I saw him on my way out of the restaurant. A little boy, his baseball hat pulled down tight, Detroit Tigers shirt hanging loose. What caught my eye, though, was his missing right arm. I made my way past, tray of garbage in my hand, nodded and smiled. On my way to the exit, I heard, “Sir!” The boy’s mom was hurrying after me, pulling him along. “Hi … I … I just wanted you to meet my son.” She looked at him nervously and then at me apologetically. I shook his hand, turning my right hand upside-down to grasp his left. I asked him if he played baseball and his mom told me he did, as he just stood there with his head down. “What position do you play?” I asked him.
He looked up and said, “They just kind of have us play everywhere.”
“I was a pitcher when I was younger,” I told him. “Just have fun out there, OK?” He nodded, we all looked at each other, his mom whispered a thank you, and then we were on our way.
As I walked to my car, I was overcome with emotion. On its surface, the encounter was somewhat awkward. Internally, though, it was an incredibly powerful moment in my life. I wanted to scoop them both up and smother them with love and encouragement. I wanted to hug his mom and say: "He’s going to be great. Don’t you worry. Be amazed by him. Encourage him. Expect great things from him." And I wanted to tell him: "Be you. Work hard. Have fun. You can do anything you want! Love people and make good friends; they’ll protect you. They’ll be in your corner." I felt like there was so much more I could have done or said.
I rarely think about the fact that I have one arm. I was born that way, so I’ve only learned how to do things one-handed. It’s normal to me. So, when that mom chased me down just to show her son a living, breathing future-version of himself, it got me thinking: If I can inspire a little kid and his mom, just by being alive, imagine what good I could do if I did things on purpose. What if I finally wrote that book for kids about having one arm? I’ve been sitting on the idea since my little brother Joey took me to show-and-tell. The other kids brought toys and pets; Joey showed me. The kids all asked me questions like, "Can you tie your shoes?" and, "Can you ride a bike?" and, "Can you drive?" and, "Have you seen Tommy Boy?" All kids have questions. And I can answer them, to some extent. I can show them that kids with missing limbs are normal.
And what about support groups? I could organize something like that. For kids, teenagers, young adults, adults … everyone living with a disability handles it differently. For instance, when I worked at a shoe store, a gentleman who had been lurking in the store for some time approached me. "I just wanted to tell you how inspiring you are," he said. "See, I’m on my way to an interview, but I’m terrified. I have a foot disability and it makes me so nervous around people. But watching you help people so confidently, it’s really helped me, and I wanted you to know that." This man, probably in his 50s at the time, was reticent because of a "disability" that wasn’t even visible. But to him it was glaring. It prevented him from living confidently. Why shouldn’t people like him have a community of support and encouragement?
Growing up, my parents never treated me differently. They were amazing. They encouraged me to do everything I wanted. Whether it was baseball, track, music, theater … no matter what, they were there. And they never said I couldn’t do something because of my arm. I grew up with great friends and amazing teachers, too. They protected me. No lie, I remember the one time—the one single time ever in my life—that somebody used my arm as an insult. Within seconds, that person was thrown over a car hood by someone I didn’t even know knew me. I remember my gym teacher, Mr. Marx, always encouraging me to tackle any obstacle put in front of me. Climb the rope to the ceiling? Done. Do Jump Rope for Life? Of course.
It’s obvious to me why I’ve been able to overcome my one-armedness. I’ve grown up surrounded by an amazing community of people. A community of family and friends who loved me and raised me with high expectations and oodles of encouragement. Right now, two of my three kids are playing in a fort they made and eating a snack they prepared for each other. My job is to raise them the way my parents raised me: in an atmosphere of love and encouragement.
We all need a good community. Chances are you’re not missing a limb, but maybe you’re missing a friend. Or a loved one. Whatever your challenges in life are, you’re not alone. Seek out encouraging people. And be that community to those around you. Be supportive and encouraging. Defend those who cannot defend themselves. Protect. Accept. Expect. If you do this, I guarantee lives will be changed. Mine was. And I pray that little boy’s is, too.
Ryan Haack lives in Wisconsin where he plays the roles of husband, father, associate pastor and writer.