We had hardly anything but proximity and seasons of birthing in common. Only a couple of leaves still clung to the trees and the wind whipped against our cheeks, but my neighbor and I still ambled down our street because we had strollers and a lot of quiet. My daughter’s afro puffs and her son’s wisps of blond hair were barely visible over the top of the strollers.
She texted me to tell me about her son’s autism diagnosis; her son would start at our neighborhood school in the exceptional children’s program next month. My daughter began in the exceptional children’s program two months before, at a school that treated exceptional children as a euphemism for difficulty learning, where the fence stopped before it made its way around the playground. A playground that sat next to the city bus stop on the busy street the school was named for.
Even though we pushed our strollers down our neighboring driveways to meet for our walks, she had her son placed in a school right in our neighborhood. The school that she drove five minutes to. We traded in our walks for trips to speech therapy and occupational therapy. She was swimming upstream too, but not in a current like ours.
I drove the 30 minutes to Lia’s school and picked her up during PE for speech therapy. The heels of her teacher’s boots clomped against the floor.
“Ready, set—” she said. And a few of the children said, “Go.” They held hands and flew across the gym. Some of them seemed like this was the happiest they would be all day. Others, like my daughter, sat away from them, as though she was unsure if this teacher could be trusted to know what fun was.
The teacher walked toward me, retying her sweater around her waist.
“The PE teacher said she doesn’t know how to work with my class, so I am the gym teacher now,” she said.
“The school’s not gonna do anything?” I asked.
“We are fighting to keep PE and art and music classes for our kids as it is.”
I grabbed Lia’s hand, felt her tiny fingers clasp around mine. I squeezed Lia’s fingers and tried to convince myself that these are problems of America, building illusions of safety by spending more money on war than our children.
The long drive wouldn’t let me turn away from the worn-down school building that the Latinx autistic child in our neighborhood was assigned. Wouldn’t let me ignore the sign at the edge of our neighborhood telling potential buyers the neighborhood was zoned for the high school with more resources.
This reality wouldn’t let me stop reading the articles about how much more often Black and Brown children were being placed in special education across town, away from their communities, and in low-resource schools. Black children, even with the same disability as White children, were less likely to have access to beneficial support services, have classroom experiences that contribute to less growth, and less likely to receive traditional high school diplomas that allow for college admission.
I turned my phone over, placed my hand across my chest, and waited for the rattle to leave my chest.
A brown leaf decayed on the ground with holes like puncture wounds. Lia smashed the leaf into a wad and crinkled it next to her ear, rubbing it against her earlobe while she shredded it into small pieces.
She took off running, her feet squishing into the mud on the banks of the lake. The ellipses moved across the water, expanding each time with a bigger ring. She released the crinkled leaf bits above her head and shouted, “Celebrate!” The crumbled leaves entangled in her braids.
I placed my hand around hers to keep her from wandering too far off the trail again in search of her next perfect confetti leaf. I felt the pinch between my shoulder blade and the side of my neck.
Celebrate might be the only word she learns to say.
I handed her a banana yellow leaf, to get her to notice the leaves that showed the vibrant changes of fall. She let my leaf drop to the pavement and returned to the decaying ones.
I sat down on a bench; a red cardinal flew just above my head. My head spun with the diagnosis-laden words I had heard from psychologists and speech therapists.
Severe speech delay.
I would learn later that these words did not speak for my child. But on this day: my mind raced to the same question it always did: what does this mean?
Lia moved her lips into kisses and blew each dandelion wisp away.
Like that first moment of announcing with my lips that I liked someone, I thought, how does this end? In heartbreak or bliss?
She plucked the buttercups, spun herself in a circle, and pushed the petals across the bridge of her nose, leaving traces of pollen across her face.
She thinks that’s how you smell flowers. I need to teach her how to smell flowers with her nostrils.
A couple with matching jogging suits and gray hair strolled toward us and watched Lia with admiration. When I was Lia’s age, my sister and I pressed buttercups against our chins, forever in search of ourselves in flowers.
I picked up buttercups and mashed the petals against the bridge of my nose.
It reminded me of nuzzling Lia’s newborn cheeks.
If you wanna learn about joy, just do what she does.
I repeated the words my counselor had told me.
I found the brownest maple leaf that I could find and crumpled it between my fingers the way she did. I got my running start; my legs moved as fast they could carry me; I threw leaves over my head and shouted, “Celebrate!”
I threw the leaves in the air. As soon as the leaves left my fingers, I leaped to get as close to the confetti as possible.
The leaves sprayed down on me.
If you wanna learn about joy, do what she does.
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