From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Sadie Hawkins Day

I was squinting into the camcorder lens at a baseball game, our eight-year-old Vincent trotting past second base, when I noticed the limp. No one could have known, as Vincent began to favor one leg, that his strained gait was the first symptom of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP), a rare genetic disorder that turns muscle into bone and leads, over time, to catastrophic immobility. No one could have known that FOP would go on to prevent our active son from combing his hair or tying his shoes. No one could have known, on that mild San Joaquin Valley afternoon as I pointed my camera at a spring green schoolyard, that Vincent would have no more seasons of sports.

We have lived with FOP for six years now, always hoping for a cure, for scientific miracles at the University of Pennsylvania, the focal point for FOP research. But until a cure appears, we pray for an average teenage life for Vincent, who has traded sports for trigonometry and a trumpet. And though a sense of loss stays with him, with all of us, this loss throws the small miracles of life, its happy coincidences, into sharp relief.

Last year, Vincent was invited to his first Sadie Hawkins dance by Clemencia, a pretty freshman girl in band, with shy brown eyes. One cold, clear February night before the dance, Clemencia’s family came by to take Vincent on a Sadie Hawkins shopping trip. Clemencia’s parents, I discovered, were from Mexico, so we spent a good while rattling off in Spanish, and by the time I had to explain FOP precautions, the teenagers had tuned us out, sparing Vincent the embarrassment of my recitations. A few hours later, he and Clemencia returned from a trip to Old Navy, happily holding up matching khaki camouflage gear.

The Saturday morning of Sadie Hawkins, the phone rang. It was Leonor, Clemencia’s mother, with distress in her voice: “My daughter wants to apologize,” she said. Clemencia had the flu.

Vincent quietly hung up the phone and retreated to the family-room computer. Our oldest son, Brian, was on his way to a friend’s to have cornrows woven in his hair for the dance, and his younger brother Lucas was at a basketball game. While I was glad for our other sons, my throat tightened for Vincent.

But it was a sunny day, at least, a clear one in our normally white-skied valley, with the Sierra Nevada’s dark rock suddenly visible, its snow shining like a grace. The day was so pretty that my husband, Walt, decided to cheer up our son with an outing.

“Come on, Vincent,” he said. “We’re going to the park to feed the ducks!”

“No, thanks,” said Vincent, expressionless, at the computer screen.

“Come on!” called my husband, moving our eight-year-old daughter Celine and our four-year-old, Isabel, toward the garage with baggies of bread.

He extended the invitation again. Vincent refused again. Walt tried again. No answer. Almost out the door, my husband asked once more.

“Okay,” said Vincent abruptly, “but I’m staying in the car.”

We found a spot for the van on the park perimeter, and my husband, the girls and I walked down a grassy rise to the oily olive lake patrolled by ducks and geese. Vincent stayed in the car. Our daughters had just started flinging bread chunks at the bustling birds when a swarm of seagulls began to loop and dive furiously for every tossed crust, setting off a family laughing fit. “Vincent has to see this!” said Walt after a while, and he jogged back to the parking area.

From where I stood by the rocks of the lake, I could see Walt rap on the car window and Vincent swing out his legs stiffly from the passenger side. A pretty young Latina with long dark hair and wearing sweats was running past. She stopped.

I could tell by his posture that Vincent knew the girl, and I saw my husband discreetly leave our son and his friend in conversation. After a while, the girl jogged off, and Vincent appeared at the lakeside. His face was transformed, radiant: “I’m going to Sadie Hawkins!” he announced.

The young jogger Vincent had just seen by chance was a friend from school. She had asked him if he would be at the dance, and when he explained that his date was sick, she invited him to join her large group, which was meeting at a brand-new arcade restaurant, John’s Incredible Pizza, for a pre-party.

Vincent wore his khaki camouflage pants to Sadie Hawkins, and that night, instead of a first awkward couple’s pose, our son brought home a professional photo of himself in the center of a crowd of friends.

I should add that—of course—Vincent never goes to the park, which happens to be on the other end of the city from his Catholic high school, far from our house. And the friend who jogged by lives in another town. The high school itself is a freeway drive away from our home, so, with the exception of Sadie Hawkins Dance day, Vincent has never coincidentally run into any classmates—many of whom live in different or distant San Joaquin Valley towns.

I said to my husband on that afternoon at the park that I know Vincent is surrounded by angels. Then Walt told me the name of the girl who jogged by at just the right moment: Angelica!

C. M. Zapata

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