Because we are so immersed in this world of autism I have erroneously concluded that everyone who lives outside of this Village is already aware of autism. However, there is a secret sorority that exists…one equipped with a secret handshake and password. I am in that sorority yet have no recollection of agreeing to join. Autism is funny like that. The Village of Autism parents is a unique one. We are a motley crew of individuals whose path may have never crossed otherwise. We meet each other in waiting rooms and lobbies of doctors offices instead of in the PTO. We have closed blogs and Facebook pages instead of casual phone calls. We learn more about the newest treatments and resources from each other than we do from professionals. We talk about how well our child is pooping quicker than we will discuss how well they are doing in school. Though we are typically the least able to, we are often the first responders to others in the Village because we are more likely to reach out to one another than we would outside of the Village where no one speaks our language. And we find each other….everywhere and all the time. Today while sitting on the floor in the middle of the children’s shoe department feverishly tearing inserts out of shoes and hopelessly attemping to shove A2’s newest orthotics into them with no success I broke down and cried. Just sat there in the middle of the floor, surrounded by ridiculous shoes with flashing lights on the soles and sobbed like a toddler might who couldn’t find the shoes she liked. At that same time, I peered up to see a woman pushing a cart with one hand while calmly using her other to push her much-too-large child who was humming loudly down back into his seat. We made eye contact for a single moment and silently nodded–her nod seemingly said “Yes….I know those orthotics were made wrong twice before in 7 months and represents 6 visits to the clinic over that same time. Yes…..I realize this is the 3rd store you have been in today that absolutely does not carry shoes your 9 year old can wear with the braces he must wear on his feet. Yes….I realize that your tears are really about your kid and the pain and blisters he will probably have again that he can’t communicate or the weird, white 1960s Frankenbaby shoes the orthotics company will recommend that look nothing like what his school friends will be wearing. Yes….I see you….and I know you see me….” V is for my Village. The quiet, connected Village where my family lives.
W is for What It’s Like
“There is grandeur in this view of life…..from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved”—On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin.
A few years ago I attended the funeral of a friend who suffered and died much too young. He was a scientist-a biologist, an activist, a researcher who was respected in his field and likely the smartest person I knew. He was also pedantic and opinionated with a biting but funny sense of humor. This combination engaged even the most simple of us but most of his friends were equally as interesting and I got to numbly stand in a room in Vermont in the dead of winter surrounded by them. “What’s it like?” a friend of his asked me…”having a child with Autism?” For a moment I just thought I was not in the mindset to answer that question but quickly realized I could NOT answer because in all the years I’d not only never been asked that but also never considered it either. It was the kindest thing anything had ever asked me about A2 and perhaps it was the somber tone of the day that rendered me without speech (which if you know me well does not happen often) or maybe I had always been so caught up in the action oriented nature of having a young child with autism that to contemplate that would stop me in my tracks and make me crumble….or perhaps in the moment I felt guilty for even thinking I would crumble and considered myself so lucky to still have those I loved around me regardless of circumstance while my best friend was grieving the loss of his partner……so I excused myself instead. What I have decided over the years is that it is a bit like A2 contemplating this fountain. It is weird and fascinating and wonderful and I have no idea how it really works or how it got there. I notice every single droplet from the ones that predictably slide down the posts to the ones that spit out to collectively leave me standing in a cold puddle over time that leave my toes numb without notice until its too late. There is no warning when the water will turn to an exciting spout of beauty creating a soft rain and visible rainbow or when it will create bursts of rainy arches that I cannot immediately escape leaving me far more drenched and colder than I want to be and on opposite sides of the fountain from whomever was standing near me. So Trevor…..that is what it is like……Thank you for asking
About 9 years ago when A2 was 3 years old, he attended a social skills group with a speech therapist and 3 other “non-verbal” children. A2 was by far and away the most interested in communication and social interaction of the 4 kids in the group. At that point did not have an Autism diagnosis, nor despite my education or background did I even suspect this as the primary issue.
I sat in that lobby week after week wondering what A2 could possibly be getting out of the group given none of the children had any functional verbal language and a great majority of the time the therapists were wrangling to keep the kids all in one spot. After the final session, I sighed at the speech therapist and asked her what she thought was going on with my beautiful boy.
She asked me if I had ever heard of the book Schuyler’s Monster by Robert Rummel-Hudson. A father’s memoir about his wordless child.
