I grabbed him and squeezed him as hard as I could in my arms. He screwed up his face and backed away, as if I wasn't his mum, but a crazy stranger.
"Have fun now and take care of yourself, ok? Do you want kissing hands?"
Silence. What? No kissing hands? Since he was five, we had done the kissing hands ritual whenever he didn't want to say goodbye to me. It was something out of a children's story book, about a child who was afraid of being alone, and mum would plant a kiss on the back of the child's hand. Each time the child felt scared, the kiss would be right there.
I guess he didn’t think of himself as a child anymore. When we were packing his bags the day before, I had innocently asked if he wanted to bring a soft toy or pillow.
“What?! I don’t want to look like a child!”
“It’s OK, Amon. Those are on the packing list. I’m sure some of your friends will be bringing their toys too.”
OK, fine! So, I watched quietly as he walked away from me, towards the three school buses waiting to take him and some 40 other 7 and 8-year-olds to the Shenandoah for a three-day camp. The yellow of the buses seemed extraordinarily bright and happy on this rainy, gray morning -- as if mocking me.
If I seemed like an over-reacting, emotional mum with real attachment issues, it was because this time last year, Amon and I spent the summer in a psychologist's waiting room. We were barely 20 minutes into the first meeting, when she pronounced: "At this point, I wouldn't recommend drugs."
“I would like to state upfront that I am categorically opposed to drugs.”
"That's what I mean...he doesn't need it."
"I know he doesn't need it. That's not what I'm here for."
I was there to help my son be happier at school. I wanted strategies to help him adapt socially, so that he wouldn't be bored and frustrated in class, crying every morning as he went to school, and crying at the few birthday parties he got invited to.
At the end of the summer sessions, she made another pronouncement, this time, in a nice official letter: “Amon has been diagnosed with mild Asperger’s Syndrome.”
If you don’t know what Asperger’s is, you can goggle it. Basically, he doesn’t make friends very well because he can’t quite ‘get’ social cues and norms the way other kids his age are picking them up. More specifically, he belongs to that small group of kids characterized as ‘Gifted with Asperger’s’. Ah, another label. We have been in the business of testing and collecting labels for him since he was five and got sent to the principal because he wouldn’t participate in art & craft and music in school. He got the gifted tag because at age five, he tested to be reading like a 9-year-old and doing math like an 11-year-old (or, was it the other way around?).
I didn’t like it one bit – all the testing and tagging. I wasn’t trying to find out how smart he was. I wanted to understand where his gifts and challenges were, so I could help his educators help him. It took me a long time to come to terms with the Aspie tag. I decided that I was done with psychologists and therapists. No one knew my child better than me. So I was the best person to help him. I devised my own therapy for him. Golf was one of them. We recently started blogging his epic fantasy story together. I found a delicate line between nudging him into more social interaction and allowing him to do so in his own time and comfort zone.
So, this was as big a deal for me, as it was for him. Here he was, going off to camp by himself. This was something he WANTED to do. A year ago, he wouldn’t even go to birthday parties. He caught up with his friend Nicolas, whom I guess was going to be his buddy for camp, and they boarded the bus together.
The funny thing was, the first time Amon attended a birthday party by himself, without me hanging around, without crying, and actually enjoyed it, was when Nicolas turned 8. Since then, I’ve been hearing about a few other boys, too. Seems like he actually has A GROUP of friends he plays with. A year ago, he only had one friend whom he stuck to all the time.
One is a number that Amon was very fond of. He once said to me: “Mum, one is a very lonely number.”
“Why is one a very lonely number?”
“Because it always has to go first.”
That would be Amon. He had to go first, and go by himself. I knew he was different from the time he was a baby. He knew his alphabets at 18 months, and was reading at age 3. It must have been lonely to be the only one out there, looking around at all his peers and wondering why he was different.
So in the last three years, I made it a point to always be the number two that was sometimes next to him, and at others, behind him. But in the next three days, I’m not going to be able to do that. He would have to scale walls, cross bridges, canoe in rivers and roll in mud all by himself – my baby, who only plays one sport (golf) and thinks of the outdoors as ‘hot, sticky, dirty and itchy’.
“You will always be my number one baby, you know that right Amon?”
I used to tell him that all the time. It comforted him. It also reinforced his place as my firstborn child, whenever he felt that his sister was getting more attention. I didn’t get the chance to tell him that this morning.
“Bye, mum.” He had just finished his breakfast.
“But you said you wanted me to come to school and see you off to camp….”
“Oh yeah, right. Say bye later then.”
I went around to the side of the bus and tapped on the window. Separated by the glass and the bus, he was more amiable to responding to his mother. He grinned and waved to me. Then, he turned to Nicolas. I stood there for the next five minutes as the teachers were counting off the kids. He never once looked up. The two friends had their head bent over something. I guessed he must have been showing one of his books to his friend. I continued to wave a rather dumb and limp wave at his downcast head.
The buses began to move off. I followed behind down the road, along with the other 20 mums. As the bus stopped at the traffic lights, Amon looked up. He waved once. And then, he was off. I felt an incredible urge to run to my car and follow the buses. Instead, I sat in the car for five minutes, half listening to NPR.
For the next three days at least, Amon is not going to need his number two. I’m just going to have to get better at being my own number one. I also realized that the sum of this equation wasn’t always one and one made two. Sometimes, one really just had to be alone.