Examinations

 

(Revised)

 

I

The floors of the examination rooms at the Mayo Clinic were always cold. I kept my socks on until the very last moment. I stayed in the changing cubicle, behind the pale, printed curtain, soft and faded like a child’s favorite blanket that kept the dressing area cordoned off from the rest of the room, until the very last moment too.  Though that meant waiting until everyone had arrived and then pulling back the curtain to reveal my appearance with a screech and clatter as the metal rings scraped along the metal rod. Before advancing into the room, I had to stop and strip off my socks, my bare feet on the cold floor forming a memory that would last a lifetime. My mother and father sat on minimal metal and plastic chairs flush against one wall.  Lined up along the window across from them was the phalanx of doctors who would be examining me.

During the years I did not have surgery, I saw Dr. Peterson twice a year in an examination room on the 16th floor of the Mayo Clinic. During the years I did have surgery, I was there more often. He was the only recurring character during these nightmarish visits (except for the pale nurse who sat at the reception desk and looked like a model with her straight blond hair parted down the center.) An orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Peterson was, I knew, well-regarded, but I didn’t know at the time by whom or for what. All I knew was that ever since I could remember, my parents and I, and sometimes my brother before he was old enough to stay home alone, traveled ninety-minutes to Rochester from our farm near Austin to see him, specifically. To take my mind off the appointment, my parents challenged me to find as many different state license plates as I could in the parking ramp outside the clinic. I suppose it was a small comfort to know someone from Wyoming or New Hampshire had come all the way to Minnesota for help from a doctor like mine.

Mayo was exotic—I remember seeing a family in Indian dress and men in turbans and young girls in Mennonite prairie dresses and aprons for the first time there—and thus terrifying. Why was there something so wrong with me to warrant being a patient at such a place, a place to which people flew over oceans? But Dr. Peterson, everyone seemed confident, was the man for the job, the only doctor in the country, I believed then, who knew how to lengthen legs.

But with Dr. Peterson came that cadre of blue-clad interns and suit-wearing academics who stood behind my famous surgeon with the brown wing-tip shoes and half-moon glasses as he examined me from his perch on a rolling stool, all of them bent forward like vultures peering down on prey.  Each visit I would be introduced to the extra people who followed him into the room, but since I never saw any of them again, and none of them ever spoke directly to me beyond the initial greeting, I never bothered to identify them as people in so much as interlopers to this private exhibit that featured me as the main attraction.

Each exam was the same. I would exit the cubicle, my clothes folded on the wood-grain bench behind me, socks stacked on top, and walk out toward the adults in the room while wearing nothing but a hospital gown with two ties, one behind my neck, the other at my mid-back, and my own underwear. Presenting myself in the middle of the room, I silently waited for instruction. It seemed wrong to proceed without being told what to do, though my next moves were as well known to me as practiced as a dancer’s choreography.

Standing in front of Dr. Peterson, he would take my shoulders and turn me away from him. Then he would open the tie at the middle of my back, take both sides of the gown and drop them off my shoulders, letting it hang down in front of me like a column of cloth so most of my body was bare. I would stand stock-still, unable to move, like Lot’s wife after she looked. Not just because I was nearly naked in front of a group of strangers, but also because allowing this examination, standing still and being studied like some insect pinned to a display board, filled me with a paralyzing anxiety that flooded through my body like ice water and made me near unresponsive. Never did it feel like this was a normal sequence in the life of a normal kid, no matter my age: undress, be instructed, be examined, submit.

All the fight had been drained out of me already in the crying and pleading arguments I had with my unwavering parents that began the day my mother reminded me of the appointment, escalated the night before, and continued through the glass doors of Mayo’s main entrance, its rotating doors sucking me in like a vacuum, summoning me against my will. I did not want to do this, come to this place, and I wanted to be heard.

But I also wanted my parents to say I didn’t have to go. But they never did. Instead, they made bargains. If I just calmed down, we would stop at Perkins for onion rings and a Pepsi, or maybe Long John Silvers. (Austin only had a McDonalds.) They bought me word find and invisible ink puzzle books from the gift shop. Regardless, by then, I had exhausted my resources and could do nothing more than behave.

