The Ghost of Pain

Not too often, but every once in a while, and it happens when Wil is doing something active like playing basketball or fishing, a transparent form of Wil superimposes himself over the real Wil.

The transparent Wil moves and plays in perfect time with the real Wil. The only difference is the transparent Wil’s limbs move fluidly, and are slightly longer and lither; his eyelids rounder, his ears higher, his hair wavier.

Just like a ghost from the past, the transparent Wil never announces his arrival. I’m both struck with shock and familiarity when he shows up.

I used to question myself when these transparent visions would appear. Deep down I know my acceptance of Wil’s diagnosis. I took the very steps to full acceptance myself, because no one can take those steps for you. You can be supported, lifted up, and cheered on, but it is you who must cross that very finish line on your own two feet.

I crossed the acceptance finish line long ago. So why do these visions appear? They don’t come often, but shouldn’t they have long faded into the past?

But that’s not the way it works. When Wil was a baby, and I was on my journey to acceptance, I would stare at his almond shaped eyes, cup my hand over his short-stubby fingers, and find myself falling in love with all the features that initially terrified me. The features that are considered “markers” for Down syndrome.

But even with acceptance, sometimes the brain just wonders. When I see these superimposed visions, they are not filled with longing. They are not filled with pain. They feel more like observations. And that is why I can accept the visions too.

I’ve learned so much with this acceptance process. Acceptance always starts with a deep pain. A pain surrounding something you did not expect. A pain that wants to make a home in the pit of your belly and never leave.

Sometimes, though, you have to sit with that pain in your belly for a while. Let it burn down deep. Let it light it’s fire until it’s too painful for you to let it stay. And there will be so many well-meaning people saying to call out for help, and though you desperately need help, you don’t exactly know what kind of help you need. So you have to sit with it. Feel it. Assess it. Journal it. Hold a friend’s hand while feeling the fire. Share what the fire feels like. Don’t paste over it – don’t try to make it look prettier than it is. Don’t stuff it down, don’t cover it. It will burn its way back up with a fury. Just don’t sit with it too long. Or the pain will become part of you. It will hurt, but it will be habit. And you owe yourself more than that. When we find our way out of the fire, it’s never in the same place where it was set.

When I see the transparent Wil, he doesn’t threaten my acceptance. Because I sat with him when he was a fireball of pain. I felt my loss for him. I held my friends’ hands and talked about him. I made peace with him. And I let him go.

I’m not sure our pains ever leave, but how we look at our pain is what changes. Now when I see transparent Wil, he is a reminder of how far I have come on this journey. How I can sit with the pain. How I can let it go, even when it comes back.

An Evil Queen’s Observation on Acceptance

I am often placed in the position of being teacher. Not by trade. Not by degree. But by raising a child with special needs.

My favorite way of learning is through storytelling. Allow me to introduce you to the cast:

Grumpy: Lila

Happy: Ashley

Sneezy: Seeger

Sleepy: Sarah

Doc: Olivia

Dopey: Lillian

Bashful: Rebecca

The Prince: Wil

The Evil Queen: Yours truly

I, the Evil Queen, trailed 10 feet behind the Prince, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Doc (we’d join Dopey and Bashful later). The Prince’s red cape billowed behind him as he ran with his knit-capped friends of varying personalities. Grumpy created the route; it was one she had carefully constructed over the years that yielded top candy output. The friends fanned out in the side streets, then narrowed 2×2 down the sidewalks– Sleepy ran ahead to talk with Happy; Happy later dropped back to put her arm around The Prince; Grumpy sped up to catch Doc, Sleepy shared a story making Doc laugh. They were a letter swapping word game; switching it up, creatively making sense in any order.

The Evil Queen lingered behind, careful not to put a kink in the easy moving chain. The Evil Queen’s role this Halloween night was to walk the Prince back to Grumpy’s house when he showed signs of tiring. Other than that, she was merely the observer.

As the friends made the climb up to Chi-Bro Park, the Evil Queen saw it was time for the Prince to take a rest. The Prince received a round of hugs from his friends, and he and the Evil Queen made their way to Grumpy’s. (This particular Prince is a fan of Luke Bryan, so he and the Evil Queen jammed out until the rest of the crew returned.)

When Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Doc returned to meet up with the Prince and Evil Queen, they all headed to Sneezy’s house for a haunted woods walk and bonfire. There they met up with Dopey (Bashful joining in via zoom). The friends banded together and each carried a flashlight, that doubled as a whistle, to survive the scares from the Evil Queen, Sneezy’s parents and any other spooky spirits that hid in the haunted woods.

