What did you ask your parents to get you for an eighth-grade graduation gift?
My daughter Sophie wanted to go to Disneyland and meet Piglet.
The trip to Disneyland was easy. We’d been every year since Sophie was 2 — it’s a six-hour drive across the desert from our home in Tempe.
But Piglet? Despite the fact that Disney has owned the rights to A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh characters since the 1960s, the park has always been stingy with Piglet. Sophie had been to Disneyland 11 times without a Piglet sighting.
I wasn’t sure I could deliver. But Sophie’s sister, Annabelle, and I had an idea.
A couple of nights before we were scheduled to leave, I posted a video on my Facebook page that Annabelle made, imploring Disney to bring Piglet out for a visit. I added the hashtag #freepiglet, and went to bed.
I woke up the next morning half expecting to find an e-mail from Good Morning America in my inbox. No such luck. The post had a few likes; that was it. I started the arduous process of warning Sophie not to get her hopes up.
Her eyes welled with tears.
This might seem like childish behavior from a teenager, but Sophie’s not your typical middle schooler. She’s got Down syndrome, an extra 21st chromosome that affects everything from her heart (she’s had open-heart surgery twice) to her head (all people with Down syndrome have intellectual disabilities to one extent or another).
On the brink of 14, Sophie is in the throes of puberty. She’s boy crazy, hates her school dress code, and reapplies her lipstick frequently. But she still sucks her thumb. Some days she watches YouTube videos about morning skin care routines; other times I find her watching Elmo. She is the size of a second grader, even in her high-heeled wedges.
Sophie navigates the world better in heels than I do in flats, mostly because she doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. If she wants something, she asks for it. If she doesn’t get it, she asks again. You get the picture.
For a parent, this can be exhausting. One of my favorite children’s book characters is Olivia the Pig, a little girl (7 or so) with a big personality. At the end of a long day, her mother tells her, “You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.”
Olivia replies, “I love you anyway, too.”
That pretty much sums up my relationship with Sophie.
The difficult truth is that there are a lot of things in the world that Sophie wants that she will likely never have, no matter how often she asks. She probably won’t drive a car, live completely on her own, or bear a child. Sophie’s told me she doesn’t really want to give birth because it will hurt; she’d prefer to adopt. I don’t see that happening, either.
She didn’t get to go to the middle school her friends attend, and because her feet are weak, she won’t ever get to dance en pointe like her big sister.
Most of all, as she tells me more and more often, Sophie doesn’t want to have Down syndrome.
As I pondered Sophie’s eighth-grade graduation request, I knew I couldn’t change any of that. But I could do my best to track down Piglet.
Sophie is a fan of pigs in general — she’s been Olivia for Halloween, and still watches Peppa Pig although it’s a show for toddlers — but Piglet is her number-one swine.
He’s mine, too. When Sophie was a few days old and I was reeling over the news that my perfect pregnancy had resulted in a child with a cognitive disability, a heart defect, and who knows what else, one of my closest friends drove up from Tucson for the afternoon with a gift for the baby — a stuffed Piglet holding a plush purple butterfly. It was a musical toy; when you wound Piglet up, he would play a tinkly version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
Sophie took Piglet everywhere, including surgery. During one trip down the long hall to the operating room, Piglet fell off the gurney and was crushed by a wheel; he no longer played “Twinkle Twinkle.” I scoured eBay and found a replacement, then another when that one stopped playing, too.
By then, Sophie didn’t care about the music. She had determined that Piglet’s ear was the softest thing she’d ever touched. Kids with Down syndrome often have sensory issues, and Sophie liked to “soft” everything from my clothing to her bangs to paintbrushes. (Today, her brush collection stands at 275.) But her favorite was Piglet. She self-soothed by rubbing the stuffed animal’s ears and when she could talk, she’d hold Piglet out and ask me to touch his ear and say, “Just like velvet.”
“Just like velvet,” I’d agree.
Piglet accompanied Sophie to preschool, then kindergarten, and after that, we tried to keep him at home.
“He’s very precious,” I tell Sophie, even to this day. “We don’t want to lose him.”
She nods solemnly. My husband, Ray, usually hides one or two of the backup Piglets in his closet, for emergencies, but sometimes she finds them and sleeps with all three.
I let her pack one for our trip to Disney.
“This might be as close as you get to Piglet,” I warned Sophie.
“Oh no, Mom, I’m going to see him,” she told me.
“Oh crap,” I thought.
Other kids wait hours at Mickey’s house in Toon Town or chase Goofy down Main Street — and to be honest, Sophie’s done that, too. We’ve stood in line for every princess, as well as Tinker Bell and each of her fairy friends. I once tried to rope Snow White into telling Sophie, who was 4, that big girls don’t wear pull-ups. The actor just gave me a dirty look, but ultimately it was the promise of a package of princess panties that finally kept Sophie dry for a day.
And every trip, Sophie dragged me up the hill past the Haunted Mansion to Critter Country, in search of Piglet.
We’d wait in line to see Tigger, Eeyore, and Winnie the Pooh, and Sophie had just one question for each of them:
The giant furries would lift their paws to their mouth holes and shake their heads adorably as their handlers explained patiently that Piglet was away in the Hundred Acre Wood and that he only comes out on very warm days. For most kids, that’s enough of an explanation. Not Sophie.
We’ve been to Disneyland on some very warm days. No Piglet.
Every year, I think Sophie will forget about Piglet. But even as she’s grown from a little girl into a young woman — a brave one who rides Space Mountain — every year she’s more focused than ever on that hot pink pig.
