He points to the basketball court on the far side of the playground.
"Mommy, c'mon!" he shouts as he takes off running towards the court, away from the swingset we'd be standing near. He gets about eight feet from me before he stops and turns at the waist to look at me, one hand outstretched behind him, the tiny palm up.
"Mommy, hand!" he demands.
"Of course I'll hold your hand, buddy," I respond, catching up to his tiny frame in long strides, clasping hands without missing a beat, then off he goes running, attempting to drag me behind him. He laughs joyfully and without restraint and I suck in the crisp air sharply, tying as many senses as possible to this fleeting moment.
I hold on to the happy whenever I can.
We walk past the two teenagers playing on the court, each with a basketball in their hands. This park is in a much better suburb than our shady neighborhood, and there's a good chance that one of those balls was here, provided by the park. I bite back my annoyance as I watch both boys apprise me and my son, then turn their backs and continue on with their shoot-off.
It wouldn't have killed them to share a ball, but whatever.
"Mommy, I runnin! Look at me, Mommy, I play basketball!"
Yes, buddy, yes you are.
In many ways he acts as a small child -- he still tantrums, he still struggles with direction and independence, he still has a fair amount of accidents. But in others, he shows his maturity, his intelligence, and I am always awestruck at the boy he's become.
He's not handicapped, they said. But he definitely has issues.
I always feel like I'm missing something huge with him, that there's something so obvious that other parents are doing with their five-year-olds that I'm not and if I could just find it, it would flip a switch. I wonder if organized activities like sports would help him, but then I worry that his fierce independence and aversion to authority would cause that all to backfire. And that's even if I could find somewhere that would take a kid with the issues he has, the complications and road blocks that keep him from being on par with his peers.
I don't know how to help him.
So I work on being kinder, on being slower and giving him time to adjust. I validate his feelings unless he's hurting himself or his sister or the pets or his things and then no, no we need to redirect that energy and we need to be gentle and kind because no one likes to be hurt, not even you. I ask questions knowing I won't get a response and I encourage him to follow whatever grabs his curiosity, hoping that in his exploration I will find another piece to the puzzle that is him.
I try my best. I read, I research, I watch and hope to learn.
In some ways, we're really not that different, he and I. And I often temper my reactions to him through the lens of remembering his age and how the world all felt and seemed and hoping somewhere in there I can find a way to reach him more consistently, and to let him know I'm always here, always in his corner.
And he is asking us questions, wanting to know what things are and how they work. We're not to why yet, despite being eyeballs deep in it with Tova, but I am encouraged and hopeful that this means we're on the right path.
Earlier this month I sat my children down and tried my best to explain to them that things are becoming different in our home and with our family, and that if they are ever confused or scared or hurt that they can tell me about it and I will listen. I told them that with big changes come more responsibilities, so I'll need them to help each other out and try to do things themselves a little bit more because that's what families do, they help each other when things seem hard, but that it won't be this way forever, just for right now.
I didn't really expect them to understand. I just felt I had to acknowledge it, say something to them because I know they can tell and I don't want to be a family that holds secrets or hides the ugly stuff away. I want them to be able to feel their feelings and learn how to process them healthily so they can be better adults than the examples they've been provided.
And my sweet boy, he has begun to let the dogs outside when he sees them waiting at the back door, and he waits to let them back in, locking and unlocking the door as appropriate. He sometimes "reads" bedtime stories to his sister and tucks her in at night, telling her he loves her as they hug-kisses-noses-bonk each other. He helps put away his laundry once it's folded and sometimes he cleans up after himself without being asked and he almost always gives his good-behavior sucker from school to Tova once he gets home and gives her a huge hug.
Sure, he still rails against too much or not enough structure and is not exempt from his own acting out, but he's trying. Somewhere in that beautiful mind of his, he heard me and he's trying and it breaks my heart as it lifts it because he understands.
He is my little survivor, becoming less and less little with every passing day.
And tomorrow he will turn five and I will take cupcakes to his school because he asked for a party with balloons and party hats and goody bags and friends and cake so seriously, so sincerely that I had no choice but to tell him yes, yes of course. And on the weekend we will do it again, with our friends and family brave enough to face our chaos for the sake of this amazing child and as I do every day I will pray that I am doing enough to make this life right by him, to give him happiness where I can find it.