It happens at the strangest times. You start a new school for your son and things are working well. And then you see it. You drop off your daughter at pre-school, have a quick chat with her teacher. Smile graciously and accept the compliments about how great she's doing. You remember how hard it was for Jack at this same pre-school. You remember the time the teachers came to you and said "we know his 3 year-old check-up is coming soon... here's a list of concerns" and presented you with a list of behaviors and quirks to pass on to his pediatrician.
I remember how angry I was at first, then how amazingly grateful I was.
You wave good-bye to your baby girl. She says "I love you, daddy. Keep it real (yes, I taught her that one)". You remember that you picked up coffee for you and your wife at home, and it's waiting in the car. You look forward to lazing on the couch at home and slowly caffeinating yourself toward your day. Even the thought warms you.
And then you hear it. A child crying. A little girl standing in the doorway between the 2 and 3 year-old class. She must miss her mommy. But the wail continues as you walk by and smile. It gets louder, more hysterical, and you look for a teacher. Then you notice the hand-flapping... and the tippy-toe walking... and the lack of vocabulary... and your smile fades.
As you walk to the lobby to sign in your child you see the teacher talking to a mother. This was Jack's teacher when he was two. She shoots you a look. A look you've seen before. A look that simply says "help me".
You slow your pace to eavesdrop a bit.
"It's only her second day. She's never been away from me before. This is normal, right? She doesn't like to be touched. She doesn't talk much. Her pediatrician described her as 'Universally Delayed', but it's not Autism"
You feel a little guilty as you sign your child in and you say to yourself "yet".
But this isn't your child. This isn't your problem. This isn't your journey. I'm not a physician, what could I possibly do? I'm sure there are enough busy-bodies in the mother's life that this child is being assessed already... she said a pediatrician described the child as universally delayed... she must be on the road already. What can I possibly do?
As these thoughts cloud your head you realize you have already instinctively gone back to your car. You start your car and wait for the car in front of you to leave the circular driveway. It belongs to the mother, who is climbing into the driver's side quickly.
She doesn't start her car. As you get ready to tap your horn you look again. Her face buried in her hands, crying.
Her journey has just begun. You remember those mornings. I remember rushing away from drop-offs and appointments to hide in my car... and simply cry.
I open my car door and walk over to her window... yep, she's a mess. She hastily and tearfully rolls down her window and starts to apologize for not leaving.
I cut off her apology and hand her the coffee I had bought for my wife (she can get another). And it all came back to me. And I remembered something someone said to me at a birthday party when we still weren't sure where Jack's journey was going. A party where my wife and I had taken turns all afternoon following/directing Jack's maladaptive behaviors. The grandfather of the child who's birthday we were attending introduced himself as a psychologist (when he wasn't drinking beer at a birthday party). And he said to me perhaps the most important and heavy words I've ever received about my son... and I took a deep breath and repeated them to this mother:
"You deserve to be here. She deserves to be here"
I went back to my car. She smiled and waved back as she drove off.
And I placed my face in my hands and cried for her.
I'll be there for you.