Trigger Warning for extreme child abuse/trauma
Note: When my mom was alive, she said I should write stories of the kids I went to school with when going to the school for disabled kids. Here is the most important to me.
Looking through things I felt were important to keep in the sixth grade, I find a letter that makes me smile and cry. So many years have gone by since then but it is easy for me to remember the moment we met.
I was watching from a mat on the floor, feeling unwell that day. After smiling at the teachers and answering their questions, she came over to me. We found we both loved strawberries and that she was exactly a year and a week older than I was. At seven and eight, this was enough for us to be friends. Her name was Thao, and she had come from Vietnam for medical treatment and a new life after what she described as a car accident. She didn’t say anything more and the story spilled out slowly. Thao was a tough, gifted methodical girl with a logical brain and a strong core. I never really saw her as a kid. I often felt inferior to her and wasn’t aware of my own strengths yet. I was learning disabled in math and had some eye tracking difficulty and letter reversal issues. She didn’t, and I felt less smart. Still, she was Thao, and we trusted each other.
The teachers probably saw we needed each other. We sat next to each other in class. After lunch, we would sit outside the cafeteria and she would play with my hair. When I asked her why, she told me she just liked it. Because I knew she wore a wig, I wondered if she missed her own hair. But I didn’t ask. I think we communicated a lot quietly. I had little necklaces with toys inside, and she knew they mattered to me and did not laugh.
One day while waiting for the bus, she showed me her feet. They were the only part of her body not covered by burns. The two percent people referred to as not being burned when they said she had burns over 98 percent of her. She was out of school for frequent skin grafts, and on those days I was worried and restless because the chair beside me was empty and I missed her. I knew it was important to her to show me her feet and I knew she trusted me. I asked questions. She answered with grace and told me about her older brother, who died in the accident. I don’t think I asked his name, and maybe she told me. It was the only time she mentioned him.
Thao was there the day I came to school late, having been badly hurt. She heard me crying from the hallway and knew something was wrong. I had been using a walker to come in and could barely sit down in my chair next to her. I tried to stop crying and tell her I was fine. But we both knew I wasn’t and she tried to comfort me in silence and presence. I was never able to walk again. Looking back, there was so much we shared but couldn’t process.
One day while playing with my hair, she told me it was time for her to go to another school. I cried, and she told me she’d still be around. I was almost 9 and she was almost 10. I could tell it was hard for her too, and she wanted to make it easier, so she made me a tape of her piano playing for when I missed her. I loved Thao’s piano playing. I played the tape for years. I loved her wanting to ease my pain and that I had helped her.
Shortly after leaving, , Thao won the spelling bee for the district and then went to the national one. Though I was happy for her, I was a good speller too. I was jealous and did not like being younger than she was, even by a year and a week. I was a kid and she felt like less of one. It didn’t dawn on me that Thao had to relocate, learn a new language, grieve, endure painful skin grafts and start a new school not that long before. Though she was modest and deflected compliments, she was indomitable.
And I really was her first class friend here, a fact that hit me when I found a letter she wrote to me when I was in 6th grade. In it, she wrote that I was sweet, and my poetry was sweet and I’d grow up to be a great writer because I already was. We had spent a few years discussing our mutual dislike of compliments by then (fueled, no doubt, by our respective traumas) so she wrote “Now don’t start saying you don’t like compliments; I know. But it’s true. ” And Thao never backed down from what was true. While she wrote to me through middle school and we saw each other then, our closeness had faded by high school. My low self esteem at that point, trauma and difficulty talking were hard and we were discovering very different views on God. Thao moved from atheist to agnostic and stayed there, and honestly I did not blame her. The last letter she wrote was from college in a premed program. I wish we could have talked more about our pain and stuck together more. I haven’t been able to find her now.
But the letter took me back, and I searched for her. I found a story from early 1984 about her district spelling bee win and her father’s dying after setting her on fire. She never told me, and perhaps couldn’t. But we trusted each other as much as two little girls and teens dealing with trauma and disability could. And I still love Thao. I’m so glad we had each other.