This morning I saw two of my kids off to school for the year, in spite of the blazing outdoor temps and shimmering backyard pool gently whispering to me that no, it is still summer.
Five of my other children won’t resume reading and writing for two more blissful, summer-filled weeks, but Mekdes and Tigist begin third grade and first grade, respectively, today.
Last night there were baths and hair combing and placing colorful plastic clips into little-girl box braids, then sleep caps and bedtime and the anticipation of what the morning would bring. Lunches packed and backpacks on, Mekdes and Tigist stood at the mailbox and waited expectantly for the big yellow bus, the one that picks them up right at our house, and when it came into view Mekdes waved excitedly–and didn’t stop until she had seen that the bus driver stopped right in front of where she stood. When the door opened the girls stepped on, all smiles, ready for another school year.
For the first few years that my daughters lived with us, they learned at home. It made sense back then because we moved around a couple of times, and they had just come out of an institution with a revolving door of children and caregivers, and their communication and language were so very limited that it felt right to have them here, with us. Plus, there were heart surgeries, and medical issues to navigate. But last year, settled into what will hopefully be our forever home, we knew it was time to let them go. And just be school-kids, with a little bit of independence and freedom. It was admittedly terrifying, and the transition was a little bit rocky, but oh, the friends they made, and the fun they had, and it all turned out so wonderful in the end. Mekdes is SO close to being able to read (!), Tigist is an expert bus rider now, and they have both grown leaps and bounds in their ability to communicate and interact with peers. By the last day of the year, they were convinced that school was pretty much the best thing ever.
Placing them in school was a hard, but rewarding, decision.
And today they go back. One thing that sending them to school last year taught me is that my daughters crave and need to DO IT MYSELF, which I admit that I can tend to overlook in the hustle and bustle of large-family-life, when they can’t quite do everything that their siblings can, or as fast/well/efficiently as their siblings can. Down syndrome is a funny thing sometimes because you get so caught up in the mindset of she needs help and she doesn’t understand, but the truth is that she wants to do it on her own, and she probably gets more than you think. So today, I had the girls wait for the bus “alone”, while my husband and I stood back a little ways, next to the house. Stand there on the rocks, don’t move forward until the bus door opens, please don’t go near the street I told them ahead of time, before letting them go, like any mother would tell any child. And they waited so nicely, just like I told them, greeted the driver with huge smiles, and boarded the bus. Yes I needed to meet and speak to the driver, but I waited until my daughters had already navigated all of those things for themselves. Which they did, beautifully.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised when they’re able to do stuff like that, but I confess that sometimes I am. I get caught up in the why are you drinking the coffee creamer and please don’t tackle your sister and I forget that, you know, Trisomy 21 is a thing, but it’s not everything.
When we were at the lake on Saturday afternoon, my daughters went smiling and splashing into the water and entertained themselves for hours. Occasionally I would holler a “stay close!” or “try not to drink so much of the lake water!”, but otherwise? They were happy and content to just be kids, in the lake, not so different from my other kids. One of whom also had to be reminded to stay close and not drink so much of the lake water. They ate their popsicles, got sand in their bathing suits, snacked on popcorn, and had pizza for dinner. Kind of the perfect day.
Parenting children with special needs can be challenging, for a million and one reasons. Maybe it’s just me (and it really might be), but I tend to grow impatient, frustrated, and occasionally even discouraged. Progress and development can feel so…slow. While my daughters with Down syndrome are adopted, meaning that I never had to grieve a diagnosis or the loss of what I expected my child to be/do/accomplish, it can still be hard. Day to day life in so many ways isn’t really so different than it otherwise would be, but sometimes those days feel long. And my mind begins to wander to days ahead, stretching into an uncertain future. I think well at least there’s a huge city bus terminal near our home and I hope the girls will be chosen to work/volunteer somewhere, and maybe they can live in the downstairs portion of our house to have some independence, because they love to be independent. Then my mind jumps back a little bit in time and I wonder how puberty is going to go, and how they’ll be treated by classmates when they reach middle school and high school–kids can be so mean–and THEN I have to stop, take a deep breath, and remember that today is, merely, today.
And today, my daughters put on their backpacks and boarded the bus all by themselves.
Today their little blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister saw them off in just her diaper and a pair of ridiculous too-big shoes, waving and yelling BYE! until the bus drove out of sight.
Today their older brother knocked and then waved goodbye from a window, worried he wouldn’t get outside in time to say it.
Today they went to school.
Today they saw old friends, made new friends, and met new teachers.
Today they’ll come home, exhausted, to a houseful of kids (and a mom!) anxious to hear how their day went.
Today there will have been challenges, no doubt. They face those challenges every day. But little by little they are navigating the world, learning how to manage cool stuff like catching the bus and putting on your own shirt. Most of all though? They love life, love their family, and love their friends. And school. They really, really love school. Basically, they love. And parenting them, meeting their needs and guiding them through decisions and relationships and obstacles, is a gift and an honor. Even if it doesn’t always feel that way in a particular moment of toilet training or future dwelling. Nobody would wish for their child to be born with a chromosomal disorder or syndrome, but it’s funny, because when it comes to Mekdes and Tigist? I never knew them any differently. They were small children in desperate need of a family. They’d been living for years in an orphanage in an East African country.
They were born with Down syndrome. And now they are my daughters. And, now they go to school.