When Gavi’s preschool teacher, Mrs. Weiss, asked us to come in for a conference, I had no doubt she wanted to tell us how brilliant he was. He’d known all of his letters since he was 18 months old, and now, at three, he was already reading. Perhaps she thought we should move him up a grade? But her reason for meeting with us was entirely different than I’d thought. “I’m worried about a few things that Gavi has been doing,” Mrs. Weiss said. “Individually, they’re not a cause for concern, but put them together, and it’s a major red flag.” I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. “What do you mean?” He didn’t engage with the other kids, she told us, playing on the margins with figurines while his peers engaged in group play; he rarely made eye contact with the person speaking to him; he didn’t respond to questions, but repeated the questions back, like a parrot; and he talked to himself in scripted dialogue. “I think,” said Mrs. Weiss, “that he needs to be evaluated.” As she spoke, my throat drew tighter and tighter, until I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had a master’s degree in special education; I’d taught children with all kinds of disabilities. Over the years I’d developed something of a radar for the kinds of behaviors Mrs. Weiss was describing. But, somehow, when it came to Gavi, my radar had disabled. How could I have missed this? “It’s different,” Mrs. Weiss said, “when it’s your own child.” It was only then that I realized I’d spoken my question out loud. Mrs. Weiss reached across the table and took my hand, which was shaking. “Gavi is only three,” she assured me. “You have plenty of time to get him some help.” We made it to the parking lot before I started crying. I was devastated, not by the prospect of having a child with special needs, but by the possibility that Gavi would experience the pain of being “different.” That pain was my constant companion as a child.
My sharpest memories from elementary school were recesses spent wandering the perimeter of the parking lot while my classmates played Chinese jump rope, of being picked last for teams, of cruel comments and derisive laughter shot in my direction. It took years before I could think back on that time without physically wincing. But I would go through it all again, I realized now, if it meant I could save my son from experiencing one second of it himself. And there was another fear. It was one I had had only once before in my life, on the night we first brought Gavi home from the hospital. Our first few days had passed like a blissful dream; I has spent most of it staring at him in wonder, drinking in my fill of his rosebud lips, his tiny toes and feet, the thousand expressions that flickered across his face while he slept. At night, the nurses would bring him to me every three hours, after which I would float easily back to sleep. Then it was time to come home. As we packed him into his carseat for the first time, I vaguely wondered how they were going to let us just…leave with him. They didn’t know us from Adam; how did they know if we were remotely qualified to parent this kid? Shouldn’t they fingerprint us or something? That evening, we put him to sleep, then sat down to dinner. Within an hour or so, we heard him crying. I scooped him up, fed him, then rocked him back to sleep. Forty-five minutes later, he was up crying again. He’d just eaten, so I knew he wasn’t hungry. I checked his diaper: dry. What was wrong? I rocked and sang to him for an hour until, finally, he fell asleep.
Thirty minutes later, he was up again. And so this continued for the entire night. At around three or four in the morning, wrecked from exhaustion, I looked at my red-faced, wailing son and was overcome with a chilling realization: I have no idea what I’m doing. I had been entrusted with the life of this helpless infant, not only to keep him alive, but to help him develop, to grow and mature, to somehow shape his character into something resembling a functional member of society. I had barely just learned the ropes myself; now I was supposed to teach them to another person? At that moment, I recalled something I’d read once before about having babies: “It’s like getting a tattoo on your face.” Not only was the decision irreversible, but the repercussions of it were going to be front and center for the rest of my life. I had crossed a line into motherhood, and the mission I’d accepted was terrifying. As we left Gavi’s school after the conference, that same fear bubbled up again, and it was so overpowering I could barely speak. Again, I found myself charged with a task I felt completely unqualified for, but one I had no choice but to tackle. Like a mountain climber at the foot of a monolith, I knew what needed to be done; I just didn’t know if I had the ability, let alone the stamina, to actually pull it off. Still, we trudged on. We had Gavi evaluated, as Mrs. Weiss had suggested, but the “diagnosis” was vague; he clearly had issues with sensory and auditory processing, but he was too engaged with the world and the people around him to be considered on the autism spectrum.