 

When Dr. Peterson said, walk across the room, I did. Turn and walk back, he’d say, and I would. Stop there, and he would roll closer to me, place his hands on my hips, push and knead, then rotate me and repeat, while I stood with a kind of anxious static in my ears, drowning out thoughts. As I got older and heavier, the fear turned into humiliation, bitter like salt, filling me up with solidifying tears.

Turn and bend at the waist, he would say. And I turned, and bent, and felt every pair of eyes in the room studying my bare back, my cotton-covered hips, my bare legs. Sometimes he took the waistband of my underwear and rolled it under to expose more of my back, looking for the telltale curve of scoliosis. The rest of the exam was performed on the table. I was measured, stretched, compared. The x-rays taken earlier in the day were hung on lighted screens: there I was. My bones, the shadow of my bulk, the unevenness in my legs. There I was, more real than I was in my own live body, and I wanted to own none of me.

I was rarely spoken to. Throughout the examination there was murmuring, but I was the topic of conversation. Dr. Peterson led the discussion, and each member of the group took turns describing his (and rarely her) observations, would utter short fragments of knowledge with conviction, and sometimes offer me a faint close-mouthed smile. But all I heard, as I stood there, sat there, walked there, bent there, laid there, was one word said repeatedly, discrepancy.

Discrepancy. I heard that term used to describe my body year after year, visit after visit. My left leg, as a result of a bone infection before I was born, did not grow as quickly as my right. Everything about my left side from the hip down was smaller, shorter: discrepant. A factual word, not meant as an insult by any of those who uttered it in my vicinity, describing my leg, not me. But when I heard it time and time again, the word clearly indicated I was faulty, inadequate, abnormal.

 

Dr. Peterson performed two complicated surgeries on my legs. The first—so rare that another girl who had the same surgery done appeared on the TV show, That’s Incredible!—was done when I was in third grade and I spent five weeks in the hospital, missing friends as well as missing all the lessons on how to do long division. A foot-long metal apparatus was attached parallel to my leg via four screws that punctured my skin and were anchored to my femur bone, which had been cut in half at the middle. At the end of the apparatus was a dial.

Each day, Dr. Peterson arrived at my hospital room during rounds and turned the dial the barest of millimeters because more would cause too much strain on my muscles and skin. Millimeter by millimeter, for five weeks, my left leg was stretched until my legs were of equal length. Then a measure of hip bone was inserted into the made gap, a strip of metal attached to secure the pieces together, and finally, a body cast molded over me from my toes to around my ribcage to keep me immobile through my tenth summer.

For many days, blood and fluid seeped out of the holes in my skin made by the protruding screws, dampening the absorbent blue sheets the nurses lay underneath me on the bed. When they were soaked and finally removed, they smelled like raw hamburger. Sometimes there was too much fluid and it was suctioned out. Any place they inserted an IV quickly got painful, so it was moved around my hands so often they appeared to have chicken pox due to the scabs. I bathed out of a pan, and peed into a different one. I was checked for bedsores.

When I was released, I wore a body cast from ribcage to the toes on my left foot. I was good at using my crutches and raced my classmates along the school hallways. When the cast was removed, my leg had shriveled, but the lengths of my legs were close to even. I got to wear sandals and tennis shoes. I didn’t suddenly improve at kickball and still ended up near the end of the line in gym class, but I was rid of the awkward, clompy gait that elicited stares as I shopped at the mall. But it didn’t last long, because, again, as I grew, my left leg again lagged behind.  At seventeen, once my body had completed most of its growth, the second surgery was done. Dr. Peterson spoke of medical progress, said they’d long since moved past that slow dial-turning surgery I’d had the first time around. This one would have me out of the hospital in three days.

