The other one

I’m sick today. Not my usual myalgic encephalomyelitis (or ME, the pc term for chronic fatigue syndrome), but that plus strep throat. I’m trying to stay upright both in an effort to keep my ears from hurting and to keep from obsessing over something a friend, a good friend, a good friend with no hint of malice in her voice, said to me the other day. She said O seems off.

It happened after I had a meeting with the principle at my sons’ potential new school to get the results of the boys’ readiness assessments. She said that G is behind in math, which I knew. Then moved on to O, leaning over his results, pretending to study it as, searching for the right words, giving me just enough time to think I was about to hear that my child is unusually brilliant. Instead she said, “Well, you probably already know this, but O, he’s, well, he falls into our ‘at risk’ category.”

At risk? At risk? At risk for what? He’s 5! I mean, he does have this really weird oral fixation and will no doubt be addicted to nicotine at some point in his life, but seriously? No, no, she continued. She explained that he doesn’t know the name of his elbow. Or his neck. Or about half the shapes. Or the number 20. And he reverses his letters. And can’t walk heal-to-toe backwards. Just as I was about to ask her to demonstrate this herself because I totally didn’t believe anyone could do that, I took a deep breath, and asked if the test was kindergarten readiness or based on his age. Since we gave him a bonus year of preschool and he won’t start kindergarten until he is 6, I thought maybe the test thought he was going into first grade. But no.

She explained how they do these assessments throughout the year, how they’ll monitor his progress, how they’ll keep me updated, how they’ll contact his preschool teacher to get more information. Having recently had G’s IEP denied and being laughed out of the school (well, smiled at patronizingly) for insisting on an assessment in the first place when he’s clearly so average despite the fact that he’s over a year behind, I found the conversation reassuring. They were so proactive, which was great, but still. I knew G had issues, but O? At risk?

Honestly, I realize that I only have one kid available for comparison, but O seems perfect to me. Emotionally, he’s at least as mature as G. He makes these crazy 3D art projects–with all kinds of flaps and hangers–and tells these long, amazing stories about them. Before he could even draw he once scribbled with a black crayon and told me it was a sad worm who couldn’t get out from under the dirt. He may be an artistic genius.

And that brings me back to what my friend said as I relayed the story. She was supposed to agree with me, but she nodded and said, “Yeah, you know, I’ve always thought he was a bit, you know, off.” No, I countered. He’s perfect. Then she accused me of being biased, which of course I am, but I still tried to understand what she saw in my kid that I clearly could not. I’m not easily rattled by what other people say about my kids, but then negative comments are usually directed at G. I’m used to that, and I figure when I meet another parent of an adoptive transracial sparkle boy with OCD and Tourette and wild rages, then I’ll take the time to deeply consider whatever observations they’d like to share about my child. But this was coming from someone I respect, and it was about O, perfect little zen baby O.

I remember the first time I held O. He was about 6 months old. He had these detached earlobes and a scar across his flat upper lip and wide eyes and such a flat head that I joked he needed an implant. Fetal alcohol syndrome quickly jumped into my head, but I must have never said anything because it surprised my husband when I brought it up months later. FAS is so unlikely in these kids, primarily because alcohol is so expensive where they were born, that I guess I just put the idea out of my head. I didn’t really want to consider the possibilities in the moment, or the next, or the next. Or, perhaps it was just that he was our kid, there was nothing we could do to change whatever it was, and he was such a sweet baby, so I nicknamed him sapito (he really did resemble a little frog), bought a little jade frog to remember him during out wait, and picked out lots of bamboo for our new little zen baby. We knew the possibilities, we checked the boxes for ‘alcohol exposed’ and ‘drug exposed’ and all the other situations we felt we could handle. As his ears looked much better when he came home and then as he met each milestone, I felt certain he was a perfectly normal kid. Probably because my butt had been kicked, not to mention our finances drowned, by G, I took no small solace in O’s normal development, and put any other ideas quickly out of my head. He remained our perfect little zen baby.

