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Five fingers, 10 toes Add to ...

We pulled into the hotel driveway by doing a U-turn on a one-way street, a fitting end to a long and frustrating drive from Toronto to Ottawa.

Our plans to leave the city by noon had been uprooted the day before when two of our children qualified for a championship rugby game. The expected 4.5-hour drive turned into a six-hour odyssey as we were delayed by late-afternoon traffic and a GPS that sent us on a tour of the greater Ottawa area.

But our mood changed as we entered the hotel and our three-year-old daughter joyfully started yelling in her "outside voice." "Look, that kid has a little arm!" "That boy has a blue Batman leg!"

Most parents would be mortified if their child loudly pointed out others' deficiencies. But Claire was allowed such indiscretions - she was part of their club.

Our daughter was born with what we call a "little hand" because of a blood clot that formed in her wrist when she was six weeks in gestation. Her right hand is fully formed with five fingers, but her left hand is small and has five tiny nubbins.

We had driven to Ottawa at the end of May to attend a Champ conference sponsored by War Amps, held for kids of all ages with amputations of all kinds.

The timing was right for Claire to meet some of her fellow Champs. Our daughter will begin kindergarten this fall and was starting to ask a lot of questions about why she had a little hand and a big hand when everyone else had two big hands. She recently told me that her little hand would soon grow big - she just needed to drink more milk.

It was heartbreaking to tell her that she would always have a little hand, but I reassured her that there were others who had little hands and little feet, and she would soon meet some of them. I was also secretly hoping that by meeting other Champ kids, she would stop telling children at the park the wild story that I had chopped off her left hand when she was being bad.

What I didn't expect was how nice it was for parents to connect with others walking a similar path. I quizzed parents about the benefits of various prosthetic devices and what techniques they used to ensure that their kids would wear them. One idea was to customize the device with butterflies or princess crowns or superheroes.

I also learned from the female junior counsellors, Champs themselves, how to choose the right colour of nail polish to grace your prosthetic fingers for months or years at a time, and the best way to tackle a ponytail with one hand.

We went to sessions on parenting these amazing kids who face basic challenges every day, such as buttoning their shirts, tying their shoes or tackling the monkey bars. We were advised to help them reach their full potential and encourage them to use the devices available, both as everyday aids and to prevent other physical problems caused by overuse of the remaining limb.

Our independent daughter, who was fittingly born on July 4, was resisting using her prosthetic arm and hand because she found it heavy and awkward to manoeuvre. We were having trouble motivating her and were taking a break, but one mother wisely asked me what would happen if she broke her good arm or hand and were rendered incapacitated because she doesn't use a device?

After a routine ultrasound detected that our daughter was going to be born with a little hand, the first person I wanted to talk to was our cottage neighbour, Lorraine. When I told her our news, she immediately said, "She is so lucky to be missing a hand. They make beautiful artificial hands - I wish I was missing a hand, too."

Lorraine is a prosthetic-wearing, double-leg amputee. Despite seeing her frequently during our first summer up north, it took me a while to figure that out. Who would suspect that someone who was an avid swimmer, sailor, cyclist and water skier had prosthetic legs?

Lorraine lost both her legs in a train accident when she was 11, and it hasn't held her back one bit. She is positive, enthusiastic and always pushes herself to try new things. She recently took up surfing and tennis.

Our brief conversation did much to alleviate my worry. I thought I had never seen anyone missing a hand, but once I started looking, I noticed two people right away. The first time was on Mother's Day, and it was the best gift I could have been given.

On the break before dinner at the conference, almost every Champ made their way into the swimming pool. It was a sight to see so many amputee kids happily swimming. At one point, two teenage boys climbed into the pool, too busy talking to notice their fellow swimmers. It was comical to watch them checking everyone else out and realizing that all the other kids were missing a body part or two. They quickly left the pool, clearly feeling they were the odd ones out.

The drive back to Toronto started off as inauspiciously as our arrival, this time with the car stalling while double parked in front of the hotel. Fortunately, the rest of the trip home was uneventful. At a rest stop along the way, I found myself needing to stop looking for the missing limbs after a weekend of seeing only amputee children. These were just regular children at a highway stop, eating fast food and quarrelling with their siblings.

The conference was over, but it had been a wonderful opportunity to be immersed with other families in a world where none of our children had all 10 fingers and 10 toes.

Susan Marshall lives in Toronto.

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