A Meditation, on Noah’s 12th Birthday

I woke early and put a pot of oatmeal on the stove to cook. Noah is recovering from strep, and now so am I, so we need something to eat that will be gentle on our sore throats.

I didn’t hear Noah get out of bed while I prepared breakfast. Didn’t know he was awake. Usually he cries out, wanting early morning attention, wanting help to get his iPad turned on, cold because he’s kicked his blankets off again. Instead, when I returned to the bedroom, his covers were pushed back and his space–which is exactly how “where your child once was” always feels, spacious, bereft–was empty. I had a flash as all parents do. Where is he? Where has he gone? Is he lost? Will he ever come back? Some parents feel it in the mall. Some when they have lost sight of their child in the backyard. Because Noah is never without me, my husband, or his respite sitter, I have yet to work on the muscle that all parents must strengthen: let your child off the leash of your attention; let them go out into the world without your eyes on their backs. But still, a moment out of sight has my heart jumping.

Independence is why we moved to this new house. In our old house, Noah would have awoken upstairs while I was downstairs in the kitchen. To join me, he would have had to navigate steep wooden stairs, and over the years, our caution, or warnings–“Noah, wait for me. Noah, sit down at the top of the stairs and bump down on your butt.”–had taken root and he rarely descended on his own. But this house is one story, and he occasionally will, as we’d hoped, move about the space more freely. Still, when I can’t see him, I get a jolt. Is he somewhere he could hurt himself? Is there something he could hurt himself with? Noah’s world is rife with hard surfaces and sharp edges.

I found Noah in the livingroom, sitting among his birthday presents that he opened piece by piece over the weekend. Diagnosed with strep throat on the actual celebration day, he’d had no interest in presents. And if you are one of the few people to know Noah well, you know that he loves nothing more than opening a wrapped gift. He doesn’t much care what’s in the present; he just wants to experience, I think, the mystery. What is it? Can I open it? Noah’s extended family knows to wrap a lot of gifts at Christmas. Socks. Matchbox cars. Books. Snacks. And still he’ll move on to yours. He’ll open them all, everyone’s, if he’s given the chance. Handing the opened gift to the owner holds its own revered place in the ritual too. But ultimately it is the wrapped that becomes the unwrapped that thrills him.

But this morning, his attention was pulled by the mass of 10 x 10 colorful, interlocking floor tiles we ordered and wrapped, a practical gift to be used as a mat for his playroom downstairs, to soften and warm the cold tiles of the refinished basement, to guard against risk. I stood in the doorway and watched him for a moment. Took a picture of Noah with a tile in each hand. Took a moment to feel what it must feel like to have your child play on his own; it’s a rare experience for me. To have quiet. To watch him use his body and brain to progress a concept, even if that concept is stacking floor tiles, which is what his goal seemed to be.

Noah’s need for help, for a companion, for interaction, is often a burden, one I’m certain me and my insufficient character have inflicted upon him. I’m not tough enough to force him to figure problems out on his own. I wasn’t tough enough in the face of one special needs child to have a second child, provide him with a brother or sister who would have not only been his sibling, but also his model. Sometimes Noah behaves like a dog, because the dog is sometimes his most ready mentor. When I indulge in the idyllic, I wonder how much more capable Noah would be if I’d been more brave. When I indulge in self-abuse (maybe the same thing?), I wonder why I couldn’t have found a way to be less selfish.

I’ve developed the skill over the past twelve years not to deal in the “what ifs” around Noah’s birth that circle with abandon like seagulls after a street fair. What if I had chosen to have children earlier, before my 30s? What if I hadn’t rushed back into the pursuit of pregnancy after my miscarriage, waited the recommended length of time for my hormones to reset? What if I hadn’t drunk the wine on my 33rd birthday before I knew I was pregnant again, because for some reason I’d thought it unlikely I’d get pregnant again so quickly during that time of hormonal flux. What if I’d simply decided children were not for me, and the seductive tick of my biological clock and the desire and responsibility I’d felt to make my husband a father hadn’t swayed me. Still, the “what if” of having had more children still haunts me. In this way, I know I have done life wrong. And I know I have done wrong by Noah.

Noah has made two piles of floor tiles. I suggest he might want to make more piles, sort by color. There are some days when he is up for the challenge of matching like items. I know he can do it at school as that is a kudos he receives regularly. But not today. He has tried to link one set of tiles, like puzzle pieces, but it’s too hard for him to align the tabs. He’s complicating his play in a way that would be considered dead simple by any child over the age of one: he’s crossed the room to collect more tiles to bring them over to those he has already stacked. It seems ridiculous that I’m proud he’s decided to extend his play in this way, that this is evidence that he identifies that there are more tiles to be had, that the room is big and even if he can’t see the extra tiles in front of him, he knows they are there. But it also seems like a sound observation. I am my own Jane Goodall, and I am neutral in my assessment of this rare being interacting with objects.

Noah’s world is small, his environment contained. Years of therapy have done little to expand his instincts with regard to space and possibility. There are a million small instances that I observed when he was very young that added up, like Tetris on its slowest speed, to my understanding of his natural limits. We dangled toys from the arching handle of his car seat, but he never reached out to touch them. He heard airplanes, but even if I got him to tip his head up toward the sky, he had no way of understanding where and what he was looking for. If someone calls his name, even someone he loves, who excites him, he smiles to himself rather than reacts. Some people process this as a lack of social skill; but we know his challenges are more nuanced than that. When he looks up, or to the side, his eyes twitch, a condition called nystagmus, and security and stability, comes from staying focused on what is right in front of him. When he stretches out his arm, he doesn’t seem to know where it is in space. And so, it becomes all of our responsibility to be the mountain that comes to Mohammad, and as I said above, that can be a burden when the mountain has shit to do.

