The other day, I burst into tears while apologizing to another mother at the pool.
This was as much of a surprise for me as it was for her. While I do cry on occasion, it’s generally the result of frustration or hurt feelings – and almost exclusively reserved for my husband in the privacy of our own home. And I’ve never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve, let alone bleed all over the floor of the ladies changing room.
But in that one moment, every shred of anger, sadness and anxiety that I’ve ever stuffed into my bursting closet of repressed feelings poured directly out of my eyes. It seems the act of summoning words and speaking them aloud redirected just enough attention away from my tightly guarded heart. This breach in security didn’t incite an actual riot of emotions, but a few of the sly ones slipped through the cracks and joined forces. They must have been watching – waiting patiently for an opportunity to break out. And it took only seconds to assemble their weapons of destruction – heat seeing missiles aimed at the frontal lobe of my brain.
Or at least that’s how it felt. Like a sneak attack. And a traitorous one at that.
I don’t cry in front of strangers. I just wanted to tell her that she didn’t do anything wrong. Because at the end of the day, she really didn’t.
No – she shouldn’t have gone out of her way to tell the lifeguard Oliver was swimming in front of the diving board. And yes – she should have talked to me about it since I was right there, actively instructing him to move over, make room for the other kids waiting to jump. Especially since the lifeguard was watching it all from a nearby chair, letting me handle it.
She overstepped. She called my parenting into question. She insinuated that my child was a problem. But none of that was her intention. She was concerned about safety. They were only there for a half hour and she wanted her own kids to have more time jumping off the diving board than waiting in line. And the minute I said, “excuse me, I’m talking to him about that and the lifeguard is watching – my son has special needs – it’s complicated – we’re doing the best we can,” she realized that regardless of her not-bad intentions, she was out of line.
It was the typical non-confrontational confrontation. She did what she did, I said what I said, and then we both tried to make nice by talking to each other through our children. I told Oliver that another mother asked if he could swim away from the diving board – we had to give her kids a turn – and if he couldn’t listen to the grownups, then he would have to take a break from the pool. She told her kids that the pool was crowded today – they couldn’t take over the diving area – they could all have one more jump, but it was just about time to go. We both informed our children that in a few minutes it would be “break” and that we would be going home.
I hadn’t thought to apologize at first. Our indirect communication was enough to let each other know there were no hard feelings. But I just had to say that thing about special needs… Way to make someone feel a bad person – implying that they were picking on your special needs child! How was she supposed to know? She may have felt terrible about what happened. And I would hate for that to be the case since I am queen of obsessing over my own bad behavior dating back to preschool. It’s not fun feeling like shit over transgressions long since forgotten by the other party.
So as we packed up our pool bag and made our way to the changing rooms, I decided to look for that family. To tell that woman I was sorry for snapping and that she didn’t do anything wrong. Technically, she did – but what did that matter in the face of intentions. Just like Oliver and I are doing the best we can at the pool – in life – she’s doing the best she can as a parent. We all are. And I thought she should know I understand that.
I caught up with her at the entrance of the changing area and before she could say anything to me, I cut her off with my own olive branch.
If only I could have stopped talking right after that. I could have swallowed back the lump rising in my throat. I could have taken a deep breath, squared my shoulders and moved forward…made it through that moment of vulnerability unscathed. I could have made it out the door without crying.
But she felt the need to apologize too. This is when she explained herself to me – how she was thinking about her own family’s tight schedule and regretted her complaint the minute she made it. She was sincere. Embarrassed. Sorry.
So I had to respond. I said I understood – that I overreacted, but sometimes it was just really hard. And while this statement explained nothing at all to her, to anyone in my position, those few words actually do say it all. Sometimes it’s really hard. It’s hard to have the “different child.” The son who looks “normal” and is even big for his age, but acts like he’s much younger. To have to explain him to others so they don’t judge him so harshly. To be so proud of how much he has accomplished but so frustrated by how far he has to go. To not know what the future holds.
It’s hard. Really hard. And like a key in a lock, that last word opened the floodgates.
So much for not making her feel bad.
But I did blubber through a new rendition of “you didn’t do anything wrong,” that better described this unusual and unexpected turn of events. “I really never cry about this kind of thing…it’s just been a long day…I’m fine…seriously, it’s not a big deal…nothing to do with you.” At least I pulled it together at the end and was able to clearly restate that I just wanted to apologize and make sure she understood that I didn’t think she did anything wrong. Because that was all I wanted to say. Hopefully she believed me.
And to be completely honest, this wasn’t the first time my words were swallowed by a sneak attack sob that day. Several hours earlier, I had a follow up call with Oliver’s auditory processing therapist. He had just finished one of his bi-annual two-week “loops,” so we were discussing how it went and what I was now observing at home. As usual, the conversation was very positive. Progress had been made and the time he spent with them was productive.
I asked my standard questions about what we should be doing at home – what we should be working on when school starts. Then we lapsed into telling “Oliver stories.” Because he really is a character, and his delays, emerging language and exposure to television make for some pretty fantastic ESL moments.
My recent favorite is an exchange we had regarding the movie, Cars 2. He was telling me an involved story about bad guy, Professor Z and his evil doings. But he lost me at one unintelligible word:
Oliver: …and then Professor Z told his fugs…
Oliver: Yeah – fugs.
Me: What are fugs?
Oliver: [perplexed by my ignorance] They’re trouble making villains.
Thugs. I love that.
And it would have been so easy to just end our phone call right there. But I never can.