To prepare for that last surgery, a series of pictures were taken of me so the doctors could determine their surgical plan. After so many years of the same surgery preparation, this process was new to me. For these photos, I was to stand, wearing only the bra I had arrived in, and a pair of provided underwear—triangles of crinkly blue paper connected around the hips with bare elastic that I struggled to pull on because I could no longer wear the largest youth size and I was too embarrassed to ask for something larger—and submit to being photographed from every angle.

I stood passively against the white backdrop, horrified at having to expose so much of my discrepant teenage self, as the man stood behind his camera and snapped, snapped, snapped at the captured moth I surely was.  I quickly looked away when these pictures were hung up during my exam, studied by the tidy Dr. Peterson and the half-circle of people standing behind him. These pictures were not in the anonymous black and white of x-rays, where one’s size is just a hint, a shadow, but in two-dimensional color, flooded unflatteringly with fluorescence. Those pictures were more than an examination; they were a record of my flaws.

After the surgery, I was out of the hospital three days later, this time with no casts, just crutches, and puzzle pieces for legs. This time, they had sawed both of my femur bones in half, took one and one-half inches of bone from my right leg and spliced it into my left. A metal rod was inserted from incisions at the top of each of my hips all the way down through the marrow of my bones. I woke from the surgery with an IV conveying morphine into my arm.  The morphine burned when it traveled from needle to vein, and it quickly became difficult to decide whether my leg pain was strong enough to justify the arm pain from a self-administered dose. The next day I found myself in the PT room, encouraged to walk on two broken legs by a physical therapist I fought against, raving, because I couldn’t believe anyone had the right to make me walk on two broken legs.

I was deconstructed again and again in those exam rooms at Mayo Clinic, then physically reconstructed twice over my lifetime, knitted together well enough to resemble someone whole, yet not at all whole.

 

II

I take my son for exams by the specialists at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, where he is undressed, inspected head to toe. The rooms are small, white and well-lit with floor-to-ceiling windows, the light muted by vertical blinds. During this particular visit, a geneticist takes each one of Noah’s fingers and examines the nails, the width of his knuckles, the flexation in his joints, to look for signs of a genetic disorder that might explain his eclectic constellation of symptoms. They judge the distance between his eyes, his hairline, the length of his feet, the feel of his scrotum, the roof of his mouth, the shape of his ears, looking for abnormalities. They find nothing out of the ordinary, no dysmorphic features to point them down a particular genetic path. But that simply makes the mystery of Noah’s seizure disorder and delayed development more perplexing rather than less.

The first six months of Noah’s life had been relatively normal. While he hadn’t been the most mobile baby before birth, and he seemed to have some hyper-reflexes as an infant, only the fact that his eyes never quite aligned as babies’ eyes do soon after birth, gave us any hint of a disorder, a fairly common and fixable one at that. Slowly I came to realize, by watching other babies and watching him, that he was significantly different.

I saw that Noah did not reach up and out to play with the small animals hanging from his car seat handle like other babies did. He couldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time no matter which magic formula we tried; we even set up a video camera to record in the night, hoping for some hint of what was waking him. And he couldn’t hold himself up on his elbows at three months. The photographer at Sears had to stuff his arms underneath him like he was a rag doll for us to get a picture of him looking up into the camera.  You could tell that she knew there was something different about Noah too. I saw these things, all the signs that my good efforts—losing weight, the prenatal vitamins, the weekly doctor’s appointments, giving up sushi and lunch meat—had guaranteed nothing. I had been naïve to think I had earned special treatment from the universe. Unfortunately fate is not a meritocracy.

At the end of his first year, we waited in a different examination room for our first visit to a neurologist, after Noah had had his first three seizures and missed more milestones than he had met. I held my one-year-old son who had no idea, yet, that being examined was anything different from being adored. I was afraid, not only of the news we might hear about our child, but because I could feel a tingle of subordination playing around the edges of my already-frayed strength. I remembered too clearly being a mere scientific conundrum to the doctors who examined me, and I feared being reduced to the frightened child I had been, instead of holding myself together and being the mother I knew I needed to be.

