Turning 18 is a very important event. Since Eric was away at BYU for his 18th birthday, we decided to send him something special. Every member of the family had an assignment. Jennifer would make cookies, Dad would send money, Brad (also at BYU) would help him spend it, 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. There would be a verse about the time he took his first trial flight off the garage when he was four, and one about the time he self-medicated his cold with half a bottle of cough syrup to save the doctor’s fee when he was five. And it would end with a verse about his latest venture—refusing to withdraw from a spontaneous football squad even after he saw his six-foot-four, 280-pound opponent. (Yes, they carried him off with a broken collarbone.) That was my Eric! Active, daring, and a little mischievous.
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 made their afternoon entrance after school. I waited for a typical “I don’t!” from Eric and a “You do!” from Brad.
There was none. 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. I didn’t want to turn Brad into a spy (it only entered my mind twice and I got over it), so I learned 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. (A mother does have to look out for her children.)
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? Where does she live? What does she look like?”
“Her name’s Jena. She lives on Vista View. 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 radiant smile.”
“What’s radiant?” Eric asked.
“That’s like a heater,” Brad informed him.
“That’s a radiator,” Father clarified. “But it’s like that. It means warm and friendly.”
“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, but Eric was crushed. His fork clattered to the plate, and he proclaimed loudly in his squeaky, first-grade voice, “There’s nothing wrong with her at all,” and ran into his room.
We said nothing further about it. Eric was a normal boy who ran bicycles into garage doors, played Zorro, and chased strange dogs away. He just went to school a little early and came home a little late every day.
In early December I got a phone call.
“Is this Eric’s mother?”
When anybody started a conversation like that I wondered if Eric had just ridden his bike over someone’s flower bed. “Yes,” I replied. After all, I was responsible.
“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 guess I’m not,” 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 kids would taunt her until we would be sorry. They asked me to enroll her in the special education program over at Fairhaven. I didn’t want her at Fairhaven. She’d have to ride the bus for over an hour. I insisted they let her try it here. They were skeptical, but I was quite adamant.”
“I understand your feelings.”
“When school started, it was just like they said. Some of the kids wouldn’t quit 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, I decided to reconsider Fairhaven. 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 savored 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, what’s wrong? Are you sick? Are you hurt? Did you wreck the car? Did you …”
“Mom! I’m fine. Just listen a minute.” His voice was exuberant.
“Oh, yes. 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! And put Dad on the other phone. Okay? Brad and I went out to dinner with the money. We were just sitting around here in the dorm reminiscing when the phone rang. It was a girl.”
She said, “Is this Eric Miller?”
“Is this Eric Miller who used to live on Hillview Avenue in San Sebastian?”
“Yes! Who is this?”
“Oh, you probably won’t remember me. It’s been a long time. This is Jena Hamilton.”
“Jena! I can’t believe it! Sure I remember you. Hey, what are you doing here in Provo? Visiting?”
“I’m going to the Y just like you.”
“But why? How did you decide to come here?”
“Well, about three years ago Mom 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. Mom 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.’ Mom looked at me, and we both said, ‘That’s Eric’s church.’ There was an unstated courtesy we would extend to someone from Eric’s church. We weren’t interested, of course, but we would be courteous. 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?”