I had not.
A2 and I left the speech session and immediately went to the library to find it. I suppose I would have been reading more about parent perspectives of young children with disabilities had a known my child had a disability. But he was 3. He had delays. A gross motor delay, a fine motor delay, a speech delay. He had weird medical issues. He stopped growing. He flapped. But he also looked at me and smiled, knew his name and cuddled. Other than the cache of bewildered parents who sat in lobbies at therapies, I had no connections to others going through similar circumstances. As an action oriented person, I didn’t know I needed to have those connections.
That is until I read Schuyler’s Monster.
In some ways, I feel like that is where my story begins. It started as an easy read because Rob is poignant, funny and his words wash over the pages and get right into your brain. And then….. To put it simply, I was knocked on my ass.
He was telling my story. He was me.
Schulyer was almost exactly A2 right down to the personality. I had to set time aside to read when I knew I didn’t have to be “on” because I wasn’t sure how what I would read would affect me for the rest of the day.
Schuyler has a rare genetic disorder called Bilateral Perisylvian Polymicrogyria. I called A2’s neurogeneticist at the Cleveland Clinic and insisted he himself go back and read A2’s baseline MRI and not rely on the radiologists report. He humored me and alas, A2 and Schuyler did not hold this in common. I finished the book and felt like I was underwater.
What was I going to do without Rob, Julie and Schuyler?
I felt connected to something and yet I never felt so alone in my whole life all because a piece of cardboard filled with paper and a beautiful little girl on the front told me life might not be what I think it is. I was not an avid reader of blogs and at that point was not on social media. I found their blog Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords and reconnected with his words. Soon, I found another blog that spoke to me much in the same way written by a teacher who had an autistic child called Flappiness Is.
By this point, four years in, we had an autism diagnosis and I was in the throes of learning to advocate for my child in ways that rocked my world. Flappiness (Leigh) was there to say the things I couldn’t say. I then there was another (which is no longer around *2019 update…I have now seen her around..*) that made me laugh about our situation when I needed to laugh about it.
I now had a community and resources I could access whenever I needed it.
I am an accidental blogger. I wrote 3 posts back in 2010 and when I realized I really had nothing to say, I was done. It wasn’t my time to talk. I don’t know if it is really my time to talk now, yet here I am. Instead of following 3 blogs, I follow dozens and all for different reasons. I have met the most amazing folks along the way because of it including the now very grown up, very kind and very inspiring Schuyler. And she seems to be exactly the person I hoped she would grow up to be when I met her as a little girl as typeset words sitting on my couch 9 years ago.
There is no need to be alone if you cannot find “your people” in your community. I never dreamed that some of my closest confidants are people I have never met or only briefly met in person. This list is not exhaustive…..and most categories will overlap, but my resource list of favorite blogs/social media folks you might want to check out (note also most blog links will be the same name on Facebook):
PERSPECTIVES FROM THE SPECTRUM
MEMES/HUMOR/KEEPING IT REAL
Memes By Ashley
ALL THE REST
After seeing a thread from another writer today about the topic of trauma response in reference to the state of hypervigilence as special needs parents and all of the universal agreement, I thought I would share this again as winter break winds to a close…..
There is a large manila envelope still sealed sitting on my desk. No matter how much I stare at it it doesn’t:
1. Spontaneously burst into flames
3. Take care of itself.
It does not contain a subpoena, a warrant for my arrest or an eminent domain letter. It was not delivered certified mail or by official messenger. It was hand delivered by my 6th grader because the teacher very graciously contacted me ahead of time to ask me how I would like the prior written notice papers from the last IEP meeting delivered so I could sign and return them in a timely manner to the school. It has been sitting and judging me silently for over three months now as it sits untouched. I am reduced to a Pavlovian dog except my bell is an envelope and my saliva is anxiety. A crippling-can’t-get-any-thing-else-done anxiety. And I…
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My beautiful boy wandered into my room tonight. His curly hair tousled around his cherub cheeks, pajama bottoms twisted in a spiral around his hips from tossing and turning…he marches in quickly as if he had somewhere important to be and then suddenly stops at the foot of my bed with purpose. He rubs his dazed eyes all the while smiling that big Cheshire Cat grin of his. “Hug”, he says as he makes that long trip to the other side of my California king. I can’t say I hate it when that happens. He is warm and cuddly and doesn’t thrash and kick like he used to when he was little. To the best of my knowledge, A2 has never slept a full night in his life and no one can tell me why. As he gets older, he seems no worse for the wear for it either. The stretches between night time explorations have become longer and my husband and I have become a tag team settling into separate sleeping arrangements at night over the years to ensure at least one of us wakes to the new day refreshed. He tells me “scootch magooch” as he encroaches on the sliver of bed where I sleep and drifts off as swiftly as he made his declaration of his sleep intentions.
