of pop-up books and balance beams
16 November 2001
It’s one of those afternoons you don’t want to end. The sky has shifted from gray to blue and the light feels like joy. The sun warms cheekbones and arms and dusts the top of your hair with bright promise. I want to linger outside, enjoying the caress of soft air, enjoying cheating the bite of early winter. Somewhere it’s snowing, but not here.

My little boy feels the lure of the sun too; he refuses to go in the house, and I can’t blame him. I say, "Do you want to go to the library around the corner?" I bait the hook: "You can ride in the stroller." He lights up.

I pull the stroller from its porch resting place. Blow off the dust. Set it down on the ground. He examines it. "Mommy, open the seatbelt." Yes sir.

He wedges himself in. What was roomy at two years old is now beyond snug, but the novelty of it mixed with a large dose of nostalgia outweighs any possible discomfort.

We head off, my little passenger reciting the itinerary to himself: "We’re going to the library on the corner," he says, and points vaguely northward. "In the stroller," he adds, satisfaction coloring his tone.

We pass a fire station. The heavy door is open, we can see all the way to the cement back yard. "There’s a fire truck!" He points. "It’s big and red," he adds. I ask, "Do you want to get out of the stroller, go see the fire truck? Or stay in the stroller and go to the library?"

He doesn't hesitate. "I want to go to the library." Stroller. Sun. Comfort. Forget the fire truck.

We walk on. As we do, I can’t help but remember how I used to go for long walks with Damian in the stroller or the sling. Or the Baby Bjorn, my little Damian riding on my chest. My vulnerable little Damian. I didn’t know then how vulnerable.

We used to stop at the fire station around the corner from our old house. He was entranced with the shiny powerful engines back then, but he never uttered a sound. The words that now trip off his tongue so effortlessly used to get stuck somewhere between brain and throat. The fire fighters would welcome him cheerfully, wanting to show him around, but he always held back, stayed within the sheltering circle of Mommy warmth. I could see their baffled expressions at this withdrawn, scared child who never uttered a word. I made excuses. I protected. I hoped he’d change.

He has changed, so much. But yet not completely. He’s still shy around strangers. He answers their questions in mumbled monosyllables. If they ask, "What’s your name?" he replies so softly, so indistinctly, I have to translate for him. But he smiles at them now, and he looks at them now, and they chalk his quietness up to normal preschooler anxiety, which in a way it is.

We continue on to the library in the late afternoon sun. The faintest hint of chill licks the hairs on my arms. I’m glad Damian’s warm in his favorite long sleeved red shirt. Leaves crunch underfoot. Even here, in the California heat, the leaves turn yellow and brown and coat the sidewalk with their crumpled rug. Yellow leaves and palm trees. The contradictions of the climate.

I park the stroller in front of the library. Damian clambers out. We walk into the cement block building hand in hand. Once inside, he makes for the children’s section. I set a book on the return counter and follow him.

He’s standing at the divider, uncertain where to head. To the table in the corner, with the Asian girl paging through an intriguing pop-up book? Or to one of the four other tables with their baskets of board books and nobody else around? I can predict where he’ll head: he’s afraid of other children. He’s going to go for one of the empty tables.

But still he waits. Still he stands, indecisive. Maybe he doesn’t realize all the tables have books? I point out the baskets, suggest a table.

Still he waits. Still he stands. I wait too. I watch him, wondering what’s going on in his head.

He decides.

He heads straight for the populated table. I’ll be damned.

I follow as closely in his tracks as I can without stepping on his small heels.

He sidles up to the little girl.

"Do you want to see another book?" I ask.

"I want to see that book." He’s firm.

She closes it. I ask her, "Are you done?" She assents. (In retrospect, I should have coached him to ask her, but this is so new to me, this verbal and unafraid child of mine. I have to get used to the idea before I can follow through to the next step.)

Damian takes possession of the coveted book, flipping through the pages and enjoying the three dimensional scenes that pop out.

A boy with straight blond hair becomes interested. He crowds next to Damian, looking over his shoulder. Damian doesn’t flinch.

"Are you almost done with that book?" the boy asks. Damian hands him the book and moves on to another. Standing side by side with a dark haired six year old girl and a tow headed five year old boy, he looks so small, so young, but so comfortable there. So normal.

What’s made the difference? The extra floor time therapy he’s been getting lately? The weekly play date with William from his class (a boy with a relatively simple speech delay)? The way they’re reorganizing his classroom so he can spend more time in a virtual class-within-a-class with his true peers? The weekly My Gym class, where he gets to climb and glide, swing from a trapeze and slither from one end of the room to the other in a pack of typical kids? Maybe all of it. Maybe it’s everything. Maybe it’s just the next step, and he’s ready to move forward.

Something is changing inside his heart. He’s not as fearful of other children. He’s starting to act, well, normal. This past weekend, when we ate out with Diane, Darin and Sophia, I wanted to offer Sophia some of his toys. He wasn’t using them. He said "No!" and "I want the toys!" No more passive Damian. The new Damian is possessive and territorial. Like any other kid his age.

I stand in the library now watching his ease as he stands with the other children and I remember a similar scene just a few hours ago, at his occupational therapy session. He’d been looking forward to the ball pit all the way there: "Rivka has a ball pit and Rivka has a slide and Rivka has a swing," he told me. "I’m going to go in the ball pit." And when we got there, he did exactly that. Scaled the steps and plopped down in among the brightly colored balls. But then he caught sight of the twin boys across the room. They were standing on stools, fishing for magnetic fish.

He clambered out. "I want to play the fishing game!"

So Rivka went in search of a fishing rod for Damian. No luck. No rods to be found except the ones in the twins’ clutches. She told Damian he could get his chance when the twins were done.

They were done. Rivka set up the fishing game for Damian. Who played a grand total of one minute before becoming completely distracted by the twins’ next game.

"I want to walk on the bounce beam!"

So he teetered and tottered on the balance beam. All three boys took turns. Walked together, too. Traded heavy phone books back and forth. Damian was happy.

Let me give that the proper emphasis: my boy was happier playing with two strange boys than playing on his own. My child is more intrigued than dismayed by the presence of other children. My little guy is learning how much fun kids can be.

Yes, something is shifting inside Damian’s head and heart, and the knowledge slowly but surely heals my own heart. I know now that he will have friends and eventually, as he grows, lovers too. The biggest fear with the kind of mild autism he has is not that he won't function in the world. It's obvious by now that he will be able to keep a job and make his own meals. The fear is that he will live his life in isolation, not knowing what it's like to love and be loved by friends and spouse and children of his own. That he won't know what he's missing because he's backed away from the too-strange, too-intimidating world of social interaction.

These signs I'm starting to see, this interest in other kids, it means the world to me. It means he wants to reach out. He's taking the first baby steps toward that goal. His first friendship may even happen soon. A matter of months.

What a huge step that will be.

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copyright 2001 Tamar