Even as I am having a completely inane conversation with this mom I just met I am watching. She has no idea where her child is or what her child is doing, and the truth is, that is okay. Her child is 9, maybe 10 years old, and despite being a bit of a spoiled brat, can handle herself just fine with all of the other kids here.
Meanwhile, I am watching, half turned away from the droning mom, half listening to what she is saying, fully aware of where Brooke is, what she is doing and gauging the immediate potential pitfalls that surround her.
Brooke starts to move toward another mother and her baby, I take a step away from verbal diarrhea mom before Brooke moves in a different direction. I relax my shoulder and nod at some senseless question the yapper has asked. She says, “right?” with a lilt at the end, unawares I have no idea what she has asked me, but thinking I must be in total agreement.
I finally excuse myself as Brooke starts to wander off to a new location.
“So good to see you, thanks for listening” she says, “I feel much better about that situation.”. I nod again. I have no idea what she is talking about.
Katie wants to show me something.
“Look,” she says, “watch me do this.”. She dives under the water to perform some sort of gymnasticky move, but I am only half paying attention. I am watching Brooke as she bounces through the water in a different part of the pool, weaving her way in and out of the crowds of kids.
Each time she bounces particularly close to another child, I can feel my body move slightly toward her, at the ready to help facilitate conversation or diffuse inappropriate behavior.
“Did you see it Daddy?” Katie asks as she pops out of the water.
“Very good,” I say, not sure what she did or how well she actually did it.
“How would you rate it?”
I pick 7 because it gives me an opportunity to ask her to do it again to see if she can do it better, never mind that I didn’t see it the first time. She looks disappointed.
“Do it again,” I say. This time I fight the urge to turn my head toward Brooke the moment she goes under the water and watch as she does a perfect underwater somersault. She pops back up.
“How was it?”
“A 10 baby, definitely a 10.”
She beams with pride and says, “now watch this!”
The moment she goes back under water, I frantically scan the entire pool for Brooke. It takes me less than a second to find her, but it is the longest sub-second of the day. She is working her way to the edge of the pool to go down the slides.
“How was that Daddy?”
“Pretty good Kat! Listen, I’m gonna go over and make sure Brooke stays in the line for the slide, okay?”
“Oh-kay,” she says, making no effort to hide her dissatisfaction.
I envy parents of NT kids sometimes. Sure, they have their worries about their children, but honestly, when I’m at the pool or the park or a birthday party or any place with a plethora of children, I see them turn off their Kid-dar (closest thing I could come up with for Kid Radar). They fall into deep conversation because, well, they can. Their children can navigate the social seascape with little or no problem.
Meanwhile, I watch. I always have one eye on Brooke, and if I need to take my eye off for more than a second, I am fighting the urge to turn back. I can’t give my older daughter full-attention for Christ’s sake. Even when Brooke has a playdate with an NT friend, I feel I must be paying attention to every word, every action.
It is so tiring. I’m so tired. Tired of watching, tired of listening, tired of not being able to take part in inane conversation, tired of pretending to be paying attention, frantically trying to piece together bits and pieces of a conversation into something coherent.
The only time I don’t is when she has a playdate with either one of two of her friends who are also special needs kids. They get each other, like REALLY get each other. When her friend L comes over, I feel perfectly fine letting the two of them play alone in the play room or in Brooke’s room, because, well they play. The same with her friend D.
Last week I spoke with another dad. His child is much older than Brooke and swims at the deeper end of the Autism pool. His child has very few words. Were she neuro-typical or only mildly brushed with autism, she’d be getting her drivers license this year. There is no rest for him or his wife. I could sense his constant vigilance even as his voice conveyed defeat and weariness.
A lot can happen in 5, 10, 15 years. Between advances in science and changes in societal views, the world could be a much different place for Brooke when she reaches driving age than for that dad’s daughter, but I know I will still be watching…I will still be weary…I will still only be half listening…