Off the Beaten Path: A New Song
I am listening to the sound of the coyotes calling. It is early in the dark morning and the air is cold and smells bitter from the forest fire smoke that pools and settles in the low spots of the valley. The yips and barks of the coyotes begin slowly, then build into a great chorus. I don't know why I awoke, but hearing the coyotes feels like a gift.
I once read that coyotes howl and yelp to keep in touch with each other, and that their songs are a celebration. I am always surprised by them, songs that are beautiful and chilling and sad and exhilarating all at once. The sound resonates deep within me. The longing, and belonging. Coyote songs remind me of listening to opera—I don't understand it, but I do.
At the end of the summer my friend Sarah throws a deck party. She picks an evening and invites women from all over the valley, some faces I recognize, others I don't. Early in the night, I find myself speaking with a woman I know only a little bit. She asks what I have been up to, and I tell her about Avery. As soon as I reach the part about Down syndrome, she gets what I've come to think of as that look—it's as if she slipped on a Halloween mask, which she retreats behind as she tries to think of something to say. The woman I was speaking with is gone, and in her place is the yellow smiley-face icon. I instantly feel bad for her. I see that she's trying. I see that she's struggling. I intervene.
"It's okay," I say.
"You must worry," she says, after a moment. "I mean, every parent worries. You must worry."
Her comment is a new one, an observation that I hadn't heard before. Usually it's, "I'm sorry" or "You're so brave" or "I couldn't do what you do" or my least favorite, "God only gives those children to people who can handle them." I dislike these remarks for reasons that are obvious to me—I am not sorry, I am not brave, and I don't do anything that any other parent wouldn't do. The last one, in particular, implies that my son is some sort of punishment, or a trial. I don't think of Avery as either.
But tonight, with the smoky summer breeze floating gently across the lake, in the safety of Sarah's warm and friendly home, surrounded by many of my closest friends, I want to give this woman a real answer to her question, not a platitude or a cliché. I think for a moment, and what I feel surprises me. No. I am not worried about Avery.
I worry about my oldest son Carter—he is gentle and sensitive, which are qualities that I respect in him, but cause me motherly concern. Sometimes I wish I could teach him to protect himself more, to take his heart from his sleeve and wear it inside, safely shielded by his rib cage. My youngest boy Bennett is fierce, and while I admire his daring, it also gives me pause—how will we make it through the teenage years?
But Avery? I worry the least about Avery. An evening a few nights earlier, I was reading a book on the couch. Carter wanted me to get him a glass of milk, which he can do himself, but he wanted me to do it, to stop reading and pay attention to him. I mumble something about "in a minute," vaguely aware that I am raising children who are jealous of their mama's time with books. But I also believe that they'd be envious of anything I did that didn't include them, even if it was mopping the kitchen floor, and at least this way, there is a chance that my love of books will be passed on through osmosis. So I continue to read.
Bennett is next, also wanting milk, a copycat of his older brother. In fact, I suspect there might be collusion involved with this second request. Carter might have put him up to it. "One moment," I say, holding up my index finger, still reading. I am aware that Avery has pulled up next to me. He sits beside me. I am still reading. He sits quietly. I am transfixed, carried away from my life by the sentences of another woman, in another place, at another time.
Carter and Bennett have moved on and forgotten about me, about the milk. Avery strokes my hair. He is there. Avery is still beside me. He is wiggling, or something. I am busy. He is wiggling again. I turn the page. He reaches up, places each of his two small hands on my face and gently turns it from the page toward him, so that we are eye to eye. Then he signs, "Milk." He wants milk, too. Where the other boys have given up, Avery has stuck with it. In his single-mindedness, in his desire, in his knowledge of his desire, he has persevered. In his own way. In his own time. Which, as it turns out, is the right time. Time enough for me to lift my head out of my book and turn my attention toward my children, who, after all, have been very patient. Especially Avery. This is why I do not worry about him. Avery will find his way.
Imagine this: I am at a party having a conversation with a woman I barely know. I mention that I have a child, just a normal child. Would she pull out the smiley-face mask of empathy and pity and confusion? I don't think she would. I think she'd tell me about her children, or if she were childless, about her nieces and nephews. Why is this? Is it so hard to think of Avery as a child, first? Is it impossible to think that in addition to bringing us challenges, that he also might bring us joy? Is it so difficult to imagine a life with Avery, who is the first person I know who truly marches to the beat of his own drum? Sometimes I think Avery will find a way for all of us.
So I worry about a lot of things, but not Avery. I try to explain this realization to the woman, but the point is lost. Her genuine curiosity is gone and I am talking to the smiley-face again. It is a party, after all. It is the end of the summer. I am wearing a white cotton dress and a freshwater pearl necklace. There is a glass table filled with food—cheese and crackers, potato chips and onion dip, vegetables with ranch dressing. I brought Panzanella, an Italian bread salad. Judith has made white wine Sangria, and Judith's daughter Emily has brought Huckleberry Key Lime bars. The sun is warm and glowing and the stars are just beginning to come out.
Sarah has lit a dozen white votives in glass jelly jars, and I place them along the railing of the porch. The night is filled with the sound of women's voices, and laughter and music. In the midst of these women, I think of the coyotes. Calling to each other. Finding each other. Belonging. We are all trying as best we can, looking for a clear reflection of ourselves in each other's eyes, hoping to find our friends.
My song is the same as the other women's, mostly. But toward the end, there is a new part. It is a refrain in the key of Avery. I am not sorry. I am not afraid. I like it. It is strange and beautiful all at once, and if you let yourself listen, you might not think you understand it, but you will.
Jennifer Graf Groneberg
Jennifer Graf Groneberg lives and writes at the end of a twisty gravel road with her husband of fifteen years and their three sons. She maintains jennifergrafgroneberg.com, writes the blog Pinwheels, and a blog on ParentDish.
Jennifer's book Road Map to Holland about mothering her middle son Avery, a fraternal twin born with Down syndrome is due out April 2008, and is available for pre-order now.
Read more of Jennifer's Off the Beaten Path column.
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