Last year, when she was 12, she was so insistent that we walked all the way back across the park from Critter Country to City Hall and stood in line so she could ask for Piglet.
Come back in a couple hours, the friendly clerk told Sophie. So we did. By then, that clerk was gone; no one knew anything about our request.
I’m pretty sure they could hear Sophie’s sobs from atop the Matterhorn.
The clerk scrambled and Sophie walked away with a red face and a signed photograph of Winnie, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet. I brought her to the gift shop — where, ironically, you can always find all the A.A. Milne characters for sale — and let her pick out a stuffed Piglet to add to her collection.
Then we went all the way back to Critter Country and stood in line again to talk to each of the Milne characters and Sophie asked me to take her photo with each of them — and her stuffed Piglet.
It was kind of pathetic.
“Look, Sophie, we can go to Disneyland for sure for eighth-grade graduation,” I told her when she started asking in December. “But I don’t know that Piglet will come out.”
“He’ll come out,” she told me.
I discussed this conundrum with Annabelle. She’s been done with the characters since she was tall enough to ride all the roller coasters, but she appreciates Sophie’s zeal. And she decided to make a video about her sister’s quest to find Piglet.
The video is simple; Annabelle made it on her phone, and my favorite part is that she lets Sophie do the talking. It’s not always easy to understand someone with Down syndrome — a too-small mouth makes speech difficult. But Sophie does a pretty good job of explaining how much Piglet means to her. In the video, she shows off her Piglet collection, and begs her favorite pig to come out.
Good Morning America never did call. The video didn’t go viral. #freepiglet didn’t capture the nation’s attention. But by Friday, “Sophie and Piglet” had more than 10,000 views, and a lot of people rooting for the meeting.
Turns out, I have several friends who have friends at Disney. From what I could tell, everyone put in a good word.
Friday morning, my phone rang. The mother of a friend of a friend had recently retired from park operations.
I was told that there was a very good chance that Piglet would appear. By midday, the instructions had arrived. We were to meet at the Mad Hatter shop on Main Street at 10:45; from there, we would be escorted to meet Piglet.
I told Sophie there were no guarantees, but there was actually a slim chance we’d be meeting Piglet. She squealed. I worried. What if we showed up and Piglet wasn’t there? What if wires got crossed or Disney got annoyed or the performer got sick or the costume didn’t fit?
I continued to warn Sophie that it was only a chance. She just beamed.
We were up before dawn on Saturday, at the park’s gates before 8 a.m., determined to pack everything possible into one day. Including our date at the hat shop.
I checked my phone constantly, waiting for Piglet to cancel. Apparently I wasn’t the only one checking. By this point my post had hundreds of shares and retweets; the video had been viewed almost 15,000 times.
By 9 the kids had ridden Space Mountain, those nausea-inducing teacups, and It’s a Small World. We were wandering around Fantasyland, killing time, when Sophie spotted the Mad Hatter in the crowd and ran to him — but he was obviously late for an important date. Then she saw Gaston, the handsome villain from Beauty and the Beast — but he was too stuck up to stop and chat.
And then came the jackpot — both Belle and the Beast appeared. Sophie raced up to them, pushed past the other kids, stuck out her autograph book. Belle took it and signed, then asked Sophie if she’d like to walk with them.
Sophie tossed the autograph book at me, reached out her hands, and walked all over Fantasyland with Belle and the Beast. Belle invited her to come watch them dance at 11, and I could tell she was tempted, but Sophie shook her head.
“I have to go meet Piglet,” she told Belle.
“You MIGHT meet Piglet,” I said.
I’m never early for anything, but we arrived at the Mad Hatter’s shop at 10:30, and were escorted — literally — behind a curtain. Piglet’s handlers instructed us to put away our cellphones, but had the Disney photographer on hand to capture the moment.
As the curtain parted, there was Piglet — pinker and plumper than I expected — hiding behind a fern.
Sophie raced into his arms and squeezed and didn’t say anything for a really long time. No one did.
Finally, she emerged to have her photo taken, and Piglet’s escort asked brusquely if we wanted to have a group photo taken before we left.
I pulled the escort aside to explain that for Sophie, it wasn’t about the photo or the autograph (she got that, too).
She believes in Piglet, I said, knowing how ridiculous that sounded but somehow, kind of believing in him myself, too. She wants to have a real conversation with him. Is there time?
The woman nodded and backed away.
How I wish I had video. Sophie and Piglet had the best talk. Piglet doesn’t actually talk, of course, but they clearly understood each other. Sophie told him how her mom’s friend had given her a stuffed Piglet when she was born, how she has always looked for him.
Sophie told Piglet how much she likes to “soft” her stuffed Piglet’s ear. Piglet bent down and let Sophie “soft” his ear — then reached out to touch Sophie’s ear.
Sophie told Piglet, “I think you have Down syndrome but my mom says you don’t.”
Piglet hugged Sophie.
Sophie signed, “I love you” to Piglet. Piglet signed it back.
When it was time to say goodbye, the two hugged for a long time. We were all quiet as we left.
Later that day, Sophie drank a frozen lemonade and played on her phone, sending me a series of texts from across the table.
MOM THANK YOU FOR THIS TRIP
MOM THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME TO SEE MY HERO
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I AM CRYING BECAUSE I SAW PIGLET
I looked up from my own phone and smiled.
“Me, too, Sophie,” I told her, pulling my teenager in for a hug. “Me, too.”