It was a hot day, so we started our outside play early. With the aid of a cracked plastic bucket of chalk, our driveway transformed into a dusty pastel town- the town of Cucumber Sauce. Baby blue for the police station, dull khaki green for the bank. A grocery store, a library, and a park with a bright red swing set and multicolored grass. We had a balloon parade all the way from the firehouse to the outskirts of town, our hands clutching our imaginary strings while the bright invisible orbs bobbed above us in our favorite colors. The boys ran or rode their tricycles to the different places in town. They were serious in their errands. Head to the bank to withdraw funds. Go to the grocery store to buy supplies for our park picnic. When the errands were done, we sat cross-legged and savored the cloud-soft icing and delicate crumb of imagination, while our sandals and pant legs smeared the dusty hues of our chalk park into a strange summer haze. A few minutes later we were sitting in the yellow Cucumber Sauce Public Library, while Sam, his hands cupped in the universal book position, told the tale of “The Person Who Was Afraid of Fish”. Jack sat on my lap and relentlessly interrupted his brother with his own ideas about the story. I rested my head on Jack’s, sleepily listening to Sam struggle through his half-baked narrative, his voice almost drowned out by the riotous snap-crackle-pop of late summer bugs, and I breathed in the smell of Jack’s sun-warmed hair, pleased to have just one more week before the start of the semester.
Maybe it was the imaginary play that had primed the recollection. Maybe it was the reedy, insectile language that surrounded us- the whirring cicadas, the jackhammer of locusts. Perhaps it was the sweaty scent of his hair, that not-quite-permissible musk of the outdoor child which tugged the memory intrusively into my consciousness.
I was nine. It was my first year at summer camp. There was homesickness, but mostly I was in love with this newfound land of songs, cedar trunks, jangling mess halls, crackling taps on the loudspeaker at night and damp morning flagpole assemblies. I loved archery, swimming, crafts, but especially a session dubbed “farm”. I suppose farm must have been supervised by someone, but what I remember is long periods of just watching things happen- holding, touching and listening. There was a cow and a calf, a chicken coop, goats and a few sheep. There were barn swallows and mice in the rafters, blue flies and dust motes in the hot air, and the sweet-sour olfactory cocktail of a barn in summer.
There were perhaps a