The end result was something like “Sensory Integration Issues with some Spectrum-like Tendencies.” It sounded suspiciously to me like a fancy-worded guess; if you hacked off a few syllables, you could just as easily have said that he was a nice kid with a few quirks. Which, by now, even I could see that he was. Aside from the behaviors Mrs. Weiss had mentioned, I noticed that overly loud or grating noises could send Gavi into an inconsolable crying fit. He would also run back and forth across the living room when he wasn’t sure what to do with himself, or when he needed to burn off excess energy. He walked on his toes. At certain moments (usually when confronted with a transition, a challenge, or a new experience), he would become fearful and anxious; his body would become so taut with tension it would sometimes take all of my strength to get him to bend his knees. He was an extraordinarily picky eater, refusing most offerings with, “I’m a vegetarian.” (To this day, I regret teaching him that word.) His memory for books was astounding; he was able to recite the entire text of “The Giving Tree,” and almost any other book we read regularly, verbatim. While this certainly suggested that he was very intelligent, it was also connected to Gavi’s penchant for “scripting”; it was challenging for him to take the thoughts in his head and put them into words—at least, not at the speed most people could—so he relied on dialogue from videos and lines out of books to give him the words he was looking for (even if it wasn’t always appropriate). And yet, he was also one of the sweetest children I’d ever known. He was loving, affectionate and compassionate. If he saw another child hurt, you could see the pain register on his face, and he would often tell the other child that he hoped he felt better.
He shared beautifully, even with his little brother. And he had an exuberance so infectious strangers would often smile at him when we were out in public. Gavi was delightful, delicious…and he was, indeed, a little different. We determinedly set forth on a regimen of therapies for Gavi. Within a few months, he had been enrolled in an inclusion class in the local public school, where he spent half the day. The other half he was at the community yeshivah with his friends. Two mornings a week, we went to speech therapy, and one morning a week, to OT. I also took him and his brother to a gymnastics class, where Gavi could learn how to integrate sound and movement (in other words, hear the directions from the instructor over the music and the other children’s voices, then get his body to do what he was told). And I tried my best to spend time with him each day doing some kind of activity, be it building a LEGO tower or playing in our toy kitchen, that would help him with motor planning. I also reorganized our house, with a designated place for everything, so it would be easier for him to navigate. We had gotten all the parts in motion, and, over time, we saw some improvement. But that feeling of panic that set in at that meeting with Mrs. Weiss hadn’t subsided. I was still terrified that despite everything we were doing, Gavi would still struggle socially. I would lie awake at night, tormented by images of him being relegated to the margins, left alone throughout his life. Would he find a place for himself? Would he get married and have a family of his own one day? In reality, my fears were completely unfounded. At both of his schools, Gavi had a host of friends.
His teachers loved him. He was happy. But I was overrun by fear. I found myself stepping in, interfering, out of a desire to protect him. When he started his sprints across the room, I would try to distract him or tell him to stop. When someone spoke with Gavi, I would feed him responses so he wouldn’t have to work so hard to think of them himself. I would remind him, often, to walk on his feet. And sometimes, when I saw Gavi get lost in his thoughts, I would try to snap him out it by calling his name, or clapping my hands, sometimes with a force that too closely resembled anger. Intellectually, I knew it was a futile exercise, trying to control my son and to iron out any possible kinks in his future. But the memories of my own childhood still stung; all I wanted was to build a shield around Gavi and keep him safe. As if by being more “normal” (whatever that means), he would never get hurt. After almost two years, Gavi was discharged from special education services. He had become an entirely different child. He participated with his class, interacted beautifully with his peers, and every one of his teachers raved about how much he’d blossomed. “If Gavi continues growing at this rate,” his OT therapist told me, “you might have a whole new problem on your hands; he might get bored in school.” There were still a few of his little quirks that he hadn’t quite shaken—the picky eating, the running around the house—but he had become, overall, a typical five-year-old kid. For the first time in two years, I was able to breathe easy. Gavi was going to be okay. That summer, we enrolled him in day camp. I had no doubts that Gavi would do fine; it was a day full of projects and physical activity—exactly the kind of thing he loved.
At that point, we’d moved to a new neighborhood, but I was confident that he’d make friends without a problem. Everyone in Gavi’s old class loved him; he was so sweet-natured, he instantly endeared himself to everyone. Surely the same thing would happen at camp. But the first day, he came home and told me he hadn’t made any friends. “One of the kids made fun of me,” he said. I was uneasy, but nowhere near panicking. Gavi sometimes had trouble reading social cues; it was not unheard of for him to hear someone make a joke and think it was directed at him. “What happened?” I asked him. “We were coloring, and I wanted to use a pink marker and the boy said that pink is a girl color. He called me a girl.” So Gavi wasn’t being oversensitive; he had read the signs perfectly. Still, I tried to give the other kid the benefit of the doubt. Transitions were tough, and it was his first day of camp, too. I encouraged Gavi, telling him that pink was a beautiful color for anyone who wanted to use it, and reminding him that if he liked it, that was all that mattered. Hopefully, the next day would be better. It wasn’t. “The boy made fun of me again,” Gavi said. And this time, he was not so easily placated. An inky black dread started to creep in, but I suppressed the urge to swoop in and save the day. If there was one more incident, I would call the camp director. And, indeed, there was.
