A Place Where Everyone Knows Your Name: June 14 our daughter and her parents sallied up to Cape Cod to attend Riverview School’s Fifteenth Annual Gala under the castle-like shimmering white tent on the campus in East Sandwich. Except for one sad and brief visit in September of 2011 to attend a memorial for a former classmate a mere two months after her graduation from Grow, Riverview’s post secondary program, our daughter had not been back to the school that housed her and loved her for five fruitful years. She told us as we drove in that she felt nervous. No sooner had we stepped out of the car than one of her former teachers spotted her and called out her name. Seconds later her guidance counselor came across the drive in front of the splendid new James Center to do the same. And it went on much like that for the entire afternoon and evening that we spent revisiting a place “where everyone knows your name.”
Our daughter’s reception by former dorm counselors, educators, custodial staff, administrators and schoolmates, who were packing up their dorm rooms and rehearsing for Sunday’s graduation, was warm, humorous and personal. Two years was as nothing for the dedicated staff and faculty at this bastion of special education, the best there is to be found from one coast to another in this country. They knew her and she knew them! They chuckled, calling her Madame and other terms of endearment held over from years passed. This was the place that we brought our daughter to live and learn in September 2006 and frankly one that I never wanted to leave. This was the place that was peopled by parents with whom I had little to explain, who knew the journey, a place where we could all affirm our children together, with the respect they deserved. At last.
A Cherished Home, However Temporary: Our plan was to attend the Gala and then leave the next morning for a visit with family in Maine, and that is what we did. My one concern was whether our daughter would become restless and bored, now that she was an alumnus, and therefore not a part of the student event that evening. Instead she was a guest at a table of adults who were listening to speeches and bidding on live auction items whilst sipping wine and dining on gourmet courses generously provided by area restaurants. But to my astonishment and joy, our daughter had no such moments, lasted out the evening with greater stamina then her old mom, and vibrated with humor and pleasure when greeted by faculty or upon hearing someone with whom she had worked mentioned in speeches. The maturity acquired by this young woman since her days at Riverview was never more obvious to me. She was gracious, confident and able to sustain both energy and interest through an evening geared for adult fundraising and honoring others. She continues to grow, wherever she goes.
The Glow of Gratitude: My other focus of attention was on the faces of the parents at each table, faces that were, well, ecstatic, glowing faces with broad grins and easy chuckles. This is hard to explain but parents of special needs children will understand. Riverview is a cherished home to families who are lucky enough to have placed their children within their campus walls. And when we are gathered together to honor that cherished place, there is no greater joy than to affirm that gratitude and celebrate the dedication of its leaders and faculty. And so, as the parent, you never want to leave, ever. Because Riverview gets it and gives it like nowhere else, thanks to its vision, its mission and its incredible grasp of what it is to be challenged, gifted and unique in the world.
The Measure of The Months: And so we moved on to Maine, and out of Riverview’s warm embrace. Yes, I guess, I did leave my heart in East Sandwich but our daughter did not. She is thriving in her new life in Ridgefield, an adult with increasing independence that is marked each month by new achievements and skills. How to measure that growth: easy. Yesterday for the first time ever, she willingly performed in a play that her Ability Beyond Disability day service program put on. Her role was as a grandmother, wearing a long white curly wig and sporting a cane. Dressed in an ankle length red dress, she memorized and extemporized her lines, bent over with a hand placed on “my aching back, oh my sciatica” while blessing her grandson and his wife on their planned nuptials in a drive-in wedding ceremony in Las Vegas. A theater lover and humorist, for years we had hoped that she would be able to express what we knew were her talents for both but instead she never seized opportunities offered at Riverview and later with the Sphere theater group she attended. At last, she found the confidence, maturity and right forum to do so. The director said, “She is amazing, perfect for improv.” And clearly the gal to play the character parts.
Responsibility and House Cleaning: The Ability Beyond Disability staff are also noticing increasing maturity and self-confidence in our daughter. At the play, the residential coordinator informed me that our daughter for the first time told staff she wanted to clean her room, independent of any initiation by staff and then went forward, dusting, vacuuming and basically establishing a sense of accomplishment, ownership and pride in doing so. That is a big wow/leap!
Her vocabulary continues to expand and an ever-increasing social awareness and grace flourishes alongside it. Last weekend she was invited to join “the adults” for a dinner at friends. Her response, “Mom, I like so and so dearly, but I don’t want to be with the adults tonight. I want to be with people my own age.” I dove right in saying how gracious she was and that I would let our friends know that she said ‘Mom, I love so and so dearly….’ “ No mom, I didn’t say that. I said I like so and so…” She knows what she said and she knows the difference too between like and love and most importantly the boundary between mom and me.
Boundaries: Our daughter has always guarded the boundaries between her parents and her self, wanting since early childhood to be her own boss, initiate her own agenda, and define her identity as very separate from both parents. So she didn’t want dad’s paintings in her apartment and she has shown little interest in mom’s book though, with her permission, the book is illustrated with her collages. However, recently I was invited to talk about the book at our local library and brought along six or so of her framed pieces, again with her permission. One of the attendees was so awed by her talent that she invited our daughter to place a collage in a prestigious art exhibit in New York City at the National Arts Club. The piece sold. Here again, our daughter is full of surprises. She wanted to go to the opening, which I had not expected, but once there was overwhelmed by the crush of the crowd and all the strange adults spilling in and out of the narrow rooms. But she stayed, with the help of her brother’s and his friend’s presence. Since then she has received more accolades and there is interest in showing her work in our town’s library art show. Something prevents her from celebrating this talent. Perhaps because she is not initiating all this, she seems to have little interest and remains perhaps cautious or, even more likely, resistant to pressures from others.
Complex and Intriguing Gal: She is as complex and intriguing a young woman as one can find, in the normal world and the world of difference. And for that reason, finding places such as Riverview and Ability Beyond Disability that know how to channel, celebrate and support growth in someone of her complexity is something every parent of a special child should aim for, as best they can. As the director of the theater performance said to the audience, these young people “bring out the best in us.” And people like this wonderful gentleman, and places like ABD and Riverview reciprocate by bringing out the best in these young people.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013