It's Thursday morning. We are taking Natalie to a playgroup for developmentally disabled children. I put her hair in braids and pack up the other kids and we head out. My husband is driving and we are both pretending that this is going to be fun for her. We get out of the car. I find the hair ties that Natalie has ripped out of her hair. I attempt to put her braids back in amid her flailing but give up. We are greeted by the developmental specialists who are drinking their coffee and arranging pickle jars full of crayons and coloring books. Natalie plays on the jungle gym and I push her on the swings. Swings are one of the few things that don't offend my daughter. I don't think she has ever cried or yelled or puckered out her lower lip when soaring back and forth on a swing.
One by one, more families show up. Some of the children are relatively alright. They smile at you, at least. Some of them only looked to the ground without any interest in crayons or toys or jungle gyms. One little boy around five just stood and cried. He sounds so desperate for help, so deadset against what he is experiencing. He sounds like Natalie does so many times throughout the day. There are babies and school age children. There are parents who seem embarrassed to be there and parents who look as if these playgroups are godsent.
We gather up our children and they begin to color. Jason takes the other kids to the adjacent playground where the YMCA kids are swinging and laughing. I stay behindd and coax Natalie into tracing puzzle pieces with a crayon. She names all the colors she uses. I notice the pain in the eyes of a few other parents as she does this. I feel both guilty and elated. Maybe the delays in speech and the tantrums are just part of a phase.
Now we move the kids to the gazebo so we can sing songs. We sing the name game song. The specialist asks Natalie her name. "Name!" my girl shouts. The specialist tries again, "What is YOUR name?" "HIPPO!" Natalie responds. I have to laugh at this although I know there really is nothing funny about it. We proceed to try to engage the kids in rounds of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". We try to get them to sing or at least make the hand motions. Somewhere inside I think we know that we're fighting an unbeatable enemy. Natalie gets upset. She tries to flop out of my arms like a ragdoll and squeals. I look up and notice that a majority of the other children have been taken out of the gazebo. No one is singing except for the parents. We sing "If You're Happy and You Know It" and I fraudulently clap my hands. Natalie is on the ground crying.
Now the children have free time while the specialists consult with the parents. The mother of one of the five year olds asks me how long Natalie has been potty trained. I tell her that I started when she was two and she's still having accidents seven months later, but she's improving. She breaks down. Her son still wears diapers. I sit there in an awkward silence, trying to think of something positive to say but drawing a blank. When she goes to talk to the specialist, the boy's mother confesses to losing her temper at the child and requests that he be placed in foster care. Phone calls are made. I hug Natalie who is happily eating fruit snacks.
I eavesdrop on the other parents. Some of them are like me, wondering if they have a normal child who is just a little behind. Some of them know for cerrtain that their child will never go to a normal school, be able to drive a car, or live and function on their own. All of us are in limbo: waiting for the diagnosis or the label that will give us the instructions on how to plan for our child's future, our own futures. Waiting for the other shoe to fall. Waiting for a miracle.
The specialist tells me that Natalie is doing well. I'm tempted to say that some days it doesn't feel like any progress has been made, but I don't want her to think that I have given up on my baby. I smile and put on my brightest expectations. I try to remember to take small bites of this sorrow, yet I find myself choking on crumbs.
The other parents are leaving. Some children are crying. My child is not. She waves and hugs her specialist and we get into the car.
I offer to get a pizza and Natalie seems excited about it. As Jason yells and curses at the geezer in the car in front of us, I sit and count the cracks in my heart. A slight crack for the day that Nataile slept for 20 hours and awoke screaming then screamed for what seemed like a week. A fissure for the countless times I have yelled at her out of frustration. The Grand Canyon for the fact that my daughter cannot count to 10 or say her alphabet or even tell me she loves me. And a thin, deep line for today when I realized that normal isn't an option.
I crawl into bed. I tell Jason I have a migraine and he takes charge of the kids for the rest of the afternoon. He is a good man. I don't think I'll make it through this without him. He closes the door to our room and I cry from the core of my soul for my sweet baby, for the kids at the playgroup and their parents, for my own stupid, misguided plans. Now my head really does hurt.
I open the door and find an ice pack in the fridge. Natalie comes in and I look at her. She is so beautiful. Such huge blue eyes and perfect blonde hair. The others come tramping into my room. They are so smart and full questions. "Why does my head hurt?" "Why have I been lying down?" "What causes headaches?" Natalie says nothing. She only takes my forehead in her tiny hands and kisses it. Those cracks in my heart so deep and wide, start to fill and all of a sudden my soul feels as if it is contented. I realize that the my daughter, my family, the world, are not just as I think they should be, but they are miraculous none the less.