The thing is, my husband and I never wake up fully refreshed. There are Things That Keep Me Up at Night. Who will hug him when we are gone? Who else will find his sweet smile so endearing even at 3:00am? We try to be optimistic about his future. A2 will likely never be able to live independently, but dammit, we bought him a house and we rent it out to people today so in 15 years he will have a place to live….maybe even with 24 hour support staff and 2 or 3 other guys who are sweet spirited sports and music fans like he is. We live in an expensive school district despite struggling to afford it to make sure he has the best education and connections for his future. Though we are socially isolated as a family because such is the nature of autism, I remain involved with my religious congregation so he is never alone. SOMEONE will always know and recognize him. I advocate and I write and I stay present in the disability community so he will always have that community too when it comes time for some else to step in as a guardian when I can no longer do it. A touchpoint for that kind stranger to get guidance or direction. We save the best we can. We plan for the best possible services and outcomes to give him a meaningful life worth living. We are uncertain what services will help house him, feed him, care for him. We can’t be sure that there will be vocational training or health insurance or social security disability payments. All of which is unnerving when you know there will be no one to love him or snuggle with him or wipe away tears. So we plan as best we can knowing surely, there will be some kind of services for him.
But tonight there is no sleep because now I am not so sure. I know in the morning light I will look at everyone with a suspicious eye and wonder who around me willingly voted for another reason to keep me up at night. Half the population wanted political change and they got it and whether the overt intentions were there or not, they were willing to make children like my child the sacrificial lamb. My child will always be dependent on others to be his voice, to protect him….his rights, his body, his dignity . My child and others like him often have no option but to live in poverty and have no political influence as adults. I am terrified for him because no matter how much we plan, no matter how much we go without today, if it is acceptable for the leader of our country to marginalize him, make fun of him, call him the R word what does that say for the people around us who brush that off and traded my baby in for not voting for the vague “yeah, but she’s worse”? What happens when it is a decided that my “standard retard” is a drain on the system making everyone elses’ life more difficult? There will be a supreme court in place likely for the rest of his life who will err on the side of believing that as a universal truth.
The only politics I ever talk about in my writing is my belief that most people are good but misinformed. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but certainly in his, I believed that it was possible to change the world around him enough that true inclusion and a dignified life were possible and through that, the need for the work of disability advocacy would dwindle. Perhaps I truly believed all that because I see the innocence in his eyes. He is a pure soul who has helped me see good first and maybe I can spread that message for him.
So, forgive me if you were one of the people who so desperately wanted political change if I seem a little distant from you. While I am hopeful that my fears are akin to “they’re taking all our guns from us!” it’s a bit harder for me not to be devisive when we are talking about my baby. But don’t worry….A2 won’t judge you. He is forgiving and will love you anyway.
It is time again for the November Thankful Challenge on social media. For 30 days people publicly declare the things in their lives for which they are grateful. As a therapist, I can tell you it’s an excellent daily exercise in mindfulness–a way to connect and be present for those things we tend to take for granted. Soul soothing salve in the bustle of every day life. If we take a few minutes every day to reflect on the things that are going right amid the trashcan fires of life all around us, over time we can actually retrain our brains to become more centered, less reactionary and supposedly just happier in general. It becomes a good habit.
So, why don’t most people take appreciative stock every day?
I believe its because most of us have what we need (most and need being our operative terms). So even if you don’t have much, you DO probably have a roof over your head, access to clean water, some kind of education and likely one person in your life who cares when your birthday is. Those are things we easily take for granted.
This doesn’t always feel so much like gratitude in comparison in our rich-kids-of-Instagram kind of society. Things like rampant poverty in the streets or dysentery are not infused in our every day life. Yet as special needs parents or as disabled people, it feels like we are expected to display this type of gratitude in circumstances in moments when it feels just this imbalanced.