It’s likely true for all children born in the early ’00s, but documenting Noah’s childhood rather rapidly changed from us pasting pictures in a baby book, to recording hand-held videos of him eating his first foods, interacting with his dogs, taking his first steps, and storing those little cassettes in a desk drawer to someday transfer onto DVDs, to movies and pictures accumulating on iPhones, ScanDisks, and out there in the cloud. It feels somehow more dismissive in Noah’s case. His progress is so slow that we’ve run out of accomplishments to document. He is twelve years old and has spent a half hour this morning stacking foam mat tiles, and I am pleased and find it a moment worthy of documentation.

I am pleased enough that I have edged into the room, seated myself on the couch with a coffee, and started to record this play session. I think to myself, if I posted this video on Facebook, it would be the most boring any of my friends could sit though if they committed themselves to it. And what would I type in the status update? “Say something about this video” the app instructs. Do I write that this video portrays Noah as he really is? That I have captured what it is like to raise a child whose progress is 13 minutes of self-motivated play regardless of what that play is? That this is as much progress as we’ve achieved in 12 years? That these moments of quiet meditation are more about me and less about him, about how I’ve fought to find an emotional equanimity that allows me to see and feel and know, but not see and feel and know too much. My practice has led me to identifying and stepping back from the edge.

Last weekend, I played in a tennis tournament, and doing so always requires me to perform some cursory small talk with my opponent before each match. And because these are women about my same age, 35-45ish, the usual topics are work and children. What do you do? Oh, that sounds interesting. Do you have kids? Yes, one son. Only one? Yes. (Some people make a sigh of regret here, which I always think is a bit presumptuous.) How old is he? Twelve. Oh, that’s a great age, does he play tennis too? No, he’s not really very coordinated. So he’s more of a video game kid? Well, he does like his movies, and he has his favorite shows. Then, does he play an instrument? No, he likes music, but is more into listening.

I prevaricate not so much any more because I’m afraid to talk about my son, afraid of the emotions that would well up unbidden, though that certainly was the case for a long time. I hedge my answers now because I hate to disappoint people. I hate to be the person who brings that into the conversation. And by that, I mean…whatever having a special needs kid might mean to that person. Maybe fear. Maybe even horror. Maybe judgment. Likely discomfort. Likely some embarrassment. Likely some sympathy. Definitely some awkwardness. Rare has been the occurrence of someone having a like story, an “I’ve been there” look to share with me. And so I deflect. Ask them about their kids, and in an about-face of my usual narcissism, I listen and ask questions. That is good practice too.

In my second tennis match of the day, my opponent told me about her two daughters, eleven and thirteen. The eldest is laid back and cool. The youngest is a drama-queen who obsesses about over-performing. She says the younger auditioned for a part in the school play and never got a callback, so spent the weekend lamenting, anguished, with her mother doing dancing-bear antics to try get her to look at the situation from a different angle. Maybe she did so well that she didn’t need to perform a second audition! (Which turned out to be true.)

While tamping down the voice in my head that wants to goad me into feeling sorry for myself because Noah will never, as I did, audition for a play, I told her I completely understood what her daughter was going through. I too was a lamenter, prone to wallow in how I understood reality, rather than choose to believe there were many more plausible scenarios than the most self-punishing and unfair one I’d settled upon, and that didn’t really change until I got much older. She asked me how I’d gotten over it. And I answered truthfully: I had children. I said, nothing teaches you that you can’t control everything more than having children. And she seemed to agree. I didn’t add that nothing teaches you that you can’t control everything more than having a special needs child.

Every parent builds, even unconsciously from a very young age, a whole infrastructure of exceptions and desires around what kind of parent he or she will be, and what kind of child he or she will raise. Even if your goal is to be the antithesis of a helicopter parent, that too is a preconceived goal. My son received a Future President onesie when he was a baby, and I happily dressed him in it. My enjoyment in seeing him wear such bravado wasn’t because I dreamed he’d someday be President, but because it felt like a symbol of his limitless potential. But that whole dreamscape that gets built over years of watching idyllic family-based sit-coms, judging your friends as they have children and raise them differently that you believe you would, worrying before you even give birth over Montessori versus traditional early education programs, and the like, forgets one thing: the child. With Noah, the only thing I can control is how well I parent him. And, at the risk of sounding the world-wearily know-it-all, that’s true for any parent, or, I believe, should be.

I’ve now recorded 13 minutes of Noah stacking floor tiles. He’s gathered them all from the furthest reaches of our living room. I’ve recorded his progress largely because it is progress, from the formation of a desire to the attainment: stack all the floor tiles into two somewhat uniform stacks. (I won’t know until a minute later that the end goal was to pick the piles up and hurtle himself and them across the room.) My son is 12 this year, and with practice I’ve learned not to hate myself, fate, a world full of expectations, or even him, like some everlasting duck-duck-goose blame game, and to sit comfortably with a reality I would never have chosen for either of us. I have this story to tell, and so I do.

I won’t tell you I’ve achieved a state of peace. I still wish we as humans didn’t celebrate birthdays at all, because then I wouldn’t have to confront what having a 12 year old with the skills of a 1-5 year old means. And I won’t tell you that fear of the future doesn’t haunt me to a degree that still occasionally dips its toe into mental instability. But I will ask you, should I ever upload the video, to watch for the full 13 minutes. To have the patience to wait it out. (Even if it’s to catch a glimpse of a black and white beasty roar-yawn his way past the screen in search of a dog treat when he hears my husband rustling in the kitchen.) Sit, and watch, and see what I get to see.

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