Ona Gritz

Am I the Burning House?

It’s Family Day in my son’s karate class and he wants a turn at the front of the room to spar with me. We watch from the risers as other parent/child pairs perfectly mirror the moves Master Steve models, and the spouses and siblings around us snap photos and cheer.

I’m not even supposed to be here, but at the last minute my ex (able, athletic) had to travel for business. So here I am, all the family my eight-year-old has on this particular family day.

“Please?” pleads this boy who never asks for much, so of course I take his hand, let him lead me to the floor, helpfully announcing, “If my mom doesn’t do too good it’s because she has cerebral palsy.”

All eyes on us, I throw stiff oddly shaped punches, answer his foot sweeps and knee strikes with shuffles. And though I tell myself no one gives a flying fuck if I can’t do a roundhouse kick, I time travel to a school gym not unlike this one—That’s a skip, not a run. Bet you couldn’t even catch a balloon.

Later, on our way toward the door, Master Steve, in his white gi, motions me over. “You were really brave out there,” he says. “That was a great thing you did.”

Brave. The word echoes in my mind as my son runs ahead on the cold walk home. Brave, a word complicated by what I know Master Steve’s day job to be: putting out fires, saving lives. I have a sense of how I’m supposed to feel about this. In fact, I go so far as to write a draft of this piece where I claim that stance. Is the prospect of living in a body like mine scarier to him than entering a burning house? Am I the burning house?

But even as I type those phrases, I’m thinking these ordinary acts of ours actually are a touch heroic. Our shame meters so often off kilter. Heat rising, as it likes to do, right to the surface of our skin.

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About the Author

Ona Gritz’s books include the poetry collection, Geode, a finalist for the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, a memoir. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York TimesThe GuardianRiver TeethThe Utne ReaderPloughsharesThe Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. A longtime columnist for Literary Mama, Ona’s nonfiction is listed among Notables in Best American Essays and Best Life Stories in Salon.