I have somehow won the life lottery and I didn’t do anything to deserve that any more than some starving, orphaned toddler in a war torn country did to deserve his lot. There are many people who might look at my family and think otherwise since we were dealt the hand of having a child with a disability. We have a life that can be exhausting and lonely and sometimes just very scary, but rarely because of anything my child has done or his disability itself. It is more about the circumstances around him prohibiting understanding, access, equality or equity.
Thus the rub of the special needs parent and the expression of gratitude toward professionals who serve their child.
If someone asked my child’s providers,’Do you think A2’s mom is grateful for the services you provide her child?’, my guess is that at least 80% of them would answer ‘no’. They would be completely wrong, but still. If that same surveyor could time travel and go back year by year to 2007 when A2 first started getting help and ask the same question, I suppose the percentage who would answer ‘no’ would shrink in proportion to year asked.
In the last several years, regardless of how many holiday gifts, number of hours I volunteer, amount of money I donate, number of thank-you’s doled out, at this point I am still going to be seen as a wistful pariah to those whom I ask more.
As A2 ages and the disparity in needs between he and his peers grow, so does the need for advocacy.
There is a pervasive belief system which keeps those who are disadvantaged in some way from asking for more and it is through the guise of gratitude and the false belief that the basics are a form of entitlement. You are lucky to get what you get, even if it is not meeting your needs.
- 20 sessions of speech therapy for your non-verbal child? Well…at least your insurance gives you that much. Some people can’t get speech therapy approved at all!
- I’m not really seeing progress in my child, but the aides are nice to him and he seems happy.
- He doesn’t need a bus aide. He can make noise so its not like it would turn out like that boy who died on his bus because they forgot about him all day….
- Sorting nuts and bolts is a career for lots of people. She may have an above average IQ but she’s lucky anyone is willing to take a chance on her
- Kids just love him here at school, but no….we can’t tell you who any of them are so he can invite them over and extend those friendships to the community. At least kids play with him here, that says a lot about the kind of person he is.
When exposed repeatedly to systemic issues that shame you into to accepting less, you get a little crisp when it comes to the process of fawning over people doing the jobs they chose. Can you imagine for one minute being OK with your child failing a subject at school and then thinking, ‘well…at least no one is hurting him there’? No…those things are not interchangeable. Ever. As parents, we want to always feel and show gratitude to those whom we entrust our children, but when trust is bent, even a little, it dulls the surface.
A couple years ago, during a conversation at school, a team member let me know just how stinkin’ cute A2 was and how he brightens everyone’s day and how much kids just love him.
“He has made so much progress..he comes right up to me now and always asks to see the PA system!”
I nodded and smiled and said nothing about how platitudes like that can ruffle the feathers of pre-adolescent special needs parents because, you know….gratitude and grace. We have to show ours a bit differently. It’s not that we don’t like the compliment. It is kind to find the strength. However, very soon, that go-to strength of being little and cute, the thing that draws people to him and keeps people friendly will be gone. Drinking out of a sippy cup with a full beard is not adorable. It will be confusing and odd to people who don’t know him. And it scares the hell out of me. So instead, I say nothing for fear of not seeming grateful for at least that.
“Yes, progress.” I say. “Though I worry. He still cannot read, we still have not cracked that code and he only has one more year here.”
She side eyed me with a friendly smirk , lifted her finger as if to gently stop me and said “Mrs. ATeam, you GOTTA focus on the positives. You just gotta.”
Do I though?
Focusing on the positives is actually WHY I have to advocate and ask for more. It is not for the purpose of making sure other people can see my gratitude. More out of the box thinking, more time, more energy, more inclusion. I see what he is capable of achieving all while being systemically reminded in IEP meetings of things he still cannot do, how services won’t be expanded to accommodate that fact and how planning for a future where if we are lucky, he will get to be a marginal member of society. Unfortunately when faced with this frustrating reality, as a mother I don’t have enough energy left over to make people feel good. I used that energy up in the front end not realizing what lie ahead.
My child lives in a society that sees the deficits, that sees the differences and believes that the slightest hint of meeting his needs because of his differences is an entitlement. A society that believes that being adorable is a strength. A society that makes heroes and saints and examples out of others showing my child dignity when they come to work or are being a friend. A society that doesn’t hashtag abuse, neglect, bullying and even murders against children like mine.
