Turning 18 is a very important event. Since Eric was away at Brigham Young University for his 18th birthday, we decided to send him something special. Every member of the family had an assignment. His young sister, Jennifer, would make cookies, his father would send money, his older brother, Brad (also at BYU) would help him spend it, his younger brother, Jeff would draw illustrations, and I would write verses for a spectacular birthday card.
I got very enthusiastic about my assignment. I decided to write a verse about every year of his life.
I sat down and wrote the first few verses and laughed. And then I thought about Eric when he was six.
“Eric’s got a girl friend! Eric’s got a girl friend!” I remembered how Brad teased as he and Eric came home from school.
Eric was silent. I couldn’t detect a smile, a frown, anything on his cherubic face. He just ignored Brad totally and asked, “Can we eat breakfast sooner tomorrow, Mom? I want to go to school early.”
“Yes,” I answered. I was surprised at his coolness. “Yes, of course. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“No.” He shook his head, smiled, and walked out the back door to play.
“See. I told you!” Brad confirmed.
I’m not a nosy mother—well, only a little nosy. I wanted to know why Eric went to school 15 minutes early and came home 15 minutes late for a week. But he volunteered nothing.
On Tuesday I had to return library books. I decided to go at 1:50 so I would be driving by the school at 2:20 when school was out.
I was late and had to drive almost home before I saw Eric. He was with a girl. From the back I could see she had long, blonde hair and a pretty dress. But something was different. She didn’t raise her left leg far from the sidewalk, and as I passed I could see her left arm was limp. Eric saw me. He grinned widely and waved. As I smiled back my eyes surveyed a beautiful little girl with an enchanting smile and blue eyes.
At dinner I decided it was time to be open about the whole thing. I wanted Eric to know it was acceptable to have lots of friends in the first grade—even if one was a girl.
“I saw your friend today, Eric. She’s pretty.”
“She’s nice,” he added.
“So that’s the reason you go to school early?” his father asked.
“Well, tell me about her. What’s her name? What does she took like?”
“Her name’s Jena. And she looks like … like … uh … like a girl.”
The family laughed. “She’s very pretty.” I explained. “She has blonde hair, blue eyes, and a warm smile.”
“What’s wrong with her leg?” Brad asked innocently.
Eric bristled and raised his voice. “There’s nothing wrong with her leg.”
“Brad wasn’t being mean, Eric. She does have a problem with her leg and arm. She has cerebral palsy, Eric. That doesn’t change her being pretty or nice.” I taught physically handicapped children and accepted the fact that everyone has limitations of some kind.
In early December I got a phone call.
“Is this Eric’s mother?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“This is Mrs. Hamilton. I’m Jena Hamilton’s mother.”
“Oh, yes. Hello!”
“I called because I wondered if you were aware of what Eric has been doing for us—I mean for Jena—but really it affects all of us.”
I was puzzled. “No, I suppose I don’t,” I replied honestly.
“Do you know Jena?”
“I saw her going home from school. She’s a very pretty girl.”
“Then you know she has a problem with her leg and arm. She has cerebral palsy.”
“When we moved here last summer and I went to register her, the school said they wouldn’t accept her. Her learning isn’t impaired. It’s just a motor involvement, but they insisted the other children would taunt her until we would be sorry. They asked me to enroll her in a special school, but I insisted they let her try here. They were skeptical, but I was quite firm in my decision.”
“I understand your feelings.”
“When school started, it was just like they said. Some of the children wouldn’t stop yelling names and making fun of her. And no one would play with her. After the first week and a half of school, with her coming home in tears every day. Then a little miracle happened—Eric!”
“He decided enough was enough. He asked Jena if he could play with her at recess. The boys laughed at him and called him names too. But he ignored them.”
“That’s not my Eric,” I thought.
“He walked home with Jena to the accompaniment of jeers. From that day on he has walked her to school, played with her at recess, and walked home with her. The third week of school some boys started throwing rocks at Jena. Eric challenged them to a ferocious fight if they didn’t stop.”
That’s my Eric. He was two inches shorter than anybody, but he was never afraid of a fight if it was necessary.
“I guess he said it so firmly they decided to leave her alone. Jena is doing so well now. Other children are playing with her, and no one seems to be paying attention to her problem.”
“There’s more,” she continued. “Yesterday I stopped Eric out in front—I was so happy how things are going—and I said, ‘You’re such a nice boy! How did you ever get to be such a nice boy!’ It was a comment, not a question of course, but he spoke right up and said, ‘Our church teaches all the boys to be nice boys.’”
“Well, I was so surprised, I said, ‘And what church do you belong to, Eric?’
“And he said, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes called the Mormon church. Would you like to have the missionaries?’ He’s quite a boy!”
Well, do you want the missionaries? I was hoping my voice would say. But it didn’t. “Yes, I guess he is. I really appreciate your calling me.”
Jena Hamilton didn’t need Eric much after that. They were friends, but he went back to playing with the boys and calling all girls “dumb.” In a year or so Jena moved, and we moved.
I looked down at the birthday card I was making. I decided not to write a verse about Eric when he was six. It was too special.
Later I mailed the overweight birthday card and enjoyed the thought of Eric reading his life out loud to his roommates.
It was almost midnight Friday when the phone rang.
“Mom, this is Eric.”
“Eric! Today’s your birthday. You got my card! You got the money! You loved them both! But you didn’t have to thank us at this hour!”
“Mom! Listen! Brad and I were just sitting around here in the student dormitory reminiscing when the telephone rang. It was a girl.”
She said, “Is this Eric Miller? You probably won’t remember me. It’s been a long time. This is Jena Hamilton.”
“Jena! I can’t believe it! Of course I remember you. What are you doing here in Utah? Visiting?”
“I’m going to the BYU just like you.”
“But why? How did you decide to come here?”
“Well, about three years ago mother and I were doing dishes when two young men knocked at our door. They said they were representatives of Jesus Christ and would like to leave a message with us. Mother said. ‘No, thank you, we really aren’t interested.’ Then for some reason she asked, ‘What church are you from?’ And they said, ‘We belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes called the Mormon church.’ She looked at me, and we both said, ‘That’s Eric’s church.’ We weren’t interested, of course, but we would be courteous to someone from Eric’s church. Well, you know how that goes! We were baptized after the fourth lesson.”
“Jena! That’s wonderful! Hey, it’s my birthday. We’re celebrating! Where are you living? Can we come over?
Eric ended his story. I wiped a tear off my chin and nose. He paused a long time. “Well,” I demanded, “Did you go over? How is she doing?”
“She’s beautiful!” Eric replied enthusiastically.
“And her leg? Has it improved?”
“Her leg? What was the matter with her leg?”