life of the party

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Brooke read the invitation every time she passed by it. For weeks, it hung from a push pin at the very bottom of the bulletin board that occupies one long wall in our kitchen.

She would drag her little pointing finger along the words as she read them. “L and A are turning six.”

The twin girls are adorable. L is in Brooke’s class. She goes out of her way to talk to Brooke and to play with her on the playground. One day early in the school year, Luau watched them in a sisterly struggle to decide which twin could play with her first.

We happily said that Brooke would love to attend the party.

And then the details began to emerge.

Fifty five children had been invited. No, that wasn’t a typo. FIFTY FIVE CHILDREN. The twins are in two different classes. They invited all of their classmates. Then of course, there was family and a couple of extra friends. Fifty five.

I imagined such a scene taking place at one of the local kid’s gyms. It was still a terrifying prospect, but I convinced myself that if she could at least run around, run off when she had to – have a place to escape to – that she could get through it. Apparently, I hadn’t actually read the invitation. Or maybe I just blocked it out.

The party was to take place at a small arts and crafts shop in town. It’s adorable. It’s well run. They do a fabulous job with birthday parties. AND IT IS SMALL. Fifty five kids would nearly fill it to capacity. Every chair would be filled. The noise level could be disastrous. This was a recipe for the perfect sensory storm.

I thought about pulling the ripcord. I must have changed my mind on it as many times as I change outfits before leaving the house. There was no right answer.

On Sunday morning, we rehearsed. We practiced calmly asking for a break if she needed one. I felt like a constant nag. I was starting to annoy even myself. Over and over and over again, I’d ask her, “What do you say if you need to walk away?”

“I need a break.”

“Do we yell?”

“No, we don’t.”

“Do we use our tears or our words?”

“We would use words.”

She dutifully answered each and every time, but I had no idea if or how it would translate into the reality of the party.

With a deep breath (mine), we headed in. The very sweet young lady at the door informed me that pick up was at 3:30. Hmm, well, um. She said ever so gently, “We have a tremendous number of kids so we are asking parents to drop off.”

In two sentences I explained why I wasn’t going anywhere. I told her that I promised to stay out of the way.

Brooke wiggled out of her jacket and surveyed the room. We were exactly on time, if not a minute or two early, so the room was still quiet. Maybe six kids milled around. We hung our jackets on the wall and turned back around. The six kids had multiplied like bunnies. Ten, fifteen. They were now pouring in. I steered her toward a line that was forming for face painting. She stood on the line like a pro, waiting her turn.

The room was beginning to fill. The noise level rose. I heard that forty seven kids would be the final count.

She tried to do her sillies with a friend from class. When she didn’t get a response, she relented. She looked a little confused, but none too worse for the wear.

When she made it to the head of the line, the face painter tried to hand her a page of sample designs. She didn’t bother to look at it. “I would have a red star.”

I caught her eye and made a ‘p’ with my lips. She added an exaggerated, ‘Pleeeeeeeeease” complete with an awkward attempt at eye contact.

Once her star was complete, the room was nearly full. Kids were everywhere, finding their way onto the face painting lines and then splintering off to one of the three tables upon which they would search for their name on a personalized gum ball machine that they would decorate. We found Brooke’s and she sat down to wait. And she waited. As in, she sat quietly and calmly and waited for the other kids. I have witnesses. I am not making this up.

Once the other kids had made their way to the table and filed in like little sardines, they handed out the stickers with which they could decorate their gumball machines. Stickers! The holy grail of comfort zone! As kids bumped and yelled and squealed around her, Brooke decorated her gumball machine. As they reached over her, grabbing for supplies, as they got RIGHT IN HER SPACE, she decorated.

I took a deep breath and tried desperately not to hover. I took the birthday girls’ mom’s camera from her and walked around snapping pictures, making myself useful. I kept a furtive eye on her, trying not to be seen. She was doing just fine.

The kids moved to a (far too) small area in the middle of the room. They jumped and turned and reached and twirled along with the music, following the instructor. Brooke had her hands planted firmly on her ears, but she was dancing. She followed along with a grin. She jumped when they jumped. She spun when they spun.

The instructor asked them to scream. I watched, knowing. She pushed her little hands harder into the sides of her head, trying to mute the sound. “C’mon, now!” yelled the leader, “You can do better than that!” The kids obliged with a louder scream. Brooke turned around, searching for escape. “Mama, I need a break.” Her voice was anxious and strained, but that was it. THAT WAS IT.

I took her to what looked like a quiet corner. I asked if it was better. She said that it was, but after a quick moment (and still pounding music) she said, “I would need outside.”

We stood outside. We danced. We laughed when she said, “We would shake our little bottoms now.” (And we did!) We must have been quite a sight through the window. I couldn’t have cared less.

I crouched down and got right under her little nose. I looked into those beautiful big eyes and said, “I’m so proud of you, baby. I am so, so proud of you.”

She looked back at me. “I am so, so proud of you too, Mom.”

God bless that damn echolalia. I took it. I put meaning in it. I was kinda proud of me too.

