In general, I think most people either love or hate going to a shopping mall. With this thought in mind, I want to share a story that my family and friends have condensed to these five words: “The Lady at the Mall.”

My husband, Chooch, and I were devastated a year earlier when our 16-month old son, Jimmy, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The type he has is hypertonia spastic diplegia. This means he has tight muscles in his legs. The neurologist said he believed he would walk, but maybe not normally and would need help. We began physical therapy and did lots of research to learn all we could to help our son. I paid attention during therapy and then re-enforced at home what I had learned. So much of what was done was repetitive. Jimmy is very bright and I wanted to try to make it more fun for him.

When Jimmy did start walking I knew I needed to get him on his feet to build endurance. One thing we often did to accomplish this was to go to the shopping mall and walk. We went three to four times a week. At first I was relieved just to get a handicapped parking spot at the mall; however, I often had to endure dirty looks as I walked around the car, perfectly able, to the trunk to remove the stroller, then Jimmy, then his crutches which I laid across him as we traveled through the parking lot. The onlookers seemed to go on their way after they saw the crutches. This was all so new to me, I was learning and growing with Jimmy.

Once inside the mall I would get Jimmy out of the stroller, help him to stand, and then get him going on his crutches. I brought the stroller in case he got tired. In addition, I didn’t want him walking in the parking lot. Not yet. We would start on one end and when we made it to the other Jimmy would get a balloon and we would share a cookie and a soft drink. We stopped along the way to rest and to look into shops. The first few times I was very aware of others looking at my handsome little boy, often in a cowboy hat, walking on crutches up and down the mall.

We had entered a “Most Photogenic” contest at the mall, proceeds donated to a charity. Jimmy was in the “Most Beautiful” category. He wore a tuxedo and stood with his crutches for some of the photos. The prizes were awarded a month later at the mall. Jimmy won the People’s Choice award for the Most Beautiful in the 2 to 3 year old category. Wahoo! We won the negatives and the best part, a trophy. My Mom (Helen), my sister (Angie), and mother-in-law (Beba) came with my husband and me. We all were so excited. Hundreds of children had entered and the photo we picked to enter was a face shot. Jimmy’s picture looked like the others. I was not ashamed of the pictures with crutches, but didn’t want someone to vote for him because they felt sorry for him.

Jimmy said into the microphone, ” I won, I won, mama!” He smiled so big and held his trophy up as everyone clapped. Of course there were tears along with the smiles and laughter. To see him so happy and his eyes lit up is priceless. He works very hard everyday to do things that seem automatic to most.

As happy as this moment was, two days later would be just as emotional, but on the other end of the scale. It was the holiday season and Thanksgiving was a week away. Jimmy and I were at the mall and had just waved hello to Santa, he knew Jimmy by name. I noticed an older lady, late 60’s or early 70’s, with two children about six and eight and another lady whom I guessed was her daughter in law. We were walking towards each other, and I saw her physically turn the heads of the children so they would not see Jimmy. The mother of the children just watched. As we came closer to each other the older lady said very loudly, “She should keep him at home.”

I knew she meant for me to hear what she had said, and for a second my head went numb. I felt like a cat arched with the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I was so shocked and mad. My right arm was tensed and for a split second I think I could have punched her. Several shoppers stopped and looked at us. It seemed we all just stood there for a minute.

She was taller than me, but I looked right at her. I stood closely, and spoke calmly and quietly when I said, “Who do you think you are? We have every right to be here. He is not ugly, offensive, or contagious. He has cerebral palsy and has worked very hard to get around as well as he does. I am not embarrassed or ashamed and I hope he never is, even though there are people like you that say ignorant things like you just said. . . . Happy Thanksgiving.” She didn’t say a word, but had tears in her eyes.

Jimmy had fallen down standing next to me. I helped him up and we walked away. I could feel everyone around us watching. My ears were hot, I took a breath and swallowed the lump in my throat and we kept going to the other end to get our balloon and treat. I had grown accustomed to people looking at Jimmy’s face, then down at his braces and giving a pitiful smile, but I had never had anyone say something so offensive out loud.

On the way home Jimmy fell asleep in the car. It had been a real workout for him. I met Chooch in the kitchen and he asked how Jimmy had done. Oddly enough, it seemed harder to retell the incident than it had been to react to it when it happened. I told him Jimmy was great and that I needed to tell him about the lady at the mall. As I said the words my bottom lip quivered and my heart ached. My eyes welling with tears I started pacing the floor. I saw the concern on his face as he told me to take a breath and just tell him. The words came out quickly and he was holding me by the end of the story while I was crying so hard I was shaking.

He said he was proud of me and Jimmy, and to not hesitate to tell him something like that, and that it may happen again. He added that he didn’t think he would have been as calm. We both agreed I had handled it well, without crying and yelling.

When I think about it now there isn’t one more word I wish I would have said. I have learned to trust myself and my answers. I don’t mind answering questions. I would rather someone simply ask a question or wave hello and say something encouraging, instead of staring. I realize this older lady grew up in a different time, when hiding handicapped children was the norm. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. I respect my elders and felt a little funny that I had brought her to tears. But I didn’t do it, she did. We speak up when we feel it is necessary and ignore what we can. When someone says or does something mean, how you handle it will reflect what your child does when he deals with things on his own.

Chooch and I talk to Jimmy often about his braces, walker, and crutches. He is very aware that everyone doesn’t use them. We openly talk about cerebral palsy in front of him because we have never considered it to be something to whisper about. He needs to know that his equipment enables him to do the new things he is learning to do. He thinks that his braces, walker, and crutches are cool and we love them. That is a stretch, but it helps all of us.

After we said a prayer at the table on Thanksgiving Day, my Dad asked about what had happened at the mall. The story began calmly but as I continued, I saw the faces of my aunts and uncles and brother and sisters and heard the sad sighs, I couldn’t finish the story, so Chooch did.

My nephew, Ryan, said, “I knew it would happen. I just didn’t know when. I feel proud of Jimmy, not any other way.”

Ryan was nine years old and hadbeen worried about Jimmy. I assured him that we were both fine and my tears were because it hurt me to hear someone talk that way, it was hard for me to repeat it. The love in the room was overwhelming to me. He understood and gave me a hug. One of my sisters asked “What’s her name?” (I laughed a little knowing she wanted to punch her too.)

I wouldn’t recognize her today but I will never forget her words. Jimmy was too young to understand the whole conversation but asked us, “Who was the lady at the mall?” Chooch answered “Son, I think Mommy was the lady at the mall.

© 2000 Marie A. Kennedy


  • Marie A. Kennedy is a freelance writer/author who is happily married and living in Indiana. She recently won a short story contest through with a story titled, "Jimmy's New Shoes." Part of the prize is to have the story published in "Chicken Soup for the Mothers Soul 2," and should be available April 1, 2001. She has been published in SFTHMagazine, MoonDanceEzine, www. and . She is also the author of the book, My Perfect Son Has Cerebral Palsy, She has sold books in the US, Australia and UK. She speaks at schools, hospitals and attends child advocacy conventions. She is a proud new member of the NLAPW (National League of American Pen Women).