My oldest son is laughing as he scoops up an oversized, rainbow colored wig from a friend and dons it on himself. The Village People vibrates in the background: “Young man! There’s no need to feel down!” He finds his way to the DJ stand to see how the process works and makes a request. KC & the Sunshine band now call out to us: “Shake, shake, shake! Shake your booty!” Initially he hung on the periphery, but now he acclimates, dancing in groups, and later even asking a girl to dance. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry given how our day began.
Numerous hours earlier, exiting the Target store with his sister and me, our carefree chatter was abruptly pierced by the sound of blaring sirens.
My son can have a range of reactions to a variety of life events as he struggles immensely with anxiety and emotional regulation. On this day, he falls into terror. In a matter of seconds, I must switch from a happy, carefree place to crisis. He shrieks and runs toward the car, in flight through a busy parking lot; he’s 14 at the time. As my daughter, then 15, & I quicken our pace to catch up to him, I focus in on her. “We will be okay. Let’s just stay calm.” I’m no Mary Poppins, but my experience in the mama trenches has gifted me with the ability to create calm in the midst of chaos.
When we get in the car, he is sobbing, sitting in the back seat as he kicks the chair in front of him that his sister is sitting in. He is yelling all the ways he hates sirens and all the ways he imagines they should be stopped. His words are harsh and frantic, rapid paced and wrapped in his terror. His fists even beat against his head, a sight nearly unbearable to witness.
Calm and soothe. Breathe. Calm and soothe.
This moment is not just about my son, but also my daughter. Our car feels like a nest. I yearn to protect my children, to rescue them from fear and heartache. As every parent must learn, I understand better now that I can’t possibly control the situations we find ourselves experiencing; however, I can control my responses. While no mothering journey can possibly fall along perfect trajectories--and I’ve had to learn along the way to let go and self forgive--this moment shines for I was able to contain my own emotional pain in order to fully support my children in theirs; they are met with love, nurture and calm presence.
As he laments, I offer soothing, validating words. His sister then does something that amazes me in such a frantic moment. She looks back at him and offers the most loving of words and gestures. She places her hands gently on his face, and says, “It’s okay. I’m here. I love you.”
As her hands rest on her brother’s flushed cheeks, his hands and feet quiet themselves. His terror lessens. Her words have reached him in his panic. I’ve often worried how our family nest is faring but in this moment it feels like a fortress, cradled in love.
As we drive home, he still must dispense of anger through his words. We talk. We soothe. At home, I go down to an unfinished basement room with him, a place of cocooning as it is windowless and quiet. After some time, he gathers himself. He speaks calmly and says he feels better. He then says, “I still want to go to the dance tonight.”
There is a special needs’ dance scheduled that evening at the Jewish Community Center. It is 70’s themed. I am mentally and emotionally drained. While in the past, I've had to cajole him into going to events like this, the last thing I want to do is attend. I fear that if he has another breakdown, I won’t have any emotional reserves left in me. I want to stay at home and nest by myself. My son cheerfully insists. “Please Mom. I want to go to the dance! We have to go! It will be fun!”
He used to feel that if he had one hard moment, then the entire day was entirely ruined; sometimes, I felt the same. Progress, despite the earlier scene of angst, stood right before me. My son was excited to go out in the world again, hopeful to find some levity and fun. His self-advocacy and hopefulness restore some energy of my own.
And so we go.
Siren memories seem far off in the distance as I watch my son enjoy himself for several hours with a group of others searching for camaraderie and connection. He insists on staying until the end because he is enjoying himself. As we are driving away, I have the pleasure of riding in a convertible, ironically and boldly standing out in its fire engine red hue. It is a lovely, cool evening, and so we ride with the top open. The sky is clear and full of stars. My son rests his seat backwards and looks upwards.
“Mom, look at all the stars! I can see a boot!”
He then reaches his hand upward in that breezy nighttime sky and traces his fingers along the bright dots, connecting them all together into meaningful shapes. I glance at my calm and happy son, looking upward, connecting points of light. I mentally trace the seemingly random and extreme points of pain and joy we experienced on this particular day, and many other days. My right hand reaches for my son, as I gently caress his head of curls.
Under a starlit sky, next to my resilient and striving son, I am reminded of the beauty and order that surrounds me. Hope takes comforting shape; love lights the way.