I sat on the bench at the local kids’ play gym, watching my two youngest. Tonight was the Special Needs Playgroup night at the gym, and about ten families of children were in the huge enclosed space of toys and mats and dress up clothes. R was working in New York City these days, so I was alone with the kids; Zach was working at his new job at the local sub shop this Friday night.
It was good for me to get out of the house. I’d been wallowing in self pity for weeks, watching as the fans moved on. I felt stupid. I felt like I’d wasted so much time that I should have given to my children and my husband on something that evaporated before my eyes. I admonished myself daily that perhaps if I wasn’t so worried about promoting Rick Springfield that I would have noticed Michael’s issues sooner, and gotten him more help faster. How many hours had my three kids sat around watching TV while I talked with managers, record companies, other fans? How many fits of stress induced anger had they been subjected to because I was trying to be everything to everyone?
I looked up to see Michael getting upset because another child wanted to go through the flexible fabric tube he was playing in. He’d been in there ten minutes, repeatedly and incessantly going back and forth in it. I went over to try to convince him that he needed to let the child have a turn when the little boy turned away and made a beeline for the train table. “Sorry,” I offered to the mother. “He isn’t really great at sharing, yet.”
“Well if there’s anywhere else that someone would get that, it would be here,” she responded, smiling. She was young, younger than me. “My name’s Jessica.”
I nodded and held out my hand, telling her my name. “Do you mind me asking what your son’s diagnosis is?”
She bolted and ran from me. I followed the direction of her sprint to see her stop her son just in the nick of time; he’d been about to whack another little boy, this one with obvious Down’s Syndrome, on the head with one of the trains from the set. “No!”
It almost made me feel a little better. Here, Michael didn’t seem so different. People weren’t going to stare when he launched into his recital of the theme from his favorite TV show; they weren’t going to be fazed by the Pull Up peeking out from his trousers even though he’d just celebrated his fifth birthday. They weren’t going to bat an eye when he screamed about someone else hogging his favorite toy.
And here, I didn’t seem so different, although I was. No one here knew. No one here knew my very public shame, that I’d lost the gig working for the famous rockstar. In my tiny New England town, at the special needs playgroup, I was just like every other frazzled mom of a spectrum child. I was trying to balance the needs of my typical kids with those of my very needy child. I was a stay at home mother because of the crazy schedule I carried of preschool, therapy appointments and support groups. No one here was whispering about my fall from grace, or was talking about how I hadn’t been good enough. And here, watching Melinda play with Jessica’s older daughter while keeping tabs on Michael’s current mood, I almost didn’t even have time to think about who I used to be, not so long ago.
I wondered, in that quiet moment, if Jessica or the other parents could sense the sadness I carried with me, heavy in my chest, just under the surface of my sympathetic smile. When I paused, the guilt, the regret, the self loathing rose into my throat. What did these people see when they looked at me, these other parents? They didn’t know the girl I used to be in any my former lives. These strangers couldn’t imagine all of the things that floated in my head these days, the things that I once had and now lost: Joe, Ray, my teaching career, my job working for my idol. I was 35, overweight, and all I saw in the mirror was the shell of the shining potential I used to think I had.
I looked up to see Jessica return to the center of the room where I stood, able to be within arms reach of Michael. “He’s not diagnosed,” Jessica responded breathlessly. “But he’s over there repeating the presidents of the United States over and over, in order. What do you think that means?” Her face was full of anxiety and fear. “He’s just turned four.”
I looked at her, trying to put on my friendliest, most sympathetic face. “I’m not sure,” I answered. “But I can’t help but be jealous. My kid just recites the the scenes from Blue’s Clues over and over. At least your kid memorized something useful.”
Jessica laughed and looked around. “It would really be so much more helpful if they served alcohol here at the snack bar. Don’t we deserve a little nip for all we have to deal with?” And off she went again, to rescue a six year old red head who had unwittingly interrupted her son between McKinley and Roosevelt.
I smiled, for the first time in what felt like years.