On Saturday morning, I wrapped Noah up in two layers of outerwear, a musty-smelling scarf around my head, some vaguely Christmas-y paper around an awkwardly-shaped birthday present and headed out in the snow -- our first of the year -- to attend a preschooler's birthday party. Also our first of the year.
Save for the occasional laid-back house party, we've politely declined all birthday invitations. I know I wrote about Noah and birthday parties -- my memory is suggesting that I very much watered down just how awful our last attempts were, but I simply cannot bring myself to go hunting up the entries to confirm that. Awful. The helpless shock of seeing your child behaving in a way that suggests he has been set on fire, instead of being asked to come sit on a brightly-colored parachute for a minute. The confusion of not knowing what's wrong, the hurt of knowing that whatever it is, your child lacks the verbal skills to tell you about it, and of course: the searing, shameful embarrassment of knowing that all eyes are on you, the parent who cannot control their child.
We were, not surprisingly, never a very popular playdate choice at Noah's school last year. Except for one family, one mother, one little boy who befriended Noah and I and understood, or who at least attempted to. Her son now attends the Montessori school that we'd also optimistically chosen for Noah before --thankfully -- coming to our senses and swallowing our pride about his real level of need.
And like more friendships than I'd like to admit, we don't talk as much as we should anymore, or get the boys together as much as we should, and it's all my fault because...well, sometimes it hurts to be around Typical Kids. Like being around pregnant bellies when I was trying (and failing) to conceive.
But. She invited us to his birthday party. It was at one of those paint-your-own-pottery places, so no gym equipment, no circle time or song time or multiple transitions. Just sitting and painting.
And so I waffled and debated and fretted both about potential disaster AND selling Noah short -- it's been so long, he's made such progress -- and...DUH, I already told you that we went to the party. (Nice narrative structure there, self.)
Well. It was a disaster. Beyond a disaster. We lasted 20 minutes before Noah had a complete and utter sensory freakout -- imagine something akin to a panic attack crossed with those times when you are almost overcome with the urge to throw some dinner plates at the nearest wall. The 20 minutes prior to the meltdown weren't really much better -- the children were assigned seats and asked to color until everyone arrived and the painting could begin. Noah scribbled halfheartedly with a blue marker while I tried desperately not to look at everyone else's paper. We were surrounded by classmates from last year -- something that I do not doubt contributed to both of our stress levels. They were drawing things. Letters, cats, family members, trees. A younger sibling -- a girl who was probably Ezra's age when I met her -- drew perfect circles and straight lines while Noah held the marker in his fist and banged it into the paper a few times.
"Draw an L, Noah!" I suggested, though as soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them. Why not just come out and say it: Stop making us look bad, kid.
His agitation grew when he realized he was surrounded by children on both sides, and I stupidly didn't think to move him to an empty chair at the end of the table.. A personalized smock appeared, and I stupidly suggested he wear it. After that, it's a blur. I think he kicked me, kicked the table. Screams so loud the pottery rattled on the shelves. A frantic, red-faced dash to the bathroom. My hands on his shoulders, his face, my voice pleading, then rising, my patience sapping, trying to penetrate the force field of the fit, and finally sitting back helplessly watching my son lie on the floor and sob and beg to go home. He breathed an audible sigh of relief when I told him we could.
We left the bathroom and put on our coats, hats, mittens, the musty scarf. I apologized to my friend, gratefully accepted her kind, reassuring hug...and left without another word or look at any of the other parents.
The craziest thing is this: just a few hours later, we went to a second birthday party. One of the children from the district's special ed program. All afternoon I kept picking up the invitation and staring at the telephone number. I should call. I should cancel. I should just apologize now and spare us all. The party was just at their house, though. The entire PEP class was invited. They'll understand, we reasoned. They'll be...more like us, like Noah.
"And if not, we'll leave," Jason said, as if that had solved just fucking EVERYTHING that morning.
At this party, there were no assigned seats, no smocks, no activities, save for a ribbon-pull pinata that delighted everyone, including Noah. Cupcakes, juice boxes, soda, beer. The children did laps around the house and jostled each other around in the play kitchen and tried to climb into an exersaucer. Noah greeted his classmates with hugs and "I love you's" and was given them in return. When it was time to sing happy birthday, Noah and another little girl both clapped their hands over their ears and howled, and her father and I laughed over how we had to decree NO SINGING at both of their birthdays. "I've never met another kid who does that!" he exclaimed. Everyone wanted to hear about the afternoon program we use, to compare Early Intervention horror stories (we were the winner, with our Early Graduation Of Bullshit and Year Of Mainstream Preschool Terror). "We could switch our sons and no one would ever notice the difference," another mother told me, after watching them play together, referring more to their shared quirks than any physical resemblance. Everyone wanted to plan the class holiday party and rave about our wonderful, lovely teacher.
Noah cried exactly once...when it was time to leave. We'd all overstayed the invitation time by a good 45 minutes. A playdate for the entire class is set for this weekend.
If you asked me what my number-one goal for Noah is, at least in regards to the next couple years, I would have to say: Mainstream. Get him out of special ed, off his special bus, out of the folder filed under "developmentally delayed."
I believe he can do it -- we had the equivalent of an IEP meeting last night at his private school, and they believe he can do it too, adamant that he is not on the Spectrum, that he is a brilliant little sponge who will be able to attend school with minimal accommodations one day -- though I know that it won't necessarily be an easy goal to reach. There will be more freakouts and judgmental looks and therapy bills and insurance rejections and days where I feel like throwing unpainted pottery at the nearest wall.
So I'm grateful, in the meantime, to have this cocoon, this soft safe space, full of people like us, and kids like him.