Having successfully survived the haunted woods, the friends sat around the bonfire. They flashed their flashlights and blew on their whistles in between conversation. As the pitch of the whistles increased, the Prince became overwhelmed as he is sensitive to loud noises. Without warning, the Prince jumped up out of his lawn chair and disappeared into the dark.

In perfect unison, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy Doc and Dopey lifted out of their chairs and banded together. Flashlights in hand, they ran together into the dark: “We are so sorry, Wil! We just forgot.”

“That’s ok,” was the reply I heard from the dark. The Prince and his friends began a new game in the dark with their flashlights, but not the whistles.

One afternoon at school, Wil became overwhelmed during the lunch hour. He got out of his chair and bolted. He was chased by a few students and teachers. When he reached the hallway, he plopped himself down on the floor. The well-meaning students and teachers that followed him tried their best to coax him back up. He wouldn’t budge. Seeger (aka Sneezy) stepped up and asked that Wil be given some space. She explained that he needed to feel back in control of his environment. How did she know this? Because she read “Stories of Wil: Puberty Part 1.” She wanted to read this book to better understand her friend. How cool is that for a 13-year-old? Sure enough, Seeger’s suggestions got Wil off the floor and back in the lunch room.

There are buddy programs in schools that pair typically-developing students with students who have special needs. While many of these programs are viewed as teaching typical kids how to have a better understanding of those with special needs, they are really about creating an understanding that we all have differing needs. And that can change on a daily basis, especially when you are in middle school! We all are a multi-letter swapping word game that requires creativity in putting the pieces together. Wil and his friends do not play by their differences, they play by their understanding.

Though I am often placed in the position of being a teacher, in this story I am the observer. Grumpy put me there. She asked that I be the Evil Queen. Grumpy knew that if the Evil Queen was available in the background, the Prince could join his friends for a night of trick-or-treating. Grumpy not only mapped the trick-or-treating route, she also creatively put the pieces together.

I hope you have learned as much from the story of Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Doc, Dopey, Bashful and The Prince as I have. May you find yourself in one of them (or maybe a few of them depending on the day). Play by understanding. Shuffle the pieces. Get creative. You never know who may be learning from your story.

Just Friends Being Friends

“I was just wondering if Wil wanted to be part of the 7 dwarfs. We were thinking he could be Snuggly, Giggly, Silly, or Smiley! Considering Wil has all those traits!” I received this text from Ashley about Halloween costumes. Ashley and Wil, now in 8th grade, have gone to school together and been friends since preschool.

I read Ashley’s text aloud to Wil. He jumped up and responded, “Yes!” Wil chose Smiley, then I received another text from Ashley: “Or Seeger was thinking he could be the prince if he wanted to.” (Seeger is another good friend of Wil’s from school.)

“The prince!” Wil said without an ounce of hesitation. Which is quite apt, as Wil’s friends, who are planning a Snow White-style Halloween, are all girls.

Our Down Syndrome Support Team holds an annual Buddy Walk the last Sunday of September to raise awareness and acceptance for individuals with Down syndrome. With the pandemic, the decision was to hold a virtual event. Wil and his friends were not to miss out, so we held a small, local walk to which about 30 friends participated in. Wil, of course, walked with his close buddies, Ashley, Seeger, Lila and Sarah. At one point during the walk, Wil decided he needed a break and sat down on the sidewalk. Wil’s friends stopped and cheered him on. With their encouragement, Wil jumped up and they all started running. The friends joked it was the “Buddy Run.”

Near the end of the walk, we climbed to the top of school bus loop. Once at the top, Wil’s friends ran down the steep, grassy hill along the side of the bus loop. Wil remained at the top, looking trepid. Once again, the cheering section arose. His friends’ cheers nudged Wil over the edge and he tore down the hill. Once united, the friends jumped, laughed and cheered in a circle. It’s just as rewarding to be the cheerleader as it is to be the cheered.

Last year, I was talking to Ashley after school. She told me about an activity in gym the group of friends enjoyed participating in together. Then she said Wil grew tired and laid flat out on the gym floor. She shrugged her shoulders, smiled and said, “That’s just Wil being Wil.”

When Wil doesn’t have the words, his actions are his communication. Wil’s friends understand his language. Wil doesn’t judge others or create drama; it’s simply not in his arsenal. In that way, his friends are fully free to be themselves. If you are sad, he accepts your sadness without question. If you are happy, he accepts your happiness fully. If you feel goofy, he’s more than willing to join you in the silliness. If you need a hug, he has one at the ready. If that’s your clothing style, then it’s cool. To Wil, that’s just you being you.

As a parent of a child with special needs, I know first-hand the fight for acceptance. I also know first-hand that acceptance is quite fundamental: It’s just friends being friends.