DEAR READERS: A reader asked, "What do you think the parent of a facially disfigured child would want to hear when running into an old friend who has never seen the child before?"
My reply: "Only a person who has walked that path is qualified to answer that question. I hope someone who has will write and let me know. The answer would be helpful to many readers -- as well as to this columnist."
I was not prepared for the volume of mail I received. Some excerpts:
FROM ASHLAND, KY.: "DON'T say, 'Oh, my God! What happened to your child's face?' Brace yourself, then find something positive to say about the baby's bright eyes, lovely head of hair or the outfit the child is wearing. But don't mention the child's abnormality."
FROM LAKE JACKSON, TEXAS: "Do not ignore the child. A child with a deformity can see, hear and FEEL. Bend down and say, "Hi ya, little fella -- what's your name?' Ask his mother if you may pick him up and hold him. The child will feel accepted and the mother will bless you a hundred times in her prayers."
FROM YAKIMA, WASH.: "Don't try to comfort his mother with the 'news' that they are doing remarkable things with reconstructive surgery these days. Be assured that the parents are well aware of what can be done; they also know that it must be done in stages as the child grows. And the child has probably had many surgeries already."
FROM SHELBY, OHIO: "Treat him as you would treat a normal 2-year-old -- not ignoring the deformity, but not making an issue of it, either. This is not hypocritical; neither is it acceptance of it. It puts it in its proper perspective. Forget the 'I'm so sorry' stuff. The mother knows you're sorry -- and so is SHE!"
FROM EAST HARTFORD, CONN.: "Look behind the disfigurement and see the child beneath still too young to know that he is different. (He will learn all too soon.) Treat him as you would treat any other 2-year-old. What you say to the mother doesn't matter. If she wants to bring up the subject of the child's problem, she will, but she would much rather have him treated as a human being than discussed as a medical problem. His disfigurement probably can be cured in time, but the damage to him personally from being treated as less than human may not be."
FROM DALLAS: "God gives these special children something that others will never develop in a lifetime. We've suffered more from prejudice and ignorant remarks than the difficulty of coping with our child's multiple handicaps. One stranger actually said, 'How brave of you to take him out in public instead of putting him away in some institution with people of his own kind.'"
FROM LONG ISLAND: "Thank you, Abby, from the bottom of my heart for opening the door of opportunity for these letters. The public needs to be educated."