Today, Graham is eight. He is the age I was when my youngest brother was born. It’s been three years since I first wrote about my first and oh so special child. At that time, I felt just the slightest bit bewildered by him. Crazy overflowing amounts of love with just the stirrings of fear about what the future might bring. By the time I wrote my second post, a subtle impatience was starting to take up residence in my psyche. I have written other posts to celebrate his successes and some to celebrate his birthdays. You see him often in my Slice of Life posts. But I haven’t written much lately about how is doing and how I am doing with him. This is a hard post to write, as all of them have been. How do you talk about your child? How do you begin to explain someone who you think is so incredibly wonderful but who can be a never-ending source of frustration?
I had a complete breakdown moment soon after we arrived in France in June, for our month long vacation. Randy and I had just made the difficult decision to move to the Bay Area after years in Seattle. I had gone through all the pros and cons in my mind ad nauseum. In spite of leaving family, an incredible network of friends, my career, and a wonderful elementary school, we decided our family was ready for a new adventure. The breakdown came when I circled back to thinking about Graham. All of our wonderful friends who have children around his age have known him since he was a baby. Graham is just Graham. His quirks are just a small part of who he is. Children who have always known him can appreciate that he is a sincere and loving child who wants nothing more than to play and laugh and eat snacks. He is a little different and that fact does not seem to phase those who have always known him. What about a completely new network of people? How do I explain my child to families? Should I have to?
Graham is in second grade. He has an undefined developmental delay. He is not on the autism spectrum. He has an IEP (individualized education plan) which allows him to get help in the areas where he needs it, but he is in a regular classroom. His delay affects his speech and cognition and because those two things are integral in interacting socially, he is delayed in that area too. He is shockingly good at math and puzzles and things requiring spatial awareness. His short term memory is terrible, his long term memory is scary good. (He won’t remember where he put his pencil, but will remember an event that happened years ago just from a glance down a street. I operate this way too.)
Graham continues to be a very even keel child. He almost never gets upset and almost always goes with the flow. This is surprising considering he doesn’t always understand exactly what is going on. He is very well behaved in his classroom and at home. He loves people and will strike up a conversation with just about anybody. Adults and older children are utterly charmed by him but kids his age – not so much.
I used to wonder at what age kids would start to notice that there was something different about Graham and it turns out that second grade is the age. He has been teased. The kids nudge each other and ask, “What did he say?” Some of them have hidden his lunch box from him and, according to Graham, they make fun of his clothes and his skin. (He dresses well because I still pick out his clothes for him and he has dark skin. I wasn’t aware that those were things that were tease-able offenses.) I have talked to many friends about what is going on and most of them are horrified. Most schools have a strict no-bullying policy and I’m sure ours is no different. I know that kids are cruel. I see most of the girls in his class completely ignoring him while they are catty behind each others’ backs and I thank the universe, for the umpteenth time, that Graham is not a girl. (Disclaimer: we know some amazing empathetic and kind girls who are absolutely lovely with Graham.)
And where am I in all of this? I am heartbroken for him. The fact that anyone would make fun of such a sweet soul makes me want to scream. I am grateful that he still doesn’t know that anything is different about him and that he misses most of the eye rolling and nudging. I am thankful that (still!) every time a new adult helper comes into his orbit, the first thing they tell me is how delightful he is. Graham handled a huge transition – a move to a new state, new house, and new school – with a smile on his face and adventure in his heart.
Our next steps are to involve the principal and his teacher as much as possible. Our hope is that getting some awareness about kids who are a little different at this still young age might nip some of the teasing in the bud. We also plan to enroll Graham in some social therapy. The idea is that there is truly a social language that most children learn naturally. I see this with Spencer. The way he interacts with his peers is not something I or Randy have taught him – he just picked it up. Graham tries, he is so motivated to make friends, but his language delay sometimes makes it difficult. So we will get him in a supervised play group where he will learn about how to be a good friend, how to appropriately interact with kids, and how to walk away from people who are being unkind. That is the hope at least.
Whenever I write these posts about Graham, I get the most amazing and kindest comments and emails back. Many of them applaud me for being a good mother. Most days I feel like I am. Some days I know I am not. Graham tests my patience at some point everyday and sometimes all day. I know we all get inpatient with our children and some of us yell. When I get angry at Spencer, I rarely feel bad afterward. He has done something he is not supposed to, he knows it, he does it anyway, and I get mad. We talk about it afterward and we move on. With Graham, the things that drive me to distraction about him are usually things he cannot help. He doesn’t deliberately forget to bring home his jacket or the name of someone he has known since he was born – there is a section in his IEP about his memory. It is truly impaired. He doesn’t intentionally not listen to me, he only catches about three-quarters of what I say, if that. He can’t help it if he just can’t grasp the concept of days getting darker, or geography, or many of the other things children his age just seem to get.
What makes me feel terrible about myself (at times) is that I believe that Graham tries his best at everything every day. How many children can you say that about? He is a first born, rule following, approval seeking, sweet-to-the-core kid. Why do I feel embarrassed by him sometimes? Why do I occasionally wish it was different in our house? How can I hold him in my arms, almost unable to bear the sweetness, and then be driven to distraction by him not five minutes later? Is it him that I wish was different, or myself? I read something recently that said if we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we would grab ours back. As much as I look to parents of typically developing children and envy them at times, I know that they have their own struggles, struggles I would not want. And there are, of course, people who have it much worse than we do and those who have it unspeakably bad and when I think about those folks, I want to simultaneously squeeze Graham and hang my head in shame.
In all of this, I have to say a word about my amazing husband. My Naval Academy educated, former Navy pilot, Harvard MBA, brilliant and athletically gifted husband. If you had told me that we were going to have a child who had some undefined issues that would make school and team sports difficult for him, I might told you that Randy would would really struggle with that. He takes great pride in his intelligence, his fearlessness, his drive, and his successes – as well he should. I hope he also takes great pride in what a kind and loving father he is. The man who tells you he has no patience is the one sitting with Graham helping him sound out his reading words over and over again. He is the man taking him to Cub Scouts and soccer, helping him learn to ski, and is the first one to say that he doesn’t care if Graham goes to college at all as long as he is happy and healthy. And out of the house by age 18.
This is a serious post. So allow me to tell a funny story. When Graham was in kindergarten, he was in the bathroom peeing and a mean boy pushed him. This terrified Graham and ever since, he has sat down to pee. (This is not the funny part.) It’s not something we care about except when we are out and public toilets are sketchy, we are at a park and the restrooms are closed for the winter, or when we contemplate future camping trips with the Cub Scouts. Randy and I have tried cajoling him, patiently sitting with him in the bathroom, bribing him, threatening him (I’m not proud), all to no avail. Last week, Spencer wondered what would happen if we paid Graham a quarter each time he stood up and peed, with the promise of a toy when he reached eight times. Wouldn’t you know it – he has stood up ever since. Happy birthday my sweet eight year old boy.