To My Dear Idealized Child,
I had a funeral in my heart today. I had to lay to rest, every last hope and thought of you.
You were the child I thought I could have. You were the child I thought I did have. For a little while, at least.
I had done everything to guarantee you. I took prenatal vitamins, ate organic, listened to classical music and read books to you in utero.
The day you were born, you came bundled with all unlimited possibilities every new mother assumes as a birthright: birthdays and bicycles, proms and parties, tuxes and toasts. A charmed and carefree life. A normal life, just like everybody else.
But something was wrong early on. You didn’t look up, you didn’t respond, you didn’t run to us after a long day apart. But you didn’t cry or cling either. You were content to sit alone in a corner, absently clapping your toys together or staring into space.
Through forced smiles we declared, “Oh, he’s such an easy baby!” And even though you never called us Mommy or Daddy, we knew that you knew us.
But others were concerned. ”Does he make eye contact? Does he point? How often does he use words?” So many rude questions! I justified and dismissed every failed test. ”It’s because he’s hungry. He didn’t nap. This is a new place. He doesn’t like people in lab coats…”
In my heart, I knew I was losing you. Months of evaluations and assessments couldn’t prepare me enough for that inevitable day. How do you brace for a bomb headed towards your house? Nothing can prepare you enough for that moment of impact.
The day you were diagnosed was the day you died. They snatched you from me and drowned you in cold, meaningless babble,
“Patient meets diagnostic criterion 299.00 of the DSMIV. Moderate to severe autism. Severely disabled. Mentally retarded. Cognitively impaired. Non-verbal. Aggressive intervention of 40 weekly hours of applied behavioral analysis, speech therapy, occupational therapy, plus ancillary supports strongly advised. Prognosis unknown…”
How I fought to resuscitate you! I knew I could fix you if I just worked hard enough. So for years, we hemorrhaged money we didn’t have on therapies, medicines, attorneys, and even experimental procedures “unapproved in FDA trials.” Desperation is expensive and accrues a heavy penalty over time.
One person I defied the most, he didn’t have a fancy credential or license. He was a silent little boy who looked just like you. But I knew he wasn’t. You’d been rudely swapped out for this broken substitute. He came to live with us, uninvited, and I was offended enough that I refused to accept him.
This boy wandered aimlessly about our home, touching everything but connecting to nothing; surrounded by people but relating to no one. I didn’t know what to do with him. I couldn’t figure him out. And deep down, I didn’t want to.
He ruined our furniture and all my Hallmark-card-fantasies of motherhood. Deep down, I resented him because he made me feel incompetent. I secretly enjoyed other people’s children more. At least they talked, giggled and played. They responded. They gave back. But this child looked right past me and never met my eyes, despite the mental gymnastics I went through to try to engage him.
Obligingly, I did my duty to help him. And obligingly, he acquiesced to my demands.
“He has to talk, he has to play, he has to read, he has to write, he has to fit in, and he has to change…!”
My requirements were endless. But the more I insisted, the more miserable we all became. In my woundedness, I was trying to remake him into you. But how could he ever replace you? He could never become my Idealized Child.
My dear Idealized Child, I wish I could keep you. But I have to let you go. You’re actually quite wicked, I’ve learned. You haunt us at every graduation, birthday party and wedding, lurking in the shadows to taunt us with what could have been. The longer I hold on to you, the more you hurt us. So I finally summoned up the courage to bury all those fantasy pictures we’ll never take: the prom, our mother and son dance at your wedding, holding your first child.
After the lid was closed and I said my goodbyes, I was surprised to find him still standing by. He’d been waiting for me to love him, all this time. I’d been so preoccupied with my grief over you that I didn’t really notice. Yet he was patient and happy for whatever crumbs of affection I gave him.
Idealized Child, you’ve been a distraction, causing me to neglect the son I’ve been given. The more I linger with you, the less I’m present for him. It’s not fair to compare him to you — or any other child. Besides, you never really existed. The child I wanted, I didn’t get. The child I got, I didn’t want. But the one I got, was the one I needed. I tried desperately to refashion him into you. But he has been recreating me into a mother I didn’t know I could be.
So farewell and be gone. I loved you although I never knew you. I didn’t need to know you to grieve you. I have to surrender you because my son needs his mother right now, not lost in a future that will never be. He’s been waiting, and I’ve wasted so much time.
I’ve resolved to learn his language. I promise to try to understand him, instead of getting frustrated when he doesn’t understand me. Instead of glaring at him, I’ll get down and embrace him, eye to eye. And when words and repeated instructions fail, I’ll just hold him, fiercely willing my heart and intentions into him until they permeate his understanding. We will figure something out.
Today is his eleventh birthday, and we’re having a little party. Instead of despairing over parties we don’t get invited to, we’ve decided to throw our own. Maybe not a typical party for an eleven year old (those don’t really work for us, anyway.) But a party just the way he likes, with a bounce house, cheap pizza and scandalous amounts of candy. It will be a happy birthday because you’re not invited. Because it’s my son’s birthday, not yours.
Today, all his “inappropriate” laughter will be appropriate. I’ll be grateful for bewildering laughter instead of screaming. I’ll be grateful for the precious VIP’s who know how to celebrate him, just the way he is. Today, celebrating him just the way he is shall include me.
Idealized Child, I know we’ll be together again, some day. I’m confident in what I hope for, and have assurance about what I do not see. Because one day, my son will be whole, complete. He’ll finally be free of all labels, diagnostic criteria or disability. He may not be perfect here on this earth. But God has planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
For now, I may only know this non-verbal child partially, as if through a glass darkly. But one day, this child will become my Idealized Child. He’ll be perfect in every way, just as I will be made perfect when I’m reunited with my Father in glory. For none of us were ever meant to be misunderstood or separated. We were meant to be perfect, just as our Creator is perfect. For now, I can only imagine. What we will be has not yet been made known. But in that day, we will all know and be fully known. What a day of rejoicing that will be!
In the meantime, my son and I have many new dreams to envision, and many new pictures to take –even if he never learns to look at the bloody camera. In a few short years, when other mothers lament how their teenagers push them away and use ugly words, I will muse how my son will always need me, and cherish that he uses any words at all.
And the prom? Screw the prom. We’ll rock our own kickin’ prom.
Give us your blessing and wish us well. Won’t you?
With fond farewell,
- Do you have an Idealized Something (perhaps not a Child) that died, that still haunts you?
- Why is it so hard to surrender things that hurt us?
- What new dreams, pictures and memories have you been creating? In what new ways are you being recreated?
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