she’d flinch any time the dog ran toward her, even though he was one of her favorite things on earth. Once she began to walk, she would jump back from moving vehicles that were nowhere near her and pull away when anyone opened a door too fast. For the longest time she was terrified of automatic doors and would only go through them if carried. At age five, she started playing softball. It’s taken years to get her to catch the ball without looking away to shield her face.
For the first few years of her life, I chalked all the flinching up to her being fearful. She was shy. She was cautious around anything new. She was afraid of heights and water and small spaces and men with beards.
It never occurred to me to question why she found certain things terrifying. I just accepted that she did and set about reassuring her that those things wouldn’t hurt her and encouraging her to be brave and face her fears.
Then one day when Lucy was three we visited the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and I had an epiphany.
If you’ve ever been to our Children’s Museum, you’ll remember the giant work of art that dominates the ramp area. Stretching from the basement level all the way up to the ceiling four stories above is a gorgeous, colorful blown-glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly. It’s made up of thousands of individual glass pieces, it’s breathtaking, and Lucy adored it.
She couldn’t take her eyes off it. She wanted to touch it, which wasn’t possible, but I knew that if we went down to the lower level there were plastic reproductions of several of the individual pieces that she could play with. She was thrilled and could barely be made to keep hold of my hand as she strained to go down the ramp as fast as possible. We got to the bottom, rounded the corner, and there it was: a little cavern under the sculpture, where the beautiful glass was lit up right over our heads and whole racks of reproductions were waiting to be touched and held and rearranged to her hearts content.
Lucy stared with longing at all of that color and shape. But when I tried to walk toward it, she planted her feet and wouldn’t take another step.
“Right over here you can play with them,” I said. “Come over here.”
She shook her head.
“Don’t you want to touch all the pieces?”
“Let’s go then.”
That’s when I realized that she was no longer looking up at the glass or forward at the toy reproductions. She was looking at the floor, and there was fear on her face.
I saw that she was standing on the edge of the carpeted section and that the ground between her and the beautiful toys was covered in shiny black tiles.
It was clear that for some reason, she didn’t want to walk on those tiles.
“It’s okay, baby,” I said. “They aren’t slippery. Look, I’m walking on them.” I took a few steps to demonstrate their safety.
Lucy shook her head. Then she looked longingly again at the beautiful glass. Then, slowly, very slowly, she lifted one foot and tapped the tile in front of her. When her foot hit solid ground, she left it there for a minute, then carefully took another step. She reached for my hand and when I gave it, she hung on tightly as she took one delicate step after another over to the bank of beautiful toys.
While she played, I sat on a nearby seat and watched. Other kids came and went around her, but she was focused on the arrangement of colorful pieces she was making. I looked at the floor again, wondering what had sparked her fear. Lots of people were walking on the tiles. Nothing looked dirty or moved weirdly or was in any way dangerous.
Then I thought about the way she had so gingerly tested the ground with her toe and I looked at the tiles again, trying to see what she must have seen. Suddenly it all made sense. Those tiles were so polished and so dark that in that dim light, they didn’t look like tiles at all. They looked like holes in the ground.
Once I knew the right questions to ask, Lucy confirmed my theory. Yes, it looked like a hole, like nothing at all, and it was hard to believe it would hold you up. This perception of hers was so strong that even though she saw other people walking on it, she still couldn’t fully believe it was solid ground.
It was one of those moments that makes you re-evaluate all the other things you’ve experienced. It dawned on me that she had her own way of seeing everything. The dog. The escalators. The automatic doors. Her dad when he put a hat on.
Her unique combination of acute visual sensitivity and overexcitable imagination made her perception of the world different from what most people experience, and her perception was more real to her than anything explanation anyone could give.
I haven’t always reacted perfectly to her fears since that day. I haven’t always been able to see things the way she does. But it’s pretty wonderful to try. Her mind is a fascinating place.
As it always is, her blessing and her curse are the same. She can see experience the world on a level beyond the ordinary, but to get to the beauty she longs for, she has to find the courage to walk across the holes that open up in the earth.
She doesn’t need me to hold her hand for that any more. Instead I hold my breath as I wait to see where she’ll go.