My older son just started seventh grade, his second year in middle school. As always on school days, I prepared a quick breakfast and then went about assembling lunch. Though not particularly inspired, the lunches I provide are well-rounded and healthy and I take pride in creating them. When the neighbor kid arrived early to walk to school, my son grabbed his lunchbox and shoved it in his backpack.
"But it’s not ready," I protested.
"It’s okay, Mom," he answered, throwing the backpack over one shoulder.
"You don’t have dessert. And I forgot the napkin," I said.
"Mom. It’s okay," he said again, not unkindly but with a new firmness in his voice that I hadn’t heard.
I watched him walked down the driveway, laughing with his friend, and I felt my eyes fill with tears. This was unexpected. I sat down for a moment, wondering what was making me sad and I thought back over the nearly thirteen years since I had given birth to this child. When my son was born, he was low birth weight and after the ounces that babies lose in those first few days, we took him home from the hospital weighing less than some oven roasters I’ve seen in the grocery store.
"The baby’s head is quite small. Did you do cocaine while pregnant?" the doctor asked me on the first visit as he measured my baby.
"No!" I answered, appalled.
“Marijuana, heroin, cigarettes?”
“No! No! No!”
"Well, don’t worry. Many people with microcephaly go on to have perfectly normal lives."
Naturally, I googled ‘microcephaly’. Don’t. There’s nothing there that breeds optimism. My husband and I went along, taking the small miracles of parenthood with the daily struggles. Our son didn’t gain weight, wouldn’t eat, cried a lot. But he giggled and smiled and was delighted with the world. True, he was late with milestones but always hit them. Except for talking. By the time he was two years old, it was apparent that we needed to call Early Intervention. When the specialists tested him and said that he didn’t qualify, we thought that meant that our son didn’t need services. The learning curve is steep when you pile a disability onto the experience of first-time parents and we’ve learned the hard way that what a child needs and what a county can provide are two very different things.
Fast-forward to the present: We have two healthy sons, the second born three years after the first. At 5’4", our older son is no longer tiny and my grocery bill reminds me that he has no trouble eating. We live in a wonderful school district and our sons want for nothing. My husband and I feel very fortunate. At the same time, ours is not a Hollywood story in which the main character learns through trial and tribulation that he is gifted beyond his dreams – but then again, whose life is like that? Our oldest son has exceeded everyone’s expectations. He is a great kid: a hard-working student, good friend and an enthusiastic athlete. But it’s hard to tell what the future holds for him, if he will go to college, be able to work and live on his own – or not.
The moment that he grabbed his lunchbox and walked out the door with confidence, I felt the separation that is supposed to grow during the adolescent years. I realized that my eyes welled with tears because I celebrated this normal developmental milestone while also mourning the further cleaving of my son away from me and toward his future.