That day I was grateful when the neurologist walked casually into the room, looked my son over head-to-toe, and pronounced, with contagious positivity: “That’s a good-looking kid you’ve got there.” He went on to say that he’d been doing this for twenty-five years and could tell the really severe cases just by looking at the child, so we really shouldn’t worry too much. For some time after that visit, I hoped that Noah would be one of the lucky ones. I needed to hope, so I did, until the seizures took that hope away.

At each visit to each new doctor, we must reconstruct Noah’s life so far. We reveal our family histories, or, because I am adopted, what there is of mine. I tell the story of my pregnancy, of his birth, of his first days. I tell people that my pregnancy and Noah’s birth were uneventful, but it feels like a lie. I shrug when I say it, like it was all no big deal; but to give birth is the biggest deal, regardless of the child.

I am thankful that Noah will not remember all those rapid-fire appointments, one after another—emergency room, doctor, CAT scan, neurologist, EEG, emergency room, allergist, neurologist, MRI, geneticist, orthopedist, and so on—but of course, that will not always be the case. These kinds of visits to specialists will not end, because the question of why Noah is the way Noah is seems unlikely to be answered since we have done every test science can offer us and received no revelatory results. I fear that the older he gets, the more risk there is that he will face the same deconstruction of self that I withstood as doctors visually dissected me during all those years of my own gauntlet-walking. Every day, in the eyes of so many, my son is different, less than, rather than valued as singular, incomparable.

 

Though I am his mother, I am no different than anyone else who looks at Noah and sees “other.” I have been forced—by love but more so by an instinct for sanity—to forgive his flaws in a way that I could never learn to forgive my own. I have made peace with the part of me that was so bitterly disappointed that she would spend her child’s childhood in doctors’ offices because she spent her own in them. I have humbled myself in the face of this great responsibility, come to realize that his life is not about me, only about him. I have learned to ignore the unconscionable inner voice that perseverates over whether this faulty mother simply gave birth to a faulty child.

The burden of parenting Noah is suffocating because there is no shrugging off the tough stuff. Taking Noah to his appointments breaks my heart each time. He cries, repeating, “done, done” with frantic sign language and abbreviated vocalizations, before we’ve even gone through the doors of the clinic. I cajole, and I demand, and sometimes I let the nurses take over despite his plaintive, “Mama? Mama?” because I am at a loss as to how to force my child to do these things he fears. I too want to say, “done,” and spirit him away to some remote cabin in the woods in some other time where there are no constraints, no obligations, no expectations, a fantasy world.

My parents must have felt the same anguish at each of my appointments. What I saw then as their lack of compassion was no doubt resoluteness, knowing that what they were making me do was in my best interest despite my dramatic protestations. The lesson is not lost on me, and if my parents were alive, I would thank them for being just as brave as they needed to be.

It’s been nearly fifteen years since I saw any doctor about my legs. I still have a metal rod in my left femur, and I still have some sensitivity and lack of strength on that side. But I’ve held together this long, and it will take a significant setback to force me back to an orthopedic specialist. The time will come, I imagine, as age creeps up and my bones break down, for me to be examined again. In the meantime, I count my blessings that I can run, I can walk, I can carry my son. In fact, except for some truths revealed by the scars on my legs and a slight limp when I am especially tired, I might even come off as what I so desired as a child: normal.

There is little about Noah that appears normal now. As he has grown, his oddities have become more obvious. As a toddler, he could be carried; there was no wonky gait to expose him as different. Now, when he walks across a room or an aisle in the grocery store, no matter how slowly, he will inevitably run into something that was not actually in his way. Such is ataxia. I hold onto the back of his collar, gently so he barely notices, to guide him when he veers too far off the path.

The doctors don’t bother showing us the results of his EEGS any more. They have told us time and again that the abnormal brain activity doesn’t tell them anything definitive. Unlike my body, my son’s doesn’t offer options for surgical intervention. We medicate, we prevaricate. The specialists offer us a collective shrug.

