I admit I didn’t really like you when we first met.
We had only been in the house a month when you came over with your 12-year-old son, Kyle. You introduced yourself, welcoming us to the neighborhood. You gave us a quick, but very detailed, oral tour of the houses and families around us making it clear that you make it your business to know what’s going on, skirting that fine line between vigilant citizen and tiresome gossip.
It was obvious you were sizing us up as the newcomers. A young couple, but no kids, no pets, not even a tray of house plants waiting to find their sunny spots. You were disappointed, I could tell.
“Kyle used to love playing on the front porch with Jeff and Lisa’s boys,” you told us, dropping off a slice of guilt along with the coffee cake you brought. I closed the door behind you and rolled my eyes at my husband.
Your house is a caterpillar in its cocoon undergoing constant metamorphosis: a new back porch, a rebuilt chimney, a second edition, a freshly paved driveway. Toys and bikes and sports equipment litter the back lawn. Your husband’s construction truck parked in front of our house for some mysterious reason that, four years later, we have yet to solve, but seems in keeping with the rest of your sprawl. I hear your voice rising and falling in a rhythmic squawk, calling after your son to gather up his shoes, to walk the dog, to get in the car now, to bring in the trash barrel.
After that first visit, you didn’t make any further attempts to get to know us beyond the curt wave over the fence or the polite “thanks” for the tin of Christmas cookies I brought over as a sign of appreciation for making the effort to welcome us to the neighborhood. We seemed to arrive at a basic level of co-existence. It felt like going on a blind date that never quite got started, but running into that person at the local café from time to time.
One day I was out gardening when another neighbor came by walking her dog. We chatted, and she mentioned you and your daughter. I blinked. Daughter? Yes, she said, Jenna, she’s ten, has Downs Syndrome. The neighbor’s voice dropped on the words “Down’s Syndrome,” adopting a tone meant to be a placeholder for other words like “sad” and “unfortunate.”
Oh. I thought back to the first time you came to the house and recalled the brief mention of a daughter before you smoothly changed the subject to ask us about our children or lack thereof. Oh. I know something about growing up in a house where one kid has significant health issues. I know what that feels like as a sibling; I know the kind of weight it carries on parents.
I’m sorry it took me so long to see you, but I do. When I hear you yelling at your son or arguing with your husband, I don’t clench my jaw anymore. I see an outlet for release; I hear that pain and frustration is the language you grab when peace of mind and love are the languages just out of reach. The chaos of your yard, of the ongoing building projects, are distractions, ways of quelling fear, worry, and everyday stress of the demands made on you, demands that few realize and fewer would understand.
I see you could easily be my mother, doing her best to hold a family together, managing the needs of a disabled son and the wants of an attention-starved daughter.
I see that underneath your exterior you carry an immense amount of joy and pride in your family; like any mom you want to love, nurture, and protect them even when the way you go about that feels hard and prickly. There is more to your story that I’ll never know, but I’m grateful to what I can finally see.