We went to the Homecoming game last weekend. My husband, my daughter and I sat in the stands with the usual crowd of parents, alumni and students. CJ, however, was on the field in his trainer’s shirt. Because he has connections. He is IN. On the team. The team has given him multiple jerseys now, but he doesn’t like the feeling of the new tighter fitting ones, so that night, he was a trainer. He’s so cool, he gets to choose what position he want to be each game. I wonder what will happen when he decides to be the coach.
Sitting there in the stands, surrounded by cheering and the band and food and the rooting loudly for the team, it was naturally the perfect time to think deep thoughts and get all emotional. So I did. Then I wished I hadn’t.
At halftime, they have the Homecoming ceremony. It was so nice. The girls all looked beautiful. The boys were handsome. The families of several in the court were sitting close by us in the stands and we got to experience their enthusiasm as they cheered for “their” candidate. The King and Queen were crowned. The new King is on the football and baseball teams. He’s a boy who goes to our church and is a favorite of CJ’s, so CJ was right there at the seat of royal splendor. When I thought about it, I realized that CJ was in a social position that half the kids at that school would have sold their iPads, iPhones and first cars to have had. In a strange way, autism has given CJ the keys to some serious high school fantasy.
I sat across the field and watched as CJ spent a good part of the 3rd quarter touching the King’s crown and making comments we couldn’t hear from where we sat. So close, and yet a million miles away. And I almost cried. I took lots of deep breaths. I tried to avert my eyes. At first, I tried to comfort myself like I always do. I tried thinking how amazing CJ’s experience has been. I tried thinking of all of the wonderful things he has gotten to do that so many other kids do not…something so very clear tonight. I watched various alumni come up to him again and again to give him a high five, and I was thinking how amazingly wide his world is for someone caught in the narrowness of autism.
And then I got hit broadside with a whole load of “supposed to” and “I wish” and my heart suddenly turned on me. I was thinking, again and for the hundredth time, that he was supposed to be a senior this year. That he was supposed to be “a senior,” with everything that word implies…girls and cars and acne and locker rooms and SAT’s and college interviews and concerts and parties. How do I explain, even to myself, that he will be here in high school for 4 more years? How do I explain what that is going to look like? How do I explain leaving the structure of the regular school track and entering this weird educational limbo that isn’t a next step to anywhere?
And then I was wishing with every fiber in my being that we NEVER, EVER had needed or asked for special treatment or exceptions of any kind. I wished with all my heart that he never had any need for ANY special treatment. I was wishing for that wonderful gift of being typical. Of being average.
And I was thinking that wishing for that would probably be wiping away everything I was looking at across the field. There was no guarantee that CJ would have been on the court or even popular if he was “typical”. He might have played football, but he probably would have been one of many faces in the crowd, and it’s unlikely he would have been friends with King and alumni alike.
And then I realized I was actually sitting there thinking that I wished that he was an ordinary kid who tried out for football and was cut from the team. That he tried out and didn’t make the team. And I wished I could swap the mixture of pride and ache I always feel watching CJ’s popularity for that simple ordinary pain of not making the team. I never thought in a million years that I would wish that. On him. On us. Who on earth would wish that their kid DIDN’T make the team? It didn’t make any sense….
Except I imagine that it would hurt so much less.
I have a 10 year old daughter. She is beautiful, smart and well-liked. Will she be on homecoming court one day? I guess she could be. There were 3 senior girls there tonight. I am not sure what the size of this year’s class is, but it is at least several hundred. Would my daughter be one of the 3 in her senior year? Possibly. It would be nice if she got to have that experience. Would I be sad if she didn’t ? I doubt it. Her odds are the odds of the ordinary. The typical. We all ran those odds, growing up, winning some and losing some. We know what those odds look like. A few of us get the inside track in high school. The rest of us remain socially unremarkable. Would I be on the edge of tears if my daughter wasn’t one of The Chosen? No. I would not.
And yet, there I was, mourning that fact that CJ, in his own way, was.
My husband was there. He is rarely with us at events like these as he works two jobs. I looked at him and told him I was sad. He knew immediately. He understood. And he pointed out how happy CJ was. He mentioned that every person he had met that night…teachers, administrators, coaches, students…all said that CJ was “the most popular kid at school.” I know it is all true. I just sometimes wish it wasn’t because of the reasons why it is.
I am reminded repeatedly by friends and family that I need to allow CJ to bless others. That CJ makes people better. That I need to allow people to be who they are and to do what they need to do for themselves. That CJ changes people. That knowing CJ changes your life. That knowing CJ makes everyone more aware and more patient and more understanding. Being around CJ makes you happy. CJ makes you laugh when you don’t want to. CJ can make you look at the whole world differently.
All of this is true. I was sitting there that night with the evidence of all this right in front of me, watching CJ touch the crown of the King over and over and wondering why I couldn’t feel what I was “supposed to” feel.
I have watched a lot of football games, and I have asked myself again and again: Do these young athletes even begin to understand? Do THEY get what they have? Do they have any idea what they represent? The high school players represent all the boys who played Pop Warner and backyard football. The college players represent all the boys who played high school. And for the mothers of special needs sons who will never try out for the team, they represent that ghost child…that phantom “might have been” son who will never have the chance to try out and make it, or to fail…to try and to not make the team, and take up track or soccer instead.
No, of course they don’t get it. Nor should they. One of the great things about being young is that your ghosts haven’t arrived yet.
This year, I thought I could go to Homecoming and skip the haunting. This year, I thought I could look at high school football players in their jerseys and not cry.
Maybe next year.