Noah has all ten fingers and toes, but he cannot use them dexterously.  Putting a train car on a toy track is an exercise in frustration. Scooping food onto a spoon is a hit or miss proposition; getting the food to his mouth the same. He loves to color, but his squiggles are just squiggles to anyone’s eye but his. He can kick a ball, but will most likely fall on the ground with the ball only inches away. He can have a conversation with me through his few words, sounds and gestures, but few others understand his mixed bag of approximations. Noah loves the things normal little boys love: trains, trucks, dogs, swimming, sandpits, books; but, at seven, the version of these things he plays with better suits a three-year-old. At twelve, he is much the same.

It has taken me years to see my son as more than the sum of his discrepancies. When I look at his baby pictures—all of us so innocent that I feel slightly sickened by our naiveté—in photo albums, or hold his arms down tight as his head is wrapped in gauze to hold tight a plethora of electrodes glued to his head so that specialists can examine what happens in his misbehaving brain, or watch him as he runs excitedly, but so awkwardly, across the grass expanse that circles the local playground, knowing he is being stared at by children and parents alike, I struggle to quiet the child in me who still fears being different, who took the blame for the things that made her different from everyone else.

Noah is not the child I imagined I would raise, and oh have I mourned that child—the one not made up of flesh and blood, but made up of expectations. So each day, I perform an examination on my own heart. When I push past the guilt and the blame and the fear, I sometimes locate the strength I built up to survive those surgeries, those stares, the study of my body, and I think I just might have enough to pass some on to my son too.

Hysteria

I lift heavy weights because I can no longer lift my son. I’ve grown stronger over the past year: my quads have a stone-like quality under the skin and fat. I think of myself as an ice cream cake. Hard center, soft exterior. I enjoy the bulge in my bicep. I like to flex and find the crease between bicep and deltoid. But I still cannot lift him. I work at the gym for a month or more and I injure myself. Elbow, wrist, knee, back, and have to pull back my training for awhile until that injured part of my body heals, and then it’s up the hill again. But I still can’t lift N. He is now 75 pounds which is a lot but still little, and yet like the proverbial sack of potatoes, he doesn’t know how to use his own body to help me. I think of figure skating pairs, the man lifts the woman, but it is the woman’s core, the woman’s complimentary tensity, that assists in the lift and lightens the man’s load. N just hangs, an armful of wet towels. There isn’t one moment of hysteria; it’s a slow drip of hand-numbing anxiety: this could be it. No matter how hard I train, how strong I become, I might never be able to lift him again.

And again I can see her on the distant shore, the maybe other me who might decide not to feed her son in order to keep him small, in order to deny him a growing body because his mind does not keep apace. She thinks of him as a baby, she thinks of him as a toddler, she thinks of him even last year when he was eleven, when she could still lift him. No, that’s not right: she wishes for him to be again eleven. That was when it was still ok for him to go and play on the playground, because he was small. He is small for his age, but it is only a matter of time until he is taller, thicker than she is, stronger, and she fears that’s when the hyena she hides will burst from behind her hyoid and devour all hope. She is certain that when he is 14 and 17 and 22, he will still want to play on the playground, climb into a shopping cart: it makes her sick with the keen desire to keep him small. For there to be symbiosis between his mind and his body. She is a mother who might do whatever it takes to stop time.

So instead I try to grow. The longer I can lift him, the longer he can stay little and there is still a chance I will not need to become her.

Void

It is dinnertime and we have just arrived home from the grocery store. While M empties the grocery bags and I prepare the chicken, N is occupying himself by opening and closing the storage drawer beneath the oven. When we hear a thump, we both look down and he is lying prone on his back like a turtle flipped on its shell. This happens occasionally. When he just loses control of himself and falls backward. He still isn’t always good at sitting even though he’s 2. But he usually cries or laughs, depending on how hard he bumped his head. He’s regrettably used to pain. This time, he is just lying there, stiff, and his eyes are rolled up half under his lids. It is a seizure again, out of nowhere, here when we were doing normal so well. We move N to the living room couch, his head tipped to the right side as it does, a sign perhaps of where the storm brews in his brain. His limbs jerk and his throat throbs with work and foam collects on his lips. Mark sings. I kneel down beside him and kiss his cheek. Wipe his mouth. Watch for breath. This time, his lips are not turning blue. At five minutes, we medicate him. It’s what we’ve been told to do. We do what we’re told. We wait for the sedative to break the seizure’s spell. Don’t think, I tell myself. Don’t you dare feel a thing.

