My eldest child doesn’t talk. Oh sure, I get the occasional grunt or head nod but when it comes to a full sentence about something of the slightest importance there is nothing but silence. Most answers from him to me are mumbled, “I don’t know.” It’s not new—Duke has never talked.
When he was 2 I overheard him in his crib say, “bunny” and then he hugged his bunny. I ran in, my up-until-then-silent-child had said a word! I shrieked, “Duke! You said BUNNY!” He smiled at me and when I asked him to repeat it his lips remained tightly shut. I begged him again for weeks but he would only look at me with his giant blue eyes and smile with lips pressed tightly together. He didn’t really speak until he was at least 4 and even then it was only to me or his father in the comfort and privacy of our own home. He’s now 12 and finally speaking in school. I see him hesitate if an adult asks him a question when I’m around. I know that Duke would prefer I answered for him. That was always how we did it—people asked him a question, he would smile, point to me, and I would answer. Some people were offended by this but it wasn’t personal. He wanted to speak—he couldn’t.
I am always watching him from afar, scanning his face, concerned about how he feels. There is a nagging fear that you don’t pay enough attention and someday something horrific happens and everyone points at you saying, “how could you not know?”
I try my best to talk with Duke, even though the responses are so limited. My hope is to keep the door open for him to eventually talk to me—if he should ever choose to. So I take what I get and use the world around him to figure out what’s going on in his life. If he expresses an interest in something I jump at the opportunity hoping that this will be the thing that will give him the confidence he needs. A few years ago he came home saying that he wanted to try lacrosse. I was surprised at the choice—lacrosse is a rather rough contact sport. I never imagined this docile child who loved to sit quietly reading books wanting to play a game where you hit each other with sticks. We tried it and he loved it. I’ve seen how it helped him. The aggressiveness helped all that was bottled up have an outlet. He went from the kid staying away from the pack to someone who jumps in to get the ball and sometimes gets checked so hard I see his entire body fly into the air.
I don’t crowd Duke—I give him space. When I drop him at practice I stay back so there is no pressure for him of his mother watching over him. I watch him with his teammates. They do not interact with him. There is limited communication. Sometimes during a game I see that he’s open and it crushes me when his teammates won’t pass the ball to him. The boys on his team are very tight with each other and they are nothing like my son. They are all 11 and 12 years old and speak with deep authoritative voices, already walking with bow legs, and faces held tight like men going into battle. Duke walks down to the field to practice with his face loose, a slight smile, excited to play a game he adores.
One week ago Duke came home excited to tell me that the Long Island Lizards (a major league lacrosse team) were holding tryouts for their junior team. I tried to discourage him. I said, “It’s highly competitive honey.” My husband and I gave Duke the speech about not getting too excited. He was trying out against a LOT of kids and it was bound to be stiff competition. We told him the story of Michael Jordan being cut from the high school team. We pulled out all the clichés. He asked me, “but isn’t it a good thing to get excited about something you want?” He was right and I was sure that he understood what the risks were and was incredibly proud that he was willing to stick his neck out there. I registered him for the event.
The tryouts happened to fall on the same day as his first game of the season. I emailed the director and said he was caught up at a game—could he be late? They said yes. Husband raced Duke to tryouts immediately after the game. Other kids had 2 hours, Duke had 30 minutes.
A few days ago I received an email from the coach of the Jr Lizards saying my son had done well at tryouts and was offered a position on the team. Finally, someone else could see the boy that I see—a boy with potential and all-out love of the sport.
Duke went to practice tonight and told some of the team members about making Jr Lizard team. They first accused him of lying—because they all had a game that day. Then he assured him he had gone they said he’d probably be given a water boy position. As he told me this we sat at a red light on the way home from practice. I could feel the heat in my face rise as his voice trembled and he picked nervously at his shoelaces. My hands gripped the steering wheel tighter and I stared hard at the traffic light above.
I make them wear seat belts, helmets, and know where they are at all times. I would not call myself a helicopter mom—I definitely give my kids a pretty long leash. There’s a fine line between protecting injury and preventing injury. I could say, “never ever climb trees” but, then I’d miss out on a cell phone call from my giggling 6-year-old 30 feet up in a tree. They’re going to do it anyway—I’d rather know about it (and have time to get to the bottom of the tree making sure the descent is as uneventful as the climb). I feel I protect them as well as I can. But there are times I want to prevent injury because there are some wounds that a trip to the ER will not repair.
I could have told him they were just jealous. I could have told him they were just kids and didn’t know how to be nice sometimes. I could have said that maybe they were annoyed that their parents didn’t feel the need to race 50 miles to let them tryout as well. But instead, I looked at him and his big blue eyes looked back at me, lips held tightly together, his hair slightly in his eyes as he blinked. And in my best mother-of-the-year voice offered this platitude, “ You know what Duke? FUCK them.”
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