Kind People Never Know
Raising a child with special needs is a layered journey, that’s for sure! Some of what came most naturally to my typically developed adult daughter are the very things that my youngest son struggles with the most.
Recess, playtime, and social games are in fact the hardest part of daily life for my son to navigate. The activities that refresh so many children are like a minefield that he has to carefully tread his way through.
Where other children play and socialize chattering like monkeys on the jungle gym, my son hangs back sometimes. Because though his desire is there, the same as with any child, it doesn’t come easily to him. Not the playing and swinging, nor even the free and easy social comraderies. These things that he sees other children grasp with ease seem to frequently elude him.
That is how it is for him. Often he watches from the sidelines not knowing exactly how to fit in. As his parent, I cannot always rush in to fill those gaps because he has his own strengths to find and build up, if he is to navigate his life someday. He has to learn to work with others outside of me. Sometimes I have to decide to stand back and let him find his own way. There’s a ton of value in simply trying.
Sometimes along the way, someone else will step forward and with the kindness of patience, great things happen. These truly kind people never seem to know the differences that they make in the lives of others. They wave their hands to deny that their kindness is anything special at all. It is nothing they say. But, it is something. Sometimes it is everything!
This weekend we went to San Diego’s Belmont Park. A place that has a boardwalk feel. There are rides and treats and games and things. Its best known for our historic wooden coaster called the Giant Dipper. There’s just nothing like your teeth clacking and your spine snapping this way and that as you gawk at the beautiful ocean and plunge down the dip and then zip by twisting and turning. It’s a San Diego thing. It’s a thing you do! So we did it.
My son got a wristband that allowed him to play laser tag and to climb rock walls and ride the coaster. On the rock wall, he didn’t get very far but he tried with his whole heart and the happiness of being harnessed in and standing in line were all over his face! I have pictures of him stretched like a monkey not really up, but certainly not down either. The lines on his face in the snapshots show a determined sketch in “It’s my turn, finally!” it was worth every dime spent on the wristband.
As we were venturing further in the park, we saw a jungle gym called the Sky Ropes Adventure. Kids were zipping by harnessed in by safety ropes and they were scaling obstacles a full story up off the ground. There were children my son’s age navigating ropes, ladders, and all manner of swaying obstacles at dizzying heights. I saw the determined longing as my son stood and stared up. I knew, of course I knew–that his motor planning issues and Apraxia were going to make the possibility of him accomplishing that entire course next to impossible. I also knew that he’d never keep up with the speed of the other children no matter what he did. But, again, there is that value in trying. And then trying again. Sometimes he blows out my expectations anyway—It was safe and so I watched as when I said yes and he visibly puffed up and strode confidently in to be harnessed up.
As he waited in line (out of his hearing) my friend explained to an attendant that there was a possibility that he would get stuck and asked what the policy was for that. The attendant explicitly said that if a child got stuck while up on the course all the staff could do was go up and retrieve him but that they could not assist a child on the course in any way at all. I was pretty sure we had bitten off way more than he could chew. But, there he was sitting on that bench with everyone else patiently waiting his turn; there was nothing to do but to let him go.
I watched him slowly make his way up the bridge beam to the top and was grateful he was second to last in line, because he moved methodically. My son made his way boldly to the first obstacle a rope with staggered ladder foot holds spaced far and wide with nothing but a few widely spaced loops of rope above his head to grasp on to. I watched my son’s face fall as he recognized the difficulty he was going to face. His body was betraying what his heart had the courage to do.
His face crumbled and he began to cry which is a rare thing for my son. Everyone on the ground including me looked up at him, there was an audible “Awwwww!” going through the crowd. I knew he would have to come down, according to those rules. So I rearranged my face and called in a bright voice “Good job buddy! You can come down and we’ll try again next time! Don’t you worry, you did a good job! You’ll get this another time!”
Even as I was calling up to him a young woman, a staff person who’d just come on shift was making her way up toward him. I expected her to grab his rope and bring him down like we were told they would. I was reassuring him about what a good try he’d made and how we’d get it next time when the young woman called down “No, I think he really wants to try!” Sure enough, I looked up and there he was standing again with his face set, his arms spread wide like he was ready to fly and his toes were pointed out toward that thin swaying rope bridge.
