Tonight I went to my oldest son’s holiday performance at the school he attends. The bleachers were pulled out and folding chairs were lined up and down the fading, scuffed gym court. There were performance by violinists, a jazz band, a choir and a singing group. All the oldies and goodies and some old songs with a new twist. I arrived with Sean in tow, my husband travelling for business and no kid sitter available.
Sean was antsy from the start. He needed to go to the bathroom but wouldn’t because the school was too crowded. He pulled and yelled at me and I tried to manage him in an ocean of unfamiliar faces. My nerves buzzed like angry wasps circling a nest and I felt myself perspire under my arms and on my neck. I wrestled him into the gym and found a spot on the bleachers next to the exit. I took off his jacket and put on his headphones to help muffle out some of the noise of the crowd settling into the gym. I could feel the sting of tears burn in the backs of my eye sockets, swallowing hard and trying to breathe my way around the curb of pain that parked in my throat.
He stood up suddenly with his arms opened and said my neighbor’s name softly. I saw her walk up and hug him, his body softening and the edginess fading. He told her he wanted to hop and she asked if it would it be okay to take him for a little walk. I said of course and quickly handed Sean off to her realizing that what she offered to do was quite a favor considering Sean’s uneasiness with the crowd and the difficulties that come with managing an autistic child in a nightmarish situation.
As they left I thought, “What am I thinking? Why did I just pawn Sean off on her like that? That wasn’t very nice of me to do that.”
She came to watch her daughter but instead she was throwing a line into the swell that had gathered around me and she kept me from drowning. A few minutes later she came back with Sean, his hands wrapped in hers and all of his tenderness leaning into her. He was so thrilled to see her there (and so was I).
Shortly after, one of my very closest friends walked up and Sean hugged her too. Another remarkable soul telling me that she could take my oldest home (completely out of her way) if it was too much for Sean. I felt the stress slowly lift with the steaminess of the gym air and felt my heart rate slow down to a more reasonable pace – thankful for the comfort of friends.
We watched the kids sing and dance and I thought how fun it was for my oldest and then I became a bit sad for Sean realizing that he wouldn’t have the same experience. Without the kindness and regulation of my neighbor’s arms around Sean I don’t think he would have even stayed to watch. She kept him in his skin and allowed me to see my oldest perform. I watched Sean watch the older kids, his red hair ruffled by his headphones, his cheeks ruddy and his eyes clear and polished. And I did feel a pinch in my heart - -another rite of passage that he most likely wouldn’t take part in – the idea of a crowd of such size in a packed gymnasium with drums and trumpets and sweetly high-pitched adolescent voices – the stimuli too great for my youngest to ever endure. He would most likely never be a boy in black slacks and a matching shirt swaying and singing with all his heart on a stage with friends. This is one of those moments that I probably took for granted when having children and the reality of the difficulties that my son will face throughout his lifetime leaves me at a loss for any useful words.
He lasted the whole hour and some minutes, much thanks to my neighbor who held him closely and rubbed his back. He was excited to see her daughter who gave him a high five and a warm smile. I couldn’t help think how five years ago, when we moved next to this family, I had no idea how much their friendship and support would mean to us – how much we would come to rely on the goodness of their hearts.
And I am reminded of my dear friend who gave Sean a hug and me a “get out of Jail” free card; who four years ago came up to me after Sean kicked me and yelled at me in front of a crowd at my oldest son’s soccer game and put her arm around me and just walked with me while I cried out of embarrassment and shame. I had only met her once before when our boys got together to play. She rose from a crowd of people that didn’t quite know what to make of the scene unfolding near the swings and with such tender compassion and courage saved me from public heartbreak and gave me a soft place to hang my head and cry.
I am amazed at how the people that mean the most to me in my life are people that I have connected with through Sean. That somehow he is my beacon, a sweeping light in a sea of darkness bringing into focus all the details of survival and constantly reminding me that all we really have in the end is each other and our innate ability to help when we see panicked arms hit the air. That without this little boy in my life I might not know such truth and beauty and strength in people and what a privilege that truly is.
As a teacher reminded me in class the other day -- stars are out all day long but it takes darkness to actually see them. That we are able to see the moon so well in the winter because the trees have lost their shaggy coats and offer up more space between their naked arms. And that without Sean and the chaos that often comes with his disability, I wouldn’t recognize such incredible peace and deep friendship so readily. He is a blessing. I have to remind myself of that, particularly during the dark days, he is a blessing, a torpedo of silver lighting up even the gloomiest night.
2 years ago