The names in the following post have been changed to protect those unknowingly written about on my blog. The people are real but their names are different.
You never know who you end up sitting next to, or what their story is.
I posted about Elaina signing up for gymnastics. I waited outside her class with a book on the first day. I wasn’t very interested in reading. The book wasn’t that good.
Another mother sat next to me. Her book looked better than mine. I asked her about it and we chatted a bit here and there. She laughed when I overheard someone mention that the gymnastics class was for experienced gymnasts. The look on my face communicated that my child was a beginner. Elaina would just have to pretend that she knew what she was doing.
I remember thinking this lady was nice.
The next week, a rainy Tuesday, S had a meeting. So off to class we all went; me, Elaina, Zoya and Polly. I had a headache. Polly was fussy. Zoya decided spur of the moment that she really wanted to take gymnastics instead of ballet so her nose was out of joint.
We shuffled up the cement stairs and into the building. Polly straddled my hip, coat unzipped and falling off; her hair was coming out of the ponytail on the top of her head. It hung in her face.
The class is just an hour, but I wasn’t about to hold Polly on my lap for the duration. We couldn’t play outside at the park because of the rain and the floor looked pretty dirty, well, dirty enough that even this seasoned mother of three wouldn’t put her youngest down to toddle around on her hands and knees. Plan B was to drop Lainie off and head home. Sergei would pick her up later.
The nice mom with the good book walked in a few minutes after us. Immediately, she noticed Polly.
“You’re the minister’s wife, right?”
I was surprised. Most people who know that S is a minister try to avoid the topic.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“I’m Sarah, Charlie’s mom.”
My mind jogged back to last summer. We were new to Chicago. One day S came home from the park with the girls. He told me that a lady came up to them. She wanted to meet Polly. As they talked, he found out that she, too, had a child with Down syndrome. But her son had serious health issues, and he passed away.
“She gave me her phone number and wants you to call her,” he said.
I was scared to call. While punching in her phone number on my cell, I took a deep breath. Waiting, I looked out the window. The view was still new to me. The Japanese maple tree planted in front of the porch was in full bloom.
I left my name and number after the beep.
A few days later, she called back.
It was getting dark outside. All the windows were open. People chatted as they passed our house on the way to a restaurant or a bar. S figured out how to get a few stations in on the TV with the rabbit ears and we were watching a rerun. I can’t remember what show it was. But I do remember our house was barren. The living room held two chairs, empty bookcases, the old television. Boxes lined up against the wall.
We talked about Polly for a little while. I briefly covered our history, …lived in Ukraine for a few years as missionaries…had Polly there…she was very sick at first, in the NICU for twenty days…on the sixth day a blood test confirmed the Down syndrome…six weeks later we were on a plane, headed back to the States, primarily to care for Polly, holistically, because we all needed the care. We talked about Early Intervention in this area and about therapists who were good. I wrote down her recommendations.
Then I asked her about her son.
And she began to cry.
“He had a lot of things going on. His little heart just couldn’t take it all. When we found out he had Down syndrome, I told my husband we could handle this. I knew that we would have struggles, but I didn’t think Down syndrome was that big of a deal. But his health issues were something different, entirely.”
After Charlie died, Sarah started a preschool named “Charlie’s Place.” The goal of the preschool is to provide a safe, learning environment for all children. Sarah’s dream is to see the preschool integrated with typical kids and kids with special needs, so that they can learn from one another.
That evening, sitting in the dinning room, in the dark, I said something to this mother that still haunts me sometimes.
“It’s taken me a while to grieve Polly’s diagnosis.”
I did not decide to grieve. When Polly came along it’s not like there was a drum roll somewhere off in the distance. I did not say, “And now, officially, I will fall apart.” It happened gradually. It was like a small cloud, quietly, most assuredly taking the place of th sun, until you are left in a shadow.
I felt my heart sort of tip a bit after the words were out of my mouth. I gasped. I was ashamed. This woman was actually grieving her child. She couldn’t hug him anymore, or kiss the insides of his elbows, or watch him smile and hear his laughter as he swings back and forth at the playground.
These are the things I’ve been thinking about this week: Writing about Emma and then, Ella, running into a mother who is bravely living life despite her great loss. Walking around the neighborhood, pushing Polly in her pink polka-dot stroller, Lainie and Zo leading the way with their brightly colored helmets, peddling as far away from me as they dare. Indubitably stopping at a street corner.
I can’t help but pay attention to the blessing of health. And at least, for today, not take it for granted. I’ll clap for Polly in therapy every time she puts another block in the bucket. I’ll act silly, smile and dance around when she cruises up and down the couch. I will let Zoya read me “Not Dots” for the fiftieth time, simply because she is reading. I will not turn a deaf ear to Elaina as she talks to me again about friend troubles at school.
Polly’s face lights up when her favorite therapist walks through the door. The one who lets her pick what to do next, who applauds after an impromptu song, who lets Polly pick the same book every week, because she knows it’s her favorite. They like to play with playdoh together. “Rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, roll it out, roll it out.”
This is one of the therapists Charlie’s Mom recommended.