I have to ask the unanswerable question. I can’t help myself. The inconvenient lack of mass produced crystal balls can’t stop me from asking. It’s pathological. Or maybe just a little desperate.
After a perfunctory disclaimer about the impossibility of predicting the future when so much can change…I always ask what right now, this very minute, she sees as a possibility for my son. What does the future hold for him? Even if it’s just a guess. Have we hit any hard limits? Have once-distant maybe-somedays receded further into improbability? Or have they moved closer within reach – come into sharper focus? When can I actually touch them or should I just stop trying?
And of course, there aren’t any real answers. This is the curse of having a special needs child who doesn’t fit into an existing box. No trail has been blazed for him. So his potential is unknowable, and therefore unlimited until proven otherwise. Of course this is a good thing, but it leaves the parents in a constant state of anticipation. Waiting for something to happen. The best case scenario or the worst – and every day you get a little bit of both. Just to keep you on your toes.
I always default to hope. Even before becoming a mother, I’ve survived life on planet earth by assuming everything will work out. That it will all be okay. And I’m usually right.
So I do the same thing when it comes to my babies. I love who they are now, and I expect only good things for their future. I know the dark flip side of the coin but I’ll always go for two out of three…three out of five. Until you tell me the worst, I’ll hope for the best.
During each pregnancy, I would lie in bed dreaming of everything I wanted for these children. They would be artistic, interesting, charismatic…the list was far too long for me to remember. But later, as they grew and their personalities and challenges began to surface, I turned to the practical.
Of course I want EVERYTHING for all three of my children, but if I’m going to play the Magical Thinking game, I have to keep it simple. Be specific.
I want Oliver to be intelligent, kind and funny. I want people to like being around him, not just because they like him, but because they like how they feel about themselves when they’re with him.
I want George to be successful, but also compassionate. I have no worries about his ability to make people laugh – but I also want him to take the feelings of others into consideration. I hope that he can hold onto his lighthearted side and not take himself too seriously.
I want Eleanor to be strong and confident – to embrace her talents and believe in herself. I don’t want her to feel intimidated by the accomplishments of others, but to instead be happy for them as she focuses on her own goals and achievements.
There’s more. Of course. But these particular qualities are in the current rotation of my hopes and dreams because they’re based on what I see in each child today. And they seem realistic – attainable.
So as I discussed Oliver’s possible – unknowable – future with his therapist, I drifted to this line of thinking. And I wanted to be perfectly clear – explain that I’m asking for very little, here. I’m starting with the basics – things that every parent wants for their child. “In my hopes and dreams for his future? I want him to have friends…” And that’s as far as I got.
Apparently, this audacious act of speaking the words aloud put too much pressure on my egg shell composure. Magical Thinking is one thing, but verbal incantations will break me.
Then the tears came. Just as they would later in the ladies changing room. Two uncharacteristic moments of weakness in one day.
But this time I had invisibility on my side. I could squeeze my eyes shut and clasp a hand over my mouth…physically pull myself together in semi-privacy. And the irrational shame I felt was lessened by the knowledge that this was nothing new for the person waiting patiently on the other side of the phone line. I’ve seen the tissue box in her office.
A few seconds later, the power of speech returned and calendars were consulted for future appointments. The soothing act of scheduling conjured up a necessary illusion of control. I could manage my emotions as I decided when and where I would find help for my son. This is the one element of the future that is completely under my control.
Going to the pool seemed like a good idea after that episode. Get outside – let the kids entertain themselves for a while without any electronic aids. Little did I know…
But I’m still glad we went. Because you can’t live in a bubble. And nine times out of ten (two out of three…three out of five…) we have a fabulous time without any unpleasant incidents. The pool is our happy place. It’s never crowded – only residents of our neighborhood can use it. We always see friendly faces and most of the regulars know enough about us to cut us some slack.
We can walk there too. And when the kids were younger this was actually a highlight of the outing. My toddlers would sit up in their stroller and point chubby fingers, tree! bird! car! But their favorite stop (oh yes, we had to make stops) was the house with garden gnomes. Every neighborhood has one of those.
Four year old Oliver could walk over and pat them on the head, trace their smiling faces. Not much of a conversationalist at that age, he would speak to them in his own language of DVD dialogue and gibberish. The twins would ask, “whaddat?” And day after day I would tell them. But George could never get it right. He insisted on calling them “omens.”
This still makes us laugh – even though the kids don’t really remember those walks. And as we pass that house carrying our pool gear – eight feet on the pavement now that strollers are a thing of the past – I’ll point and say, “look omens!” I like to think of them that way too. Their impish grins hint at the fun to be had – happy times on the horizon.
I have good memories from those walks and summers at the pool. Even our last afternoon there with its tense moments and tearful exit has a place and a purpose. I’m pretty sure that the woman who didn’t do anything wrong will now be a smiling face to greet us. She’ll be another neighbor who understands and doesn’t judge too harshly.
This is the kind of thing that validates my hope that everything will be okay. That people mean well. That the odds will continue to be in our favor. That Oliver will always have friends.
I can’t predict the future, but I don’t think I need a crystal ball. I’ll always fight tears, but they have no power over my hopes and dreams. I know this now and I’ll hold that truth close to my heart when things get hard.
A hard day came and went, and I’m still here believing in possibility. That must count for something. In fact, I think I’ll take it as a sign. An omen.
And a good omen at that.
Linking up to Just Right today! I should really do this more often…