So here is where it began. Suddenly we were having one of the most beautiful and long drawn out moments that I’ve had while parenting this great child! Yes, we’ve had moments and kindnesses but aside from paid and trained therapists, we’d seen nothing like this on such a generous and patient scale.
We watched as the young woman named Tamara began to work through the course with Nicholas. Sometimes Tamara knew to swing his rope ahead of him and to guide him from behind, other times she knew to lead herself, and sometimes uncannily, she seemed to know when to instead remain perfectly still and wait him out so that he could accomplish parts all by himself.
For twenty minutes, we watched her with broad smile lighting up her entire face standing under a blazing California sun helping one little boy to make his way. She remained with him never looking at her watch, or up, or down. Even though Nicholas never said a word, she seemed to know just what to do. She just stayed right there with him long after every other kid had made their way back down.
It did not take long at all for many of the people on the ground to begin to see what was happening too and I saw encouraging eyes looking up. I heard people calling out “Go Neeko!” people who did not even know my son. As painstakingly inch-by-inch Tamara and Neeko made their way, more and more eyes were drawn up.
I never saw her rush him at all. I never saw the smile leave her face. She never flinched an inch if he grabbed her hand or touched her waist. Nor did she ever seem in the slightest way perturbed if sometimes he pushed her hand away. They just made their way slowly and deliberately across every single obstacle. Neither of them ever said a word to each other.
For a while, I followed along underneath him calling up my encouragement. I did not care at all what I sounded like or looked like to anyone else. Because for me there was nobody else there, it was just Nicholas having his turn. Once I knew he was going good and that Tamara intended to see it through I stepped back and let him and Tamara work it out. I stood watching proudly from a distance.
I had tears in my eyes as they made their way as the very last ones down toward a backed up line of waiting people already harnessed and ready to go up, held back for a few minutes by my son’s turn. My son’s long drawn out turn at feeling a great accomplishment had caused a short wait for them.
I heard my son’s very sweet voice calling out to himself and to Tamara most of the way down “Wooo! We did it! We did it! Woo—we did it!” Until yesterday I had been not been aware that my son could say, “We did it” so that was another gift! He understood and recognized the glory of the “we” moment he’d shared with Tamara.
We thanked Tamara and my friend gave her a tip wrapped around a card asking her to please consider studying a career in occupational therapy. I spoke to her too. She heard us, but I don’t think she knows—kind people never know the impact that they have on everyday people. She just kept smiling and waving her hand away. So she won’t know what she did, but she really should. You should certainly know what she did too.
She made a difference with her patience and kindness. She made a difference by taking one look at a struggling determined kid and deciding to ignore the rules, she made a difference by caring. The twenty minutes she spent made an impact that will have ripples for a long time to come. It made a difference. To my son. To me. To everyone watching below.
My son walked away straight and tall holding my hand proud of his accomplishment. Because make no mistake about it, that it was a huge accomplishment! Even with all of that gentle help, oh—he’d still had to try so very hard.
He’d worked against his great difficulties with motor planning marked by his Apraxia. He’d worked to engage with another person. He’d had to work at staying on a task. He’d had to work against a disordered sensory system. He’d had to trust with all of his heart that he would not fall. He’d had to do it while constantly pushing against a low tone body that does not signal the necessary force of his muscles properly. And, he’d done it all on tiptoes! Oh, yeah—he’d made an accomplishment!
But, without Tamara deciding to step up and to stay with him the whole time, he could not have done it at all. His body would not have let him win; he had way too much to fight against. He would have felt that sting that he so often must. The wound of not being able to do something all those others can do. He would have stood at the bottom and looked up with a stoic face quietly wondering why it is that he could not. Perhaps this is what Tamara knew; perhaps it is what all kind people know. Maybe when she looked at him she felt that way too. Whatever it was, I am just grateful that she was there and that she had kindness to share.
And, so I’m writing this to thank all of the Tamara’s in the world. From the bottom of my heart all the way up to the glee in Nicholas’s accomplished grin, I say thank you. To all of you who choose kindness and patience one interaction at a time, I say thank you. Thank you for the differences you make. It matters. You matter too!