Bent

The kitchen chairs–red vinyl seats and back, chrome metal base, like an S without a top–had become a hazard. The angled metal below our knees would sometimes give out, bend and the person in that particular chair would without warning begin to deflate, maybe be held in the air for that one split second before descent, like a volunteer in a dunk tank. My mother blamed my brother, leaning back in the chairs, all casual in his teen-ness, for bending the chairs, when shifting his weight and altering the physics of the thing. The same could be said for his presence in our household. All arms and legs and attitude shifting the air even when he wasn’t moving. The table was still sturdy, the chrome legs doubled pipes, and the laminate top resistant to stains and knife cuts. Some nights when I didn’t want to eat one of my vegetables and was made to sit at the table until I did, I would run my fingernail along the grooves of the chrome that ringed the table, chipping away at the dried food that had accumulated there over the years, that my mother’s well-intentioned cleaning never quite prevented. It was the same with the cabinets, pale wood, plain fronts, delicate metal handles that caught grime that hardened over time. There was a circle of worn-away varnish around each of the handles where she had used a rough sponge or a cleaning detergent too harsh and her error became visual to everyone so available for judgment. To me, there were items all over the kitchen that incited my fear. A coffee can of gathered leftovers scraped from plates stowed under the kitchen sink and saved for the outside animals. Another rusted can of rusted batteries in the bottom junk drawer below the overstuffed drawer of kitchen towels. Another can at the top of the closet with bullets for the shotgun that hung below it.

Bouncing Back

Cheers rise from the soccer field just over the hill. A bird wings its way across the sky. My breath is ragged, loud as the sun is hot on my bare shoulders. A light breeze fingertip-touches my right cheek, hurries a bead of tickling sweat into my ear. I bounce the ball two times. Catch the ball. Tell myself: no, you bounce the ball three times before serving, not two. Stick to your routine. Don’t rush. Deep breath. Bounce it again. Three times. Left hand sure. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Racquet in my right hand, grip slick with sweat. Listen. Don’t listen. Think. Don’t think. I wait. I go. My squat mom-body moves in practiced mimicry of the lithe athletes on TV who butterfly around courts around the world. During long hours of lying corpse-still next to Noah while waiting for his seizure-stormed mind to quiet so he might fall asleep, I visualized my serve, metronomed the movements. I lean forward. Take my weight onto my left foot. Ball held pressed against the Y-shape of my racquet right above the handle, just below the face. I lean back, take my weight on my right leg, bend my right knee just a bit, turn my shoulders. Look. Twist. Toss. But my hand is slow to release the ball, to shoot it into the sky, into view, to where that bird flew, to where now there is a cloud skittering. The ball arcs over my head instead, and I wing my left arm out to catch it. “Nope,” I say, talking to myself more than my opponent. “Sorry,” I say to her because politeness is a requirement of the game, even if, when I approach the net on a short ball hit by her, it is also completely within the rules of comportment to hit that ball right at her chest, force her to move quickly, to defend herself, to launch the ball I’ve launched at her right back at me. I tell myself: I’ve been through worse. I tell myself, stop thinking. Nose breath in; whisper breath out. I reset. I bounce the ball. One, two, three. A bird flies overhead. The ball flies into the air.

Exercise 96 Kiteley
One Moment
Iowa Summer Writing Festival

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.

Fly

Let’s fill a flask you and I
and take to the back roads I drove
when I was sixteen and always late,
when the ditches were improbable,
when the ditches were a siren call,
clouds of dust rolled from my wheels,
neighbors watched from farmhouse windows
my reckless speed, my sober restraint.
You’ll put your hand on my knee,
and I’ll have worn a skirt just in case
I press down hard on the pedal
and once again let myself fly.