I first met Gia, a young schoolgirl, one afternoon while walking with Moy Moy, our twenty-one-year-old daughter who has special needs. Gia was on her way home from classes. She approached us full of questions about why Moy was in a stroller, why she drooled, why she couldn’t speak, where she went to school, what she learned there, and what was the point if she couldn’t talk. Gia’s questions were rapid-fire, as if she couldn’t keep up with her own mind. Sometimes questions like that bother me, but not Gia’s. Her curiosity was genuine and respectful. She wasn’t asking idly or without acknowledging Moy Moy’s presence.

A few days later, my sister was visiting from the United States, and she, Moy, and I went for a walk. We ran into Gia who tagged along with us, questioning nonstop (in Hindi, of course): Where were we going? How were we related? Why was our skin so pale? Who was older? When her route veered off, she parted reluctantly, saving her last goodbye for Moy Moy. Then she scampered down the road, her huge book bag bouncing as she ran.

“She’s exactly like Jill Wheelock,” my sister remarked, even though she hadn’t understood a word of Gia’s Hindi. Jill was a childhood friend and a legend in our neighborhood for her free-spirited outspokenness and talent for mischief. We all adored her, admired her, and wished we could be like her.

A few days later, I saw Gia walking by our house. When I called out from the kitchen window, she stopped and said, eyes shining, that it was her birthday. I had been cleaning cupboards and had found a beautiful, brand-new sketchbook with felt-tip pens—still in their wrapping. When I gave these things to her, she seemed overcome, unable to believe they were really for her. Carefully, reverently, she opened her knapsack and placed them inside, looked at me in wonder again, and slowly walked out the gate.

A few evenings later, Gia’s mother knocked on my door. We had never met, but she found me by asking people on the street. Gia was missing. She had been expected home from her tutor’s over an hour earlier. It was now dark and her mother was frantic. “I only have one daughter,” she explained, near tears. I got out the car and suggested we return to her home to see if Gia had turned up while her mother was out searching. As we drove there, Gia’s mother told me her husband used to beat her and that she had finally divorced him. Now she was bringing up Gia and a second child alone. The little boy, almost three, still didn’t speak. “I don’t want Gia to be a domestic worker like me,” she said. “That’s why I send her to a tutor. So she can be someone.”

Gia was waiting when we got there. She swore she had been there for an hour, but her mother insisted it couldn’t be so. Home was a hovel—a tiny, cramped servant’s quarter behind the house where Gia’s mother worked, and Gia looked as if she knew she would be spanked as soon as I left. “I hate sending her all that way alone,” her mother said, “but it takes us forty minutes each way to walk. I can’t carry the baby all that way, and I can’t leave him alone either. If I had a cycle, I could do it so quickly.” If I had a cycle....

When I turned fifty, I asked my husband to give me a bicycle. We went together to select it and found a beauty: bright blue, sturdy, no gears. I rode it four times in two years. It seemed like a good idea when I asked for it, but in fact, it wasn’t practical at all. Whenever I have time to get outside, I also have Moy Moy to think about, and since she can’t sit on a bicycle, I prefer walking with her in the stroller. On those rare occasions when I want to get to the market quickly on the bicycle, its tires are invariably flat because it’s so seldom used.

The day I met Gia’s mom, I had been thinking about my bicycle. “What a waste,” I said. “Whom can I give it to? There must be someone for whom it would be a godsend.” Enter Gia’s mom. The instant I heard her mention her problem, I knew the bike was meant for her.

I’m not telling this story to make myself look good but as a reminder that if we ask a question, we will get an answer. It happens every time—like Gia’s persistent questions about why Moy Moy couldn’t talk. Now that I’d met her little brother, I understood her concern. And I had an answer: Let’s get that little boy into Karuna Vihar, the school we run for children with special needs. It’s right down the street. We can help. That’s what we’re here for.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2011-02-11 issue: View Contents
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