“How was school today, buddy?” I ask with enthusiasm, anxious for the response from my little boy with the happy heart and big smile.
“It was great, mama! We painted a picture of an apple and sang a song about a barn and colors. Can I have a snack now?” He says as he slips his little arms out of his denim backpack with the yellow striped straps; the one that looked so big on him when he started preschool last year, but now seems to fit just right.
“Of course.” I hand him his favorite kind of apple, the small honeycrisps that fit right in his hand, and try to dig a little bit deeper in to his day. “Did you play with friends at recess, too?”
“We rode the bikes around the circle,” he says with a mouth full of apple, “and Thomas chased me. It was funny. Then I went on the slide but Michael ran in to me at the bottom. It didn’t hurt.”
“Oh, well that’s good. And I am just so glad you had a fun day, buddy.”
“Yeah,” he says in return, still focused on his apple and ready to retreat to the backyard.
I watched him walk outside toward our trampoline before looking in to his backpack to see what the preschool teacher had sent home for the week. I smiled as I looked at the apple painting he told me about, with color everywhere outside the lines just exactly the way a preschooler’s painting should be.
As I went to the back door to tell him something about being careful not to jump on his little brother, that’s when the alarm went off; the one that woke me from the scene I savored so much, and reminded me that none of this actually happened.
This was not the first time I have had a vivid dream of my son talking to me. At four and half years old and with “critically low” language abilities, he does not have the words to tell me about his day at preschool, and he most likely did not play tag with a friend. He does walk out to the parking lot holding the teachers aid’s hand, and he almost always has a big smile on his face. But for a year I have smiled back as the distance between us closed, hugged him tight, then held him just a foot or two away from my face and asked, “Did you have a good day at school, buddy?”
He smiles in return, but says nothing, and with silence between us and his hand in mine, we head for the car.
There are many things about raising a child with special needs that have caught me off guard, but this question, “Did you have a good day at school?” and knowing that it’s not reluctance but inability that keeps him from answering it, this has been one of the most surprisingly hard. Did something funny happen? Were his feelings ever hurt on the playground? Did he like the lunch I packed? Were the teachers pushing him too hard or not hard enough and how did he feel about all of it? Having a mostly non-verbal child has never been easy, but when I was a part of every minute of his day, it was secure. I saw it all, I knew it all, I could correct what bothered him and feed what delighted him. Now, besides the tidbits we might get from a teacher at pick-up, those four hours of his day remain a complete mystery to us, and they leave so much room for insecurity.
I don’t know much about dreams, about why they come when they do or what they mean, if they mean anything at all. I think like most people, I have had good ones and scary ones and yes, probably a few I wouldn’t willingly tell anyone about. I have dreamt about losing all my teeth or being somewhere in public and realizing I have no pants on, and I have dreamt about exes or being in old, familiar places that I didn’t want to leave.
But in the dreams I remember the most these days, I’m talking to my son, vividly imagining conversations that are funny and interesting, and yet have never happened. I don’t know if they will ever happen.
I once heard that dreams can be a manifestation of some kind of conscious thought that we pushed back in our minds—meaning the idea came to us, but we didn’t let it stay. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Because every single day, I think about my son talking. And every single day that it still isn’t true, I push the thought back, determined not to dwell on what isn’t but to practice gratitude for what is, for the ways he has grown and the things he is capable of doing. And I am grateful, immensely.
But there is something about him now—the fact that he has grown four inches in what felt like a week, or that his hair is long and wavy and he really looks like a big boy and not a toddler, or maybe the fact that we are talking about kindergarten next year—something about the way he is growing up makes me long for his words in ways that I haven’t before. Where I was once so happy that he could say even one word, now, more often than not, I think of all I am missing, all I don’t know about him. I want his feelings and his stories and his interests and I want him to pester me to death with “why, mom?” questions. Words are not the only way people communicate, but when you live without them, the gaps are palpable. I know my son is capable of so much, I just want his own words to tell me.
But so far, they can’t. Only in my dreams.
And I wonder, is it gratitude or frustration I should feel when I wake up?
The poet Langston Hughes asked the question decades ago, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He never does answer, though his imagery leaves little room for a positive outcome. But it’s a worthwhile question, what does happen when the thing you dream of… doesn’t? Will the weight of unmet expectations steal my joy? Will the frustration at what I cannot know about my son make me bitter?
Or, against all odds, will it remind me that we are all truly waiting for something? Maybe my son’s quiet presence is, both simply and profoundly, my reminder that we aren’t home yet.
We all have a gap in our lives that feels palpable, we all long for everything to be made new again. What good news that someday, it all will.
Just two weeks ago, I waited in the spot I always do for preschool pickup. And like he always does, my son’s light-footed gait practically skipped over when he saw me waiting, pulling his aid’s hand and prompting her to kindly remind him to “slow down, little man, slow down.” When he got to my arms, I pushed his shoulders back gently to be able to see his face, and asked what I always do, expecting the silence I always hear. “Did you have a good day at school, buddy?”
As clear and crisp as the late fall sunshine and chilly air, he smiled big, and then he answered with one word, “Yes.”
“Yes?” My eyes widened. “Yes? You did? You had a good day at school? Oh, buddy, I am just so glad to hear that!”
I looked up at his aid with tears welling up in my eyes. “He said, ‘Yes!’ He had a good day!”
She smiled back, and simply said, “He had a great day.”