So team members…if you are confused about my level of gratitude for your involvement with my child, don’t be. I am never short on gratitude and when my child is happy and progressing, what our collective efforts are doing is working. There is nothing for which I could be more grateful, just like any parent.
But I understand.
I too have a job where the pay is low, the paperwork is tedious and 100% of my work is about helping other people. I too am rarely told thank you. But that is not why I do what I do. I am trying to make the waves to change systems and influence the way the world sees people who are at a disadvantage.
By accepting less simply because we are told we should be grateful for what we get is the dysfunctional thinking that will keep things inequitable.. always.
I am doing the future of disability advocacy and everyone who works with kids like mine a disservice by this act as well. When I am sitting on this side of the table, its my job to check and double check your work, ask questions and tell you when something isn’t working. That is not the opposite of gratitude, that is showing you that what you are doing matters. Its the ultimate compliment. My kid is your boss and I am trying to teach him to always get what he needs based on HIS different needs in this world.
I’m just trying to do my job as his mother, one that is universally never the recipient of gratitude is often met as if I am a villain and yet is still the most rewarding job in the world.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops–at all
Until it is hunted, killed, braised, barbecued and eaten.
Ok. Emily can only take credit for the first part….
Three years ago this week, I was given the honor of speaking in front of my congregation during the High Holidays on the topic of hope. When the rabbi approached me 4 months earlier and told me the topic, I was sure I could pull SOMETHING together. I was flattered and thankful for the opportunity.
And then I fully realized my task.
Asking for five minutes of my time to convey what hope was like for me…in what I assumed had to do with parenting a child with a disability suddenly morphed into the equivalent of digging for research for a dissertation. I was not sure what hope meant at all, though in fairness, I am not sure I ever fully understood what hope was.
I stumbled on the video link a year afterward and found the old me. Hearing this stranger speaking from the heart was jarring, yet familiar.
This is the (abridged) transcript from that speech.
I’m here to share my story of hope. My family and I have been congregants here for the last 10 years. I have two versions of the story I was going to tell today and I’d like to thank the rabbi for allowing me the opportunity to go rogue and tell a third one instead.
So, I came here this morning with these two versions of my story of hope, not knowing which one I was going to tell. And mostly because of Rabbi’s sermon last night on vulnerability, I decided to take the two stories and meld them somewhere in the middle to share my story in hopes that if there are people sitting here who feel the same way, they can recognize they are not alone.
You see…sometimes its not about being hopeful or hopeless. Sometimes there is this vague middle ground, if that exists, in hope.
I have a child with Autism and he is a sweet, beautiful boy. And he lives with Autism. An Autism that impairs him from a life of independence.
I’m part of a family who is also living with Autism. An Autism that impair us from a life of independence.
Showing vulnerability is not particularly an issue for us because we have to wear our vulnerability very publicly. I’m also pretty visible in the community, and because of that I sometimes feel like I am the “Autism Representative”.
So, Side A is extra-super truthy. It shows a side of hope that’s hidden away. That only parents with children with significant disabilities can understand. We hide away. But by sharing this truth of hope, I learned that being vulnerable or weak sometimes has a detrimental effect on my child…both from an emotional standpoint and also from the standpoint of receiving services or receiving help. It also sometimes leaves me with a compound disappointment chipping away at my worldview of hope in a world where no one can tell me the outcome of my beautiful boy’s life.
Side B is the very pretty version and it’s the version you might expect to hear. Its even capped off with a prayer. But its inauthentic and frankly on Yom Kippur I couldn’t see standing up here knowing there are possibly families I will be doing a disservice by presenting you with the shiniest, most inauthentic version that I could possibly provide of hope. So thank you, Rabbi for giving me the opportunity to come and share my story. To spend months studying and contemplating hope in a way that I didn’t anticipate. Hope is not optimism. It is not about expectation. I have realistic expectation for my child.
It is definitely not the thing with feathers.
I came across a quote by the playwright Tony Kushner and he refers to hope as a moral obligation. Through all of this, that made the most sense to me.
Hope just is.
It’s part of our human condition. That quote captures the vulnerability of hope as well.
Just a few days ago I heard an anecdote that captures the best possible way I can describe what its like to sometimes sit in the shame of feeling hopeless for a perfect child living in a very imperfect world with a very scary and nebulous future. *It’s the story a man told about his grandfather’s wife dying. After 65 years, she was his lifelong partner and his driver and he wasn’t sure what state he was going to find his grandfather in the first time he saw him after she died.
