When her son was born with Down syndrome, thus began the season of her life she had named “The Changing Season”. His arrival had rearranged everything—her focus, her purpose, her future, and her general view of life. She was no longer responsible for just herself; the world could be cruel and uninviting and she needed for it to change. The season would run the span of the rest of her life, but she believed it an honor and the opportunity of her lifetime, one which she considered a gift bestowed upon her for some greater purpose.
He became a watched child at every age. These days not a child exactly at 28, but still, her child.
At night there are moments when she stands in his room after a he’s had a bad dream, if that’s what it was (she doesn’t know for certain why he wakes up from time to time shouting, “No!” over and over), until his eyes close again and his breathing seems less apneic. She watches him chew his food in fewer bites than is healthy, saying, “Slow down, Cutie Pie. I don’t want you to choke.” She watches him for signs of illness or for boredom, for dry skin or hunger, for icy patches on the driveway he could fall down on, for speeding cars in the road, and for proof he is unaware of people's stares. She watches because he is a child who must be watched; the probability she’ll miss something is too high. Lately, she’s been watching him for other signs she keeps expecting to see but that haven’t materialized yet. What the hell she’s looking for is not so clear, but she’s hoping to recognize it the way one might recognize a watermelon growing in a strawberry patch.
There is a slim hope nothing will materialize, and that would be best. Considering how close her son was to his grandfather, however, she knew down deep that line of thinking was unrealistic. Each time they travel to visit her mother, she is certain he senses his grandfather’s absence in the rooms he wanders through. On their most recent visit, when Grandpa had been gone for a month, her son listened to the music on his iPod, rhythmically pacing Grandma’s living room. He stopped for long moments to gaze at Grandpa’s picture as he passed it, the one taken at Christmas and placed prominently on the piano. The last time he’d seen it was at the funeral home on a table next to the casket. In the picture, Grandpa is sitting in the dining room with his arms crossed, looking slightly over his right shoulder directly at the camera. It reminds her of paintings in a museum, the ones with eyes that appear to follow you wherever you move. Except, Grandpa’s expression is more benign, and seems to say, “I’m still here, watching over you, loving you beyond this life” …so it doesn’t surprise her that her son is mesmerized by it.
“In this moment, I am halfway into the next.” The quote from a Saul Bellow novel was the best description she’d ever heard about the nature of anxiety. It was how she had lived her entire life, a bothersome thing that created disasters in her head—car crashes, planes falling from the sky, broken bones, broken hearts, failures. Each day she fought against it, winning some days and losing others. Most times she kept the sound of it at a steady hum, but from time to time it would rise to a crescendo before she beat it back down into manageable beats.
On one particular day, when her family had traveled to Grandma’s house to celebrate his birthday, she was especially worried because his birthday was one day before Grandpa’s and he would expect Grandpa to be there like he always was. He knew that Grandpa had died but she thought he might not remember or understand the permanence of it. Every birthday they had sat together and sang, wore silly hats and blew out candles. Together, always together.
When the time arrived to sit at the table in front of his birthday cake, she sang as well as she could though her throat had swelled until it felt like she had swallowed a walnut. But this was the best day of the year, better even, than Christmas, so he was smiling and singing along in his atonal style. Her sister had the idea to sing a second rendition of Happy Birthday to their father, in case he was present in an Other-Dimension. Her son sang to his Grandpa and looked around at his aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings, laughing and laughing. He didn’t cry, nor did he yell, “No!” in the manner of his nocturnal disturbances. His face showed no confusion at singing to someone we couldn't see.
Sometime later, after the cake and presents, her daughter said excitedly, “Mom, do you see Cliff?” and pointed to her watched brother, his new birthday headphones closing off all but the music in his ears. A sudden quiet descended on the room, because everyone had stopped talking to look over by the piano where he lingered in front of Grandpa’s picture. She understood something essential at that moment, in the midst of grieving and watching, waiting for the anvil to fall: The more she watched, the less she could see. Watching was not free; there was a cost. Her daughter’s delighted observation of her brother brought clarity to the epic fail of the past weeks. All the watching and waiting and worrying had made no difference, except that she had missed so much. At that moment, she did see. It is not within her power to prevent pain or sadness in this child or in her other children for that matter. In seeing, she allowed herself to let go and simply be.
Cliff swayed in small movements with the music, his head tilted as if contemplating where to place a puzzle piece. Gazing at the expression on my father’s face, Cliff laughed because Grandpa was there after all.