The Artichoke: 12-12-11

Update: Our daughter’s past week of adult living has been a hearty combination of successful vocational programming, physical activity and social fun. Actually, I didn’t see the gal from our brief interlude last Monday until Sunday evening, though we texted and talked. She swam with Angelfish, sang with SPHERE, cleaned and combed cats at ROAR and The Complete Cat Clinic and set up chairs for the elderly yoga class at Ridgefield Crossings. She attended two days of DSO (Day Service Options) and dined out with her dad at the Olive Garden yesterday after their Christmas shopping at the mall. The staff and her apartment-mate decorated a live Christmas tree for their living room, and though she was unable to attend her last Pegasus riding class of the Fall season because her roommate couldn’t be roused out of bed, she handled that disappointment with forgiveness and tolerance (we were notified too late to get her there on time on our own).

Balloon of A Moon: I was missing the girl, so by last night, driving back from a gathering in Manhattan, I called our daughter and then the apartment staff to ask if I could stop by for a bit. Affirmative. So I continued my journey up the Saw Mill Parkway, the night air super clear and an amazing yellow balloon of a moon floating above, actually to the east of my driver’s window. A wow of a moon bouncing along with me, like those sing along markers, keeping me company as I sailed up the ancient highway (ancient in the American sense of old), exiting on to Route 35 and entering the town of Ridgefield where I saw the most pleasing of New England Christmas sights. Main Street was lit with white lights shimmering up and down sidewalk trees and classic Victorian porches and the Ridgefield community center, a grand old mansion, was as if soaked in a vat of sparkly diamond juice, so ablaze was the building. As a Jewish girl from Long Island, the classic New England Christmas of modern times still bowls me over. Lucky girl our daughter, I thought, to live in such a beautiful town where joyful festivities are right outside her apartment door.

Tracking The Journey: I have been reading two books by parents of special needs children. The Anti-Romantic Child, A Story of Unexpected Joy by Priscilla Gilman, a glorious, personal and profound book and An Unexpected Life, A Mother and Son’s Story of Love, Determination, Autism and Art by Debra Chwast, wonderfully illustrated with paintings by her son Seth Chwast. Both tales start off with the kind of groping in the dark of discovery that “your child is different” that is almost identical to my own, where someone outside the immediate family points out that the child has issues (though the parent has already worried that thought) and the first response is to plead and pray with the powers that be, NO, this can’t be. And then the equally agonizing process of realization that the “difference” part is there and will never go away. That this child will not grow out of difference or up into anything completely “normal” ever, the signature of discovery that brands your parental skin with a searing and permanent marker. And grief for the child and the childhood that would never be. Loss, as Ms. Gilman so poignantly conveys, is at the core.

Half blinded by the piercing light of this revelation, the parents stumble along, from one specialist to another, starting the therapies, nose to the grindstone, reframing all that they knew and expected of life. But with time, hard work, and most importantly, getting to know your child freely while forsaking the “expectations” of the norm, liberation sets in and true appreciation of their very specialness and its gifts to you unfold.

Anti-Romantic Indeed: Priscilla Gilman’s title of her book cups in four words what those early days and months reveal: this is not your conventional parent-child romance. This is not the child who brings home the trophies, report cards, and bouquets for mom, who runs effortlessly through fields of tall grass, or trounces about in eyelet dresses wearing ribbons in her hair. Nope, this is a child of another kind altogether.

Dr. Powers: When our daughter was in first grade, the late Joan Parker, one of those angels who crossed our path during the “dark ages” of raising our daughter and the finest director of special services ever to work in our school system, referred us to Dr. Michael Powers for an evaluation, with the hopes that Dr. Powers would nail down just what was “different” about our daughter and maybe, I hoped, prescribe the silver bullet (still fantasizing that there would be such a thing, silly mom). Up until that point, we were dancing around diagnoses but never settling on one. Our daughter was so difficult to test, so anxiety ridden and resistant that I held little hope that this enterprise would offer anything useful. But fingers are always crossed. Just getting our daughter up to Newington, two hours or so away, without her tearing the car apart was a considerable challenge. But we succeeded and after some visits, I can’t recall how many now, Dr. Powers sat us down to tell us this: “Your daughter is an artichoke.” She was not autistic, too social. She had significant peaks and valleys so she didn’t fit with the flat trajectory of abilities of mental retardation either. She was an artichoke, with serious language disorders and math disorders, social anxiety, fine motor and gross motor issues and sensory integration issues, but capable of symbolic play, abstract thinking and social perception (he continued to observe her over the years and was the first person to assure me that she would definitely read someday, which she did and does quite well). But she was still an artichoke, and an artichoke she has remained.

Is This Romance? Yes, because I love artichokes, and unique individuals, and most of all, our daughter. And so do many other people, fortunately. As with the authors of the aforementioned books, the best part of parenting special needs is that you stretch beyond convention and perfection and welcome out of the box living and loving.

Safe Joyousness: Thank you Ms. Gilman and Ms. Chwast for telling your very personal stories. In fact, the hallmark of these stories is just how personal they are. Lucky us who walk on the wild side of parenting. No one ever thinks that we are lucky but these ladies know that we are. May that luck go with our children in their life long journey of embracing difference in safe joyousness.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011

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