A few days later, Gavi came home in tears. “The boy said I should fall out the window and die!” Gavi cried. “And then he pushed me!” I was horrified by the irony of it: For two years, I’d kept a hawklike gaze on my son, thinking I could protect him from being hurt. Now, after he was somewhere closer to “normal” and I’d let down my guard, he was being bullied. My mind flooded with images of a tormented Gavi, fifteen years down the road, sitting in his therapist’s office and recounting the trauma of his first summer at camp. I feared that, like me, this experience would haunt him for years to come. I immediately contacted the camp director, who told me that Gavi was not the only one who had been targeted by this child. She had gotten a few complaints from other parents, as well. She offered to move Gavi to another bunk, and, relieved, I gave her the go-ahead. When he came home after the first day in his new bunk, I practically pounced on him. “How was it?” I demanded. “It was great!” Gavi replied, smiling. “I love camp!” And that was that. Could it really have been that simple? Was he really able to bounce back so quickly? I recalled one night when Gavi was a baby, about five or six months old, and I was in the middle of our nightly regimen of back-pats to help him fall asleep. In the middle of it, I left to check something in the kitchen, and when I came back, he was asleep. I was amazed: He could go to sleep by himself? Apparently, he’d reached that milestone, but so convinced was I that he still needed me that I’d never given him the chance to fall asleep on his own. And that was the moment, seeing my son restored to his jubilant self, that I got it. Gavi had so many more resources than I realized, and there was a plan at work in his life that had absolutely nothing to do with me.
I could try to play director and arrange the scenery and actors for him, but I saw now that that wasn’t my job. Gavi would take his cue just fine by himself. Things were different for me after that. Although I still have the instinct to jump in and “fix it” for Gavi, it’s become easier for me to just let him be. My childhood was my childhood; Gavi’s was Gavi’s. Every second of it, for better or worse, is for him to experience, learn from, and make his own. I couldn’t help but think of that just recently, as I was walking Gavi to his bus stop. The air was sharp with cold, and within seconds of leaving the house I saw Gavi’s cheeks pink up. We held hands and walked together to the end of the block, our breath steaming up in clouds around our faces. The sky was the color of a peach, with hints of yellow behind the treetops, and for a long moment I breathed in the peace of early morning. As we reached the corner, I saw Gavi’s bus up the block, already at the next stop. The last of the kids were just filing on. If we didn’t hurry, we’d miss it. “Wait!” I called, hoping the driver would hear me. I pulled Gavi forward, breaking into a run. “Come on! We’ve got to catch your bus!” We dashed up the sidewalk, frigid air burning in our lungs.
As my eyes teared from the wind, I remembered that first night home with Gavi, how the mission of motherhood had filled me with dread. And how afraid I’d felt, three years later, after our meeting with Mrs. Weiss. I hadn’t realized then how every one of these obstacles, slowly overcome, were exactly what had made me into the mother I never knew I could be. Five years ago, I looked into the abyss of the future and saw every reason to fear. But that morning, chasing down a bus at dawn with Gavi, I felt nothing but exultant. I turned to my son, who had fallen back a few paces, and laughed. The sound carried back to him and he laughed, too, the wheels of his backpack bumping along behind him. “Give me your bag, Buddy!” I cried, reaching for it. “Go!” His burden lighter, Gavi took off, his laughter echoing behind him. We reached the bus and Gavi scrambled on, smiling widely. I handed him his bag and blew kisses to him through the window, watching as he found a seat. The driver started to move a fraction of a second before he sat down, and I saw Gavi lurch forward, just a little, before getting his bearings. He’s so small, I thought with longing. Even now I want to smooth the way for him, to somehow fold up this confusing world into a more compact, comprehensible package. But now I know I can’t. All I need to do is be there with him on the path that he’s on, teach him to read the stars and bear his weight, and when it’s time for him to go off by himself, I’ll stand there and wave until he’s out of sight.