When I'm missing something, it always seems to turn up in the last place I look.
A couple of weeks ago, I brought Big E to the two-hour dress rehearsal for her skating show. I sat bundled in a parka on the grimy bleachers and pulled out a thick folder of essay drafts. Amidst a swirl of giddy little girls, blaring show music and chatty moms, I tried hard to scour for comma splices and pronoun-antecedent agreement.
The mother of a boy in Big E's class settled in front of me. We'd both been spending our Thursday evenings in those bleachers since fall and we'd talked a few times. I smiled and said hi but quickly turned back to my essays, fluffing the pile with dramatic flourish and hoping that this would discourage further conversation.
My standoffishness wasn't just about my workload. There was, first, the fact that I'm just not a chatter. I hate making small talk; friendly chit-chat eludes me and I find myself awkwardly smiling and nodding, desperately searching for a polite exit.
Also, if I'm really being honest, there was my not-so-generous assessment of her (which, I realize, reflects less flatteringly on me than on her). She spent a lot of time volunteering at the school and was, in my opinion, a little boastful about it. She complained in a braggy way about all of her kids' activities, and though I would politely smile and nod, I would be inwardly rolling my eyes at her pride in overscheduling. Then there was the way she'd suddenly get all shrill on her kids in a way that, while probably not permanently damaging, made me uncomfortable. Oh, and there was her son's fauxhawk. I mean, why do people try so hard to make their kids cool in the first grade? Also, she had definitely said li-berry more than once. So, I was a tad judgey...
I wielded my essays like a conversational shield, not biting when she asked if I was doing work, shrugging good-naturedly but without elaboration when she asked if I could really get anything done with all the racket. But soon I found myself smiling and nodding through a detailed description of her daughter's costume for her dance recital, stealing glances down at my papers as I made polite noises during a recap of her son's hockey season.
Then we got to talking about pre-schools. She told me that her son had spent two years in a private nursery school but that her daughter had attended the public pre-school at the elementary school, and I said something profound, like "Oh, really?" She looked away and said very quickly, "Well, she has an IEP. So..."
And then I put down my pile of essays, because I knew that second of hesitation. I had felt it myself earlier that week when we ran into a neighbor as I was signing out of the elementary school office after Little E's occupational therapy session. Just as he cheerfully inquired whether we'd been helping out in Big E's classroom I'd faltered, feeling both protective of Little E and just too tired to explain. When the secretary interrupted him with a question, I was relieved to let the moment pass.
I had spent the months since we'd had our concerns about Little E's underdeveloped motor skills confirmed agonizing over it from all angles, and no one, however well-meaning, had been able to say a thing that made me feel better. People, trying to lessen my concerns, talked about Down Syndrome and disease, which made me feel petty and unappreciative. Some advised second opinions, suggesting skepticism of our plan and making me feel an incompetent advocate. Others tried to sympathize with stories that meant to parallel my experiences with Little E, but which only made me feel less understood for their dissimilarities.
I leaned forward then, and I told this mother in the bleachers that Little E had just been put on an IEP. I hoped to hear from her that thing that I'd been looking for, whatever that was.
Instead, she launched into a dizzying list of her daughter's struggles, an inventory that dwarfed my worries. She inquired about our interventions and then ticked off all that she would be doing in our shoes --coins in Silly Putty, sticker mosaics, bead stringing --and I nodded feigning new interest at suggestions that I'd heard over and over in the past months. I tuned out as she started chronicling the expert opinions she'd sought on her daughter's behalf. She was clearly not going to say whatever words I'd been looking for.
By the time she began to wind down, her daughter's group was on the ice. She looked down to the far end of the rink, and concluded, "But, so...yeah." Then she dropped her shoulders and sighed softly, never taking her eyes off her little girl, who was working in earnest to keep in line with the other skaters in her group.
For one crazy second I had to fight myself back from reaching out and grabbing hold of her hand.
That sigh was quiet but unequivocal validation of the mess of emotion I'd wallowed in for the past months: the uncertainty, the melancholy, the hope, the guilt, the worry, the loss, the frustration, the overwhelming love. I felt it all there, whether she'd meant it or not.
I'd been looking for months, searching over and over in a sea of words. And there it was, all in a sigh.