So he walks in and says, “Hi Grandpa—how are you? How are you doing?” And his grandfather says “Did you know that for $4 I can take a shuttle to anywhere in the city?”
The grandson says, “That’s great grandpa.”
And the grandfather says, “So, went to the grocery store the other day with a list and I went to the lady at the counter and I said ‘Can you please help me with this list? You see, my wife just relocated and her new address is heaven.’”
The grandson sits back and laughs and says, “Grandpa, you always help me see the glass as half full.”
The grandfather sits back, looks at the grandson and says, “No….its a beautiful glass.”
So, my moral obligation today was not to make you think that those of us who have children not following the path of expectation are hopeless. And it was also not to come up here and make you believe we are full of hope. Because it lies somewhere in the middle. If you are a person who sometimes struggles with hope…please know you are not alone. Thank you.
On this Kol Nidre, if you observe, may you reflect on what hope means to you in a finite and fragile world also full of love and optimism and come out the other side recognizing the glass.
*an excerpt from the film HUMAN by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (2015)
Edited and rewritten from 9/2016
Halloween is right around the corner…here’s some of my top tips and tricks to make Halloween fun and to hand off to any of the indignant PTO moms who have forgotten that ALL kids want to have a good time…..
Though Halloween parties have turned into “Harvest Parties” at school, the anticipation and sentiment of Halloween is still timeless. As a parent I find myself still caught up in Halloween and creating spooky Pinterest fails and contemplating what candy I can pilfer from my child’s treat bag without him noticing. Some costumes are so realistically scary that I am not certain that my red meat consumption hasn’t finally caught up with me and am opening my door to the actual Grim Reaper himself. There is a revolving door of Elsas and Ninja Turtles who could just very likely just be the same child over and over again capitalizing on those homes who everyone knows passes out full sized candy bars.
A couple of years ago I was coordinating a party for my child’s 4th grade classroom. 20% of that classroom had food allergies. I gently reminded parents that the goal…
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One night as I was plugging in my son’s iPad, I noticed he got a text. Many parents lose sleep over whether or not to invade their preadolescent’s privacy by looking at personal messages, but not me. My child at 11 years old is completely illiterate and he had never gotten a text before. I glanced around as if nervously waiting to get busted for reading it, but the truth was my stomach was in butterflies out of joy and excitement.
Hi A2. This is Ryder
Are you in bed?????
If you aren’t what time do you go to bed???
Maybe I have been wrong! Maybe school has been helping him truly cultivate and explore friendships after all! Real ones! A2’s class picture was on the refrigerator and I ran to it to ask him which one was Ryder. I recognized several of the boys in his class but didn’t know anyone named Ryder. Unfortunately, my son has a severe language disorder called Childhood Apraxia of Speech in addition to Autism so I had no way of knowing for certain which one Ryder was because A2 enthusiastically would answer “yeh!” to every child I pointed to including the girls. Could he be a child from the resource room? I could not know that either because the school will not tell me the names of any of the children in that room due to “privacy”. The kids he spends the majority of the day with. The kids who also probably never get or send texts or receive invites to play. The kids, like A2 who can’t just ask each other and then come home and tell their moms.
My husband and I were feeling almost hypervigilant over where we would know this child from since the phone number’s area code was from a city we used to live in many years ago. A2’s real name is an unusual one, so clearly this is meant for him. How did he get A2’s number since A2 doesn’t even know it? Does this child comprehend that A2 can’t read? Could this be an adult? A teacher? A predator? My joy was quickly turning to irrationality as my husband texted back to give this Ryder person a piece of our mind!
As it turns out…..Ryder was trying to get in touch with A2. Just not MY A2. Ryder was in 6th grade and had just moved from the area code on the message to our area code and had met a new friend at his new school (not ours) that day, exchanged numbers and did what every 12 year old does when making new friends. A2 was contacted by a ghost. An illusion of a promise of the world to come.
The coincidence lacked the sparkle of serendipity and sent a gut punch that made the butterflies swirling in my tummy fly out of my mouth and away into the sky out of reach. One three lined text of 19 words, 57 characters, 6 question marks and 2 happy face emojis sent me into a 10 minute emotional tailspin ending in a disappointment. While my reaction may seem dramatic and my sweet boy was oblivious, man alive, I know he would have LOVED for that text to be his if he knew. You see, that would mean someone wanted to tell him that they got a new skin in Minecraft, or ask him if he wanted to ride bikes to the park or see if he’s allowed to see that Jason Bourne movie. It would mean that someone might be sneaking him a You Tube video he isn’t allowed to watch at home or asking him if he thought the new girl was cute. It would mean that someone was thinking of him right at that very moment. It would mean he had value to people other than me and his dad. It would mean he was growing up.
