He was wearing a hat.
I didn't recognize him at first. He doesn't wear hats, you see. We have one winter hat that he will wear without excessive protest -- a stupidly expensive handmade-in-Peru tiger hat that he picked out himself two years ago at Whole Foods, and I was so gobsmacked at the sight of my child willingly wearing a hat that I bought it despite blanching at the price tag and the thought of the two dozen comparable hats we already owned.
So I was gobsmacked again, because of a hat. A handmade sun visor, covered in stickers.
"He's wearing a hat." I said, stupidly, to one of the camp's many grad student volunteers.
"Isn't it so cute?" she gushed. "He was a little worried about the glue at first, but then he was fine!"
I stared at her and blinked. "You mean he actually made it? Himself?"
She stared back. "Yes?"
"His preschool teacher used to do his art projects for him. For awhile, anyway. After Christmas she stopped pretending. And he doesn't wear hats."
"Well," she said, thinking hard, "he still really doesn't like glitter."
Then she chased after him for one last big bear hug. "I'll miss you, Noah," I heard her murmur. "Thank you for letting me play with you."
She came back to my side and took a deep breath. "I'll be back next summer. I love this place."
The word was out at camp: they all knew we were considering applying to The Preschool. I listened to them talk up the Saturday group to another mother before it was my turn.
It will be perfect. He's a perfect fit. This, plus the district morning program? Oh my God, it will be perfect. I talked to the director myself. Perfect. Perfect.
Stop saying that, I thought, but did not say.
I stammered that we were still only considering it, that we only found out the day before that it was even an option, and that we still weren't sure, given the cost and the fact that Noah would be in school ALL DAY, EVERY DAY.
"He still takes a nap," I explained. "I'm worried it's going to be too much for him. His behavior really disintegrates when he gets worn out. We won't have time for playdates, for his typical friends."
What followed was an earnest -- if slightly predictable -- speech about the importance of early intervention, about this critical age and stage and how we just need to wallop him with therapy and structure and a rich sensory diet and nip it in the bud now to save ourselves years of costly tuition later.
"Most kids there do both programs and are just fine," said one of the camp OTs. The other one nodded.
Oh, you did not just say "MOST KIDS," I thought. Oh, no you did NOT.
"At the minimum, we'll do the Saturday group," I said, sort of hoping they'd lay off a bit if they knew we were planning to pay them money anyway. "Plus some one-on-one therapy."
"You should really do The Preschool," they both agreed.
Both of them work for the Outpatient Division, by the way. As in, they do not ever set foot in The Preschool.
Last night I crept into Noah's room and sat on his bed, watching him sleep, curled up with his favorite stuffed toy. I pushed his summer shaggy hair across his forehead and made a mental note to get him a haircut before the back-to-school madness this year. And shoes. Crap, he needs closed-toe shoes. Last year we waited too long and nobody had his size. I think his jacket will still fit, and some of his pants. We can layer longer t-shirts under some of the 3T long-sleeved shirts from last year, if his belly shows, since they still look practically brand-new. I smiled a little. One of the benefits of a cautious, mess-hating little boy: He is extremely easy on clothing.
That circled me back to the topic at hand. My chest and stomach twisted in anxiety while I replayed the day's comments and emails -- the good, the bad, the contradictory. The happy stories from parents who did, the sad ones from parents who didn't. The overwhelming use of the word regret. Would we regret not sending him? Should we send him simply because we're afraid of regretting something? I felt the familiar sense of indignation that I get when something I write is misunderstood, even by a very few people, even when it was completely the fault of imprecise writing. A decent roof and working garbage disposal and non-dog-pee-stained carpet ARE important, I bratted, if you have to put your house on the market in the hurry and hope to get full price.
I finally stopped the futile process of trying to compose the perfect comment that would explain everything to an invisible audience of strangers and stared hard at Noah, trying to will the right answer into existence. I pulled him into my arms and held him as tightly as I dared, as if his neural pathways would communicate with me. This! This is what we need! Give it to us!
When that didn't work, I prayed. Then I went to bed and shook Jason awake.
"Quick. What does your gut say?"
He knew exactly what I was talking about. "I don't know. I go back and forth. You?"
I thought for a second. "I think we're getting the hard sell. I think they smelled the blood of nervous parents in the water, and I don't like it."
He nodded. I went on.
"But I still think we should send him."
And so we will.
He was, after all, wearing a hat.
PS. The PayPal button is staying down. I admit I was a little tempted to put it up again, but Jason feels very strongly that...no. Just...no. Thank you, so much, those of you who offered to help. There are others who need that help more. For us, the offer is enough.