We are at the pharmacy, perusing lipsticks as we always do. Sophie, my firstborn, asks if she can buy the nearly black lipstick for her performance tonight.
“Really?” I ask. “It’s…a pretty bold statement.”
“What’s wrong with that?” she asks, laughing. “It’s expression.”
“I can work with that,” I say.
She hugs me spontaneously.
“I can’t wait for tonight!” she squeals. There is nothing she likes better than singing and playing her ukulele or keyboard in front of a crowd.
This child—this young woman—weighed only four pounds at birth. We both came close to not surviving the precarious labor: pre-eclampsia in its most terrifying form.
“Be prepared,” the doctors warned us as they examined her floppy limbs and her fragile fingers. “She’s likely to have a range of developmental delays. She may not be a normal child.”
As an infant, she ignored the milestones as the doctors had predicted. She would not roll over. She smiled rarely and fleetingly. Only her father or I could hold her—she refused eye contact with unfamiliar faces.
But this was only proof to me that she was in pain—not “delayed”—because of a rapidly growing vascular tumor on her left arm.
“A hemangioma,” her pediatrician told us. “It’s not uncommon.”
But it was uncommon to us. By the time Sophie was 4 months old, her left upper arm had sprouted horrid scarlet growths, like rubbery cauliflowers, and swelled to twice the size of her right arm. Ulcers appeared. Bloodstains pocked her crib sheets and summer dresses. She frowned and shook her arm obsessively as if to free the pain. People stared in the supermarket and asked horrible questions: “What’s wrong with your baby?”
“Have you considered autism?” a well-meaning friend asked when Sophie refused to smile for her on command. “Considered”—as if it were a political movement worth joining.
“That’s not what’s going on,” I said. “She’s hurting. She’s in pain. So she goes inside herself. I can see it in her eyes.”
“Uh-huh,” replied the friend. “If you’re sure.”
I was sure. Sophie was doing things her way on her own time. She was handling her pain in a way that was familiar to me: an introvert’s way of dealing with what hurts. I identified deeply with her kind of quiet.
Around her first birthday, her hemangioma began the process of involution (the fancy word for “shrinking”). The swelling subsided; the redness began to lighten; and the ulcers scarred over and healed. By the age of two, she was willing to extend her trust to a few close relatives and family friends, but she would suffer no fools.
Fast forward to third grade, when my quiet, book-loving, serious girl announced that she would be singing in the school talent show the next day.
“Oh,” I said. “With your class?”
“No,” she replied. “By myself.”
I remember how I held my breath as she took her place beside her teacher, accompanying her on the guitar. Could she sing? And what possessed her to want to stand in front of her whole school and sing alone?
I am glad I captured that song on video that day. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she sang. Perfectly, magically, on pitch. I still cry when I watch this performance. I can’t look away from her tiny fingers, nervously smoothing the folds of her white skirt. Who was this child?
Sophie is 14 now. Today, she suffers fools only when she is busking with her ukulele and eager to supplement her lipstick fund. Her arm is a ghost of the red devil it once was. It’s pale now like the rest of her, but it’s still mottled and scarred. The stares and questions still come. Depending on the day and the person, Sophie will tell different tales. A bear attack. A unicorn’s touch. A house fire, but she managed to save everyone. Or simply: It’s called a hemangioma.
I was sure, once, that she was a pure introvert. What’s remarkable to me is that my concept of introversion has changed as she has changed. I believe it’s a more fluid matter than I had realized. She still keeps matters of import to herself. She still loathes to share too much of what hurts. She still prefers the book to the movie, every time. But somewhere along the way—despite her arm? because of her arm?—she became fearless. Quietly fearless.
As she’s applying her lipstick before her performance, she tells me she’s taken the Myers-Briggs test…and she’s an ENTP. “I’m just a little closer to the E than I,” she adds. My INFJ self takes this in: My baby’s all grown up. And my baby’s an extrovert.
That slight Tower of Pisa lean to the E is never more obvious than when she takes the stage.
“How’s everybody doing tonight?” she calls out to the crowd, grinning like a pro—this baby of mine, who once reserved her smiles for those who knew her and her pain, no exceptions.
“Great!” the crowd yells in response, and they mean it.
I scan their faces—to see what she sees, to see what they see.
She hasn’t yet sung a note yet, but she already owns the room.