I asked if she wanted to go back inside. I got her latest version of ‘yes’.

“Sure. Sure. Sure.”

That was IT. She went back to the project table to join in for round two. She colored in her Rock star t-shirt. She shared markers. Kids in her face, reaching over her. Nothing.

It wasn’t until the very end of the party when the parents began to arrive and all of the kids were scrambling to collect their favors that she finally lost her words and let the screams fly. We thanked the birthday mom and ran like the wind.

But holy hell, people. FORTY SEVEN KIDS in a SMALL room SINGING, JUMPING, YELLING and my kid made it through that.

We got in the car and she perseverated on the same sentence all the way home. I let it go. We both needed a break.

I can’t believe we’re here.

A year ago? Nine months ago? Three months ago? Hell no.

But now?

We’re in the mix. We’re doing it. We’re here.

And I gotta tell you,  it’s a glorious place to be.

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21 thoughts on “life of the party

  1. Yes! YEs! YES!!!! I was terrified to read this story because the painful details included in your post on Brooke’s own birthday party last year still haunt my memory. With eyes full of tears I rejoice in how only triumph emerges from this post – -of a child who knows keenly how to use her tools and a mother who knows when and how to both encourage her child to take risks (and thus push progress forward) and how and when to help her child retreat into a comfort zone. You have me on a mountain top this morning. CONGRATULATIONS to you and Brooke. Very, very well done!

  2. This post made me cry. Because I have been there. Many many times over. That no right answer: do we pin the proverbial tail on the donkey or do we sit this one out? That wariness: I don’t do drop offs. That building elation: Maybe it will be okay? And finally, that feeling of having survived.

    It’s amazing, Jess. When it all comes together (and it doesn’t always, does it?), it is amazing. I am overjoyed that Brooke had such a wonderful time, that she hung in there, and shook her little bottom with her friends and her best mama. Hooray for both of you!

  3. Hi. I have been reading your blog for months now. I am not the mother of an autistic child, however, my boyfriend’s son is autistic. We have been together for more than a year and have been going through a lot of what you go through. I usually cry when I read your blog, a good cry. Tears of hope. Today’s read touched me immensely. Small baby steps. They will get there, with out love and support. They will get there.

  4. all – thank you! thank you! thank you! i’m still doing my happy dance almost a week later (shaking my bottom and all)

    k – welcome. it’s so nice to have you

    hope, yes indeed, my friend .. it abounds around these parts

    but a warning .. it seems to spread

  5. OMG! I was right there with you, holding my breath! (Why do they always have to f-ing encourage the “SCREAM!” WHY, WHY, WHY)!!!

    Brooke is amazing! SO amazing that she could articulate. She used her words! She KICKED BUTT!

    GO LITTLE GIRL! You are so great!!!!

    I am reveling in your success.

  6. have i told you people lately how much you ROCK?

    sharing this with you all .. you GETTING this with me .. you CELEBRATING this with us. well, yeah, you friggin rock, people.

  7. I would shake my bottom, too!
    It is so glorious to hear that Brooke is having so much FUN now with her peers – I just remember the story of her trying to interact with those little girls (I just edited out an explitive…) in the pool, how desperately she wanted to join them. She must feel so happy that now she has the tools to join in their games!

  8. Jess, if you don’t stop making me cry I’m going to hae to ban you from my google reader. Seriously! ;-)

    All I have to say is “Holy F-ing A!” (Um, loosely translated that means you both rock and I am shaking my large booty over here in celebration!)

    And, yes, the hope is spreading…fast. :-)

  9. congratulations! good for you two! i couldn’t have done it. i (AS adult) couldn’t have been there for my son (AS) to help get him through all that. we have a long road ahead of us.

  10. oh, cyndi ..

    thank you so much for your kind words. i can imagine how difficult it is
    for those who share many of their children’s challenges to navigate some
    of the trickier minefields that we all face. but the flip side of that
    is that you, like so many parents who share their children’s diagnosis,
    have the benefit of truly understanding your child in ways that some of
    us never will. for a kid who can feel somewhat isolated, that is an
    incredible gift.

    quite frankly, in the scheme of things, i’d imagine that it means far
    more to have empathy and understanding and compassion – the comfort of
    shared experience- than a mom who can stick it out through a chaotic
    party.

    we all face a long road, and we all tackle it in our own way. both you
    and your child will be undoubtedly be much richer for walking it
    together.

  11. Just happened across your blog while I am hiding out from my kids. This post brought me to tears – over your daughter’s accomplishment but also from the way in which you describe the whole experience. I too have been there after a long road of speed bumps and pot holes. Welcome.

  12. Jess, Once again I am way behind on your posts, but as I sat here reading this one I just kept saying, “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness.” Brooke is AMAZING! As, of course, are you and Luau. But I am so impressed with not only her ability to realize that she needed a break but her ability to access that appropriate language in the midst of it. And then to even take it a step further when the break provided was not enough. My jaw has dropped. :)

    Love you!

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