Before this whole parent thing came along and made me loopy with worry, I used to help families move their loved ones into nursing homes. One particular instance, I helped take inventory of a man’s belongings and I asked him to give me his wallet so I could start a resident account for him to keep his $10 bill safe. He refused and his wife asked to speak privately with me in the hall. “I know he has no need for money here, but is there any way you can make an exception to let him keep it with him?”. I’m certain I did not handle the situation with sensitivity or understanding because she replied, ” We were never wealthy people but he was proud of the fact he always put food on the table or could hand his sons money when they needed something. That money in his pocket makes him feel like a man. And that, child, is all he has left to feel like one.”. I let him keep the money and have contemplated since then what the last material thing I would hold on to would be and why. I just didn’t realize that it would come earlier in life and be a random text message that was not meant for my child.
These things. These little things that give us a perceived sense of value–that we anchor to other things and make them into something more. Ultimately, the text itself was probably meaningless to A2. He however does very much care about all those things that receiving a text implies. Having a way to communicate with the world makes you a part of it and having a rolling digital scroll of blue and white messages are like the receipt to prove it nowadays. My friend’s daughter left her phone at home while she was at overnight camp and powered up when she returned home to 1022 unread text messages. I never did ask if she read them all. I do know that A2 will never experience the betrayal that can come with adolescent friendships and are exacerbated by text messages. No girlfriend break up text. No secret texts between friends who are standing right there with him, exploiting his trust. No anxiety over the three dots or “read” receipt. No. None of that. While I am disappointed that Ryder misdialed and reached out to the wrong A2, just for a moment I thought about grounding A2 from his device because he knows he shouldn’t be texting so late.
About a week or so before I turned 32 I realized exactly how selfish I was and just how little impact I had but at the time I kept that to myself. For many years I thought it possible I could one day be a leader. However, my cherubic cheeks, diminutive size, my damaged ego strength and my faulty frontal lobe betrayed me every single time. I was a cartoon character. An adult who looked and seemed like a child in every way. Even while playing grown up in my power suits and single karat ring, the truth was I worked in management in state funded nursing facilities selling hopes of a dignified death to desperate families. And they believed me because there was a level I understood vulnerability and how to soothe it as only a broken lady-child can.
On this particular September morning I whipped into the parking lot of the Skatetown roller rink just like I did every morning at about 8:45am. It gave me just enough time to put my mascara on in my rear view mirror and dash across the street to the nursing home to get to my daily 9:00am. As I dabbed the black goo onto my lower lashes, Bob and Tom or Frank and Steve or whoever the goofy morning team people were on that local station, broke in to Foo Fighters to let everyone know that some bone head flew their plane too low to clear one of the Twin Towers in Manahattan and crashed right into it. I shook my head and sighed as I twisted the brush back into its cocoon of gel and wondered if ANY adults knew what they were doing. It was a beautiful day in the Midwest, though I am biased to any September day regardless of the conditions. There is something about the promise of autumn as the slow and beautiful evolution into winter that is tangible visually, by smell, by temperature–such a visceral descent on all the senses toward the bleak and desolate blanket of cold and slush. Or perhaps I just appreciate when all good things must come to an end. As the radio duo blathered on, my assumption was that the plane was a small, single engine private jet that clipped the side of the building because the pilot couldn’t find a Starbucks before takeoff. It was worth being late to my meeting to see how this one was going to turn out, so I pulled out my makeup bag to put on the rest of my face.
At just after 9:00am, as I was thinking about cutting the engine and knocking on one of the 1st floor doors of the nursing home to get in, one of the DJs interrupted the other and there was an awkward silence for just a moment…just long enough that it caught my attention and I did not turn off my engine. “Another plane just hit the 2nd tower. I don’t understand what’s happening.” And neither did I. And neither did the rest of America. I sat in my car and for the next 20 minutes listened intently to verbal chaos. Once I realized no one knew anything, I dashed inside to the tail end of a the daily meeting I typically took over and attempted to lead out of frustration for lack of accountability.