Sure he had huge tantrums, but don’t all 3 and 4 and 5 year olds?

Just because we don’t see other boys his age with a Disney princess collection didn’t mean anything. He’s creative and sensitive and has been allowed gender-free play. What’s wrong with that? He’s gender typical, totally all boy.

When his preschool teacher repeatedly brought up concerns about O’s coordination and small gross motor skills, I didn’t worry. After all, G didn’t even sit up until he was two. I was supposed to worry that O couldn’t fit a toothpick through a salt shaker? So he leaned to the left when he ran and only seemed to use his right eye when he drew, he’s left-handed. Doesn’t that explain it?

Am I really supposed to be concerned that he doesn’t know the word for the large joint in the middle of his arm? He knows the word “exasperated”. How come that wasn’t on their assessment?

Then my husband had the nerve to point out that O doesn’t memorize stories he’s heard a gazillion times and “read” them back to you the way kids do. He doesn’t ride a bike because he can’t make that pedaling motion. And, okay, he’s still working on the counting thing… and the alphabet… and eye contact.

The case was definitely building against him, so I worked on my counter argument–O is so full of empathy for everyone, unusually perceptive, passionate and creative. He loves to dance and sing and is so beautifully in touch with his creative self, and can I say it? He is oh, so cute. He’s perfect! As I thought about it though, and thought about it, and worked through this draft, and even spent a little time being angry about what my friend said and trying to get in touch with my inner Buddha, and as I was interrupted from these thoughts to break up fights because O was mocking G’s tics or calling him a girl, I finally came to terms with what O is really at risk for.

O is at risk for is being the easy one, or worse, the other one. He’s at risk of being overlooked because, let’s face it, next to his brother, he is the easy one. But, sometimes, G’s been the easy one. Sometimes, O is the squeaky wheel. Sometimes, rare though it may be, they’re both pretty easy. Often, they’re both difficult.

In my family I was the difficult one. My brother was tall and thin and talented and good at calculus and responsible and never without a girlfriend. And, even when one of those girlfriends got pregnant, somehow I was still referred to as the difficult one. It didn’t scar me or anything like that. If anything, I enjoyed the low expectations that came with it. I rebelled by getting As and Bs and going to college and (mostly) not experimenting with drugs, sex or alcohol. I found it odd that my teachers, who had my brother first, had big expectations for me and pushed me so hard. When I tried to do better I got frustrated with my careless mistakes, how difficult it was for me to focus. Looking back I was pretty clearly ADD, and thankfully it was overlooked. I don’t even know if they diagnosed back then, but I’m glad I wasn’t diagnosed as a kid because I probably would have paid attention to chemistry and gotten some sort of accounting job instead of daydreaming and writing poems and love letters during math and eventually landing a job in publishing. I could have been so dull if I’d had the attention for it. Instead my brain is always on to the next thing and the next, and yes, sometimes the teakettle boils dry and I wash the same load of laundry five times and spend the morning looking for keys that were hanging out of the door all night but… oh, wait, were we talking about the boys?

The point being, despite growing up with labels that didn’t fit, despite fighting against anyone else who tries to label them, I’m definitely guilty of labeling both my boys.

Both are deserving of the same energy from us as parents, and it’s been pretty unfairly distributed so far. Given a different older sibling, O probably would have been driven around to half a dozen specialists by now, but then that would have been overkill, and it’s probably what growing up the youngest, particularly the youngest to G, has spared O. There are perks. I’m fairly certain if O had more of my attention he also wouldn’t have learned to do a flip off his bunk bed or all the words to the latest Ke$ha song. Since he wants to be a hip hop star (and didn’t break anything), being under the radar has probably been food for him, but it’s definitely time for him to get a little more from me. Being called “off” and “at risk” are probably the best things that could have happened to him this week (the week, by the way, that G was taken completely off his antipsychotic). So, I’m done obsessing. It’s time to drop the “perfect zen baby” label I’ve put on him and just see him for everything he is–still perfect, perfectly O, just like G, who is perfectly G.

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