In The Way to Becoming Yaelle, Jan’s best friend and protector, Anna, expresses a strong identification with Pinocchio because just as Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy, Anna yearns to be a “real” girl after being numbed by years of abuse and neglect.
But I didn’t invent this idea.
This inspiration came from a very real little girl I once knew.
Shira was two years younger than me and died at the age of nine from a form of diabetes so rare that only 300 other children in the world were diagnosed with it at that time.
As a child, Shira captivated me. She was adorable with round blue eyes and chubby-bunny cheeks, and her very essence seemed different from the other children, evidenced in the way she looked you right in the eye, in the way she strode forward as she walked, and in her whole demeanor.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, Shira’s demeanor came from the mission her disease forced on her at age five:
And not just to live as long as she could, but to live as normally as she could.
Seeing how Shira walked and even ran while attached to a glass tank on wheels, an object almost as tall as Shira herself, awed the extremely shy child that I was. Uncomfortable in my own skin to the point that I hated games – like Duck-Duck-Goose – in which I needed to move while others watched, Shira’s freedom of movement while attached to a real impediment fascinated me and I was secretly in awe of her. In a way – and I know it sounds odd – I even envied her for her dignity and normality in the face of indignity and abnormality. After all, I couldn’t achieve those desired qualities – and I wasn’t even attached to a cumbersome machine!
I yearned to be friends with Shira, but I didn’t know how. Sometimes Shira would greet me and I would clam up. The friendly way she looked right into my eyes with that strange machine rolling behind her froze me into silence. Later, I cringed upon remembering how I would just stare back at her, aching to talk but not finding my voice. Shira would raise her eyebrows, shrug her shoulders and keep on going, that odd machine bumping along the pebbly floor behind her.
Once, Shira even asked me, "Can you talk?"
I think I nodded yes.
Shira tried to engage me in conversation, realized it was futile, and went on her way. But I never felt judged by her, like I did with a lot of other people, both children and adults. And she had more right to be offended than anyone else. Later, I realized that Shira was used to disabilities. She had her own and, spending so much of her life in the hospital, she realized that a lot of people had their limitations, some odder than others. She understood that it was nothing personal. And she understood that some people didn’t know how to deal with a little girl connected to this queer thing on wheels. I could have asked her and she would have explained it to me in a way I could understand and feel comfortable, and we could have been friends.
But I didn’t know how to overcome my shyness – especially with Shira.
Then she died.
I felt awful. I cried a lot. It was the first time I’d dealt with death and even more disturbing, the death of a girl not much younger than me. I hadn’t known she was that ill. And I felt terrible that I had basically – albeit helplessly – snubbed a little girl who’d been dying. And I regretted the missed opportunity to be friends with someone truly special, someone who could have taught me about the genuinely important things in life.
I was sure that if I had known she would die, I would have found the courage to speak to her.
Later, I found out just how heroic and special Shira really was – and how creative and spunky. Just like one can take stale old cake and turn it into scrumptious English trifle, Shira once dressed herself up as C3-PO and costumed her insulin machine as R2-D2.
(It was the Eighties and everyone had a Star Wars obsession at some point.)
Then a friend of mine showed me a book with a dedication inscribed by Shira’s mother and given to my friend’s family after Shira had died. It was the tale of Pinocchio – "because just like Pinocchio always wanted to be a real boy, Shira always wanted to be a real girl."
Her mother's words touched me deeply and I never forgot them.
I didn’t know that Shira – with all her sense of purpose and dignity – had felt like she wasn't really "real."
And I think we can all understand why Shira, who was often attached to machines and lived with the knowledge that she’d probably never grow up like all the other little girls, felt like she wasn’t a "real" girl.
But as young as I was, I also understood that Shira was more real, more authentic, and more accomplished in her nine years than many of us are over a lifetime.