“Did you guys hear about the Twin Towers?” I asked breathlessly setting my purse on the table in front of me. Of course, they hadn’t. They were mostly grown ups and had been at work since 8:30am, like I should have been. “Some sort of accident. It’s probably satellite or something messing with air traffic control.” I of course had no idea, but I was credible enough that people were concerned. I was in-the-know and NOW we have a meeting.
I walked back through the day room where there were two TVs on different stations but both were playing the same footage over and over. There was no single engine private plane losing the edge of a wing. There was a commercial jet filled with people-regular people, that tore into the middle of the North Tower and immediately turned to smoke. People on a Tuesday morning, many of which who were also on their way to their next morning meeting. Though there was still no explanation, if you stood long enough to watch all 17 minutes of footage there were certain things you knew you could probably rule out.
“Becky….Becky…can you turn this crap off and put on my shows?” Poor Pearl. She said my name with such certainty and yet my name is not Becky and there were no shows to put on this morning. My heart leaped and sank at the same time as Pearl’s spindly fingers wrapped around my hand. Her wedding bands spun lopsided on her thin ring finger and the diamond dug into my palm. She would never contemplate what just happened and likely 10 minutes from now would not even remember sitting and watching the thousands of sacrificed souls who would forever change history in our country. I wondered if this is what dementia must be like. I stood there watching this tragedy unfold in footage so telling, so horrifying that even after it was over, it wasn’t over as the smoke poured out of each building as if they were chimneys. Papers and ashes fluttered and floated to the ground like the first snow while bodies surreal while airborne sank as if tied to anchors at the bottom of the sea. Footage of chaotic and confused armies of identical living dead covered in head to toe gray soot were wandering trying to find a foxhole that did not exist. Camera crews live filmed authoritative sounding officers standing in the lobby and strategizing their plan. Community servants looking for leadership while nodding heads, axes raised and probably breathing the same sigh of hope I was that there were people who knew what they were doing and there would be an end of the day soon. But then came the first BANG-loud enough that it was audible on the crappy 20 inch TV. The workers stopped talking and looked around. And then there it was again BANG. And again. I remember none of them moved or spoke a word but they looked to each other silently, uncomfortably. It was that pause that made me know exactly what was falling to the ground over and over outside of those lobby windows. They went back to talking about how to safely evacuate the higher floors with less authority and I was overcome with that same stillness. And just when I had reconciled the first image of the planes crashing and exploding as the least shocking, it was shown again. Those of us who were not afflicted with dementia or a failing memory felt like we were seeing it again for the first time because now it couldn’t be confused with a bad action film that needed to be changed over to the Price is Right. Now we had an idea of what came after as those recordings from ground zero became reality and unfurled into the collapse of the towers rather than a cut to the harried phone dispatcher who is also try to keep concerned citizens out of the red faced fire chief’s office.
And then life went on. I had a meeting the very next day with a former employer who wanted to me to come back to them and were willing to let me set my own schedule and pay my tuition for graduate school which started the following week. I spoke nothing of 9/11 again. An old colleague was sitting at her desk and I waved to her smiling and telling her of my soon to be new-old life and how I looked forward to seeing her regularly soon. She and her husband were important political figures in my city and I can only imagine what went through her mind as I bounced away seemingly oblivious to our hearts in our throats. I didn’t even ask about her son who lived right across the Hudson River. But see…that was the thing. I thought no one knew how to act because I didn’t. It still was far enough away that we could all go on like normalish. I was politically aware enough to know other parts of the world were much more quietly dealing with genocides and bombings and terror every single day. To assume that American lives are so virtuous and valuable as a price above rubies as compared to the rest of the world made me feel conflicted and I wasn’t sure what to do with that even though no one was comparing. I was newly married, had a new job on the horizon and was two years out from a new future and I didn’t want to think about what it meant to have an invisible enemy who could turn my vacation flight into an act of war. And that is what I told myself. And then life went on. And eventually it did for everyone else too. Life wondering exactly how a loved one died or if maybe they would show up some day. Life fearful of invisible people who ‘hate freedom’ and creating terrorists out of neighbors and seatmates in our minds. Life of conspiracy theories about government far beyond just the tinfoil hat people. Life of knowing just how good people can be to one another. Life of knowing just how horrible people can be to one another. And life went on.