Chinese Box

So there’s a fairy-tale wedding: a thousand guests in a flower-filled ballroom, a dozen violins playing Mozart, a grainy-voiced singer belting out an old Persian love song. The bride is 20 years old and ravishing, of course, but she’s also blessed with charm and charisma, the kind of exuberance that turns heads and drags stares behind her. She’s been breaking hearts since she was 14 years old and walked into a cousin’s wedding in a frilly white dress and a wide lace headband. Now she dances on stage, next to the singer with the forlorn music, and the crystal beads on her wedding gown glow like fireflies in the dark.

The groom has class and pedigree. He’s smart and kind and, yes, so in love with the girl on stage he can’t stop smiling at his own good fortune for meeting her. For years he’s been the target of young girls’ desire and their mothers’ designs.

"Look at him," a woman says the night of his wedding. "Green eyes and more money than God."

So there’s a fairy-tale wedding, and the bride wakes up to a sky full of sunlight and laughter and the promise of everlasting joy. In the old country, where luck was believed to be contagious, she would have been the woman asked to grind sugar cones over the chuppah held above other brides’ heads, the one grandmothers touched hoping her luck would rub off on them, that mothers held up as an example of success and good fortune.

In the old country, luck was a light reflecting off some women’s foreheads: you were born with it, or you were doomed to what was called a "dark forehead."

But in America, luck is a many-faceted creature. It’s like those lacquered Chinese boxes that hide many other, smaller ones inside them.

Each day after her fairy-tale wedding to the green-eyed prince, the girl with the beaming forehead opens one box and reaches in to seek its treasure. She finds good friends and a devoted family, an ever-widening horizon, a daughter as smart and beautiful as her parents. She finds other children, other kinds of success. Then she finds a son.

He has the most striking pair of eyes anyone has ever seen, a face that is impossible to turn away from, severe disabilities that will mark him for life.

The girl with the beaming forehead stares into the little box in her hand and wonders at the forces in the universe that have brought her this gift. Her little boy is smart enough to know and understand everything that goes on around him, alert enough to engage the attention of anyone he chooses. But he can’t walk and can’t put his thoughts to words and he even has trouble, when he likes a red flower his mother has put in his hand, closing his fingers around the stem.

The girl with the beaming forehead could close the box and store it away out of sight. Or she could run with it — to the safety of her home, where many a woman has been known to endure misfortune and loss. She takes a moment to catch her breath. Then she nestles the box in her hands and brings it out into the light: see what this day has brought to me, she tells the world. Watch what I can do with this kind of luck.

She puts her little son in a stroller and takes him to a school at UCLA where they’ll teach him to speak through a computer and communicate through painting. When the school runs out of money to keep teaching him, she gathers her friends, the other moms at the school, and raises money beyond anyone’s expectations. When he’s too old for this school and she can’t find another like it, she gathers her friends again and this time builds a school. Day after day she opens the little shiny boxes hidden in the darkness of larger ones and reaches in to find her fortune.

In the years since the little boy with the stunning eyes is born to his fairy-tale parents, many a tragedy and much good fortune will occur in the lives of everyone who knows them. Still the girl with the Chinese boxes manages to remain the great source of inspiration to them all. This is my life, she says without fear or shame or even the slightest indication that she may bend. These are my children.

I don’t know what this girl, and other mothers like her, would have done in the old country. I can’t imagine they would have acted differently, that they would have been more afraid, weaker, less capable than they are here. We are, if nothing else, a resilient people. We have lived with more "dark foreheads" than we should have, and we have come through it, if not unscathed, then certainly not defeated.

I don’t know what they might have done in another place, but every year when they pull their friends together and spearhead another effort on behalf of the little boys and girls who can’t hold flowers in their fists, every time they inspire hundreds of mothers with healthy children to drop their own daily concerns and lend a hand to long-established American institutions still in need of aid, every time I see the light they cast into the lives of friends and strangers who have crossed paths with them and their children, I think that it was luck — the other children’s, their mothers’, the institutions’ that have benefited from her strength — it was their luck that brought these mothers from the old country and into the new one.

Maybe each one of us is a little Chinese box nestled within the course of others’ destinies.

The Enrichment Foundation for Handicapped Children, a California nonprofit corporation, was founded by a group of concerned parents dedicated to improving the lives of handicapped children and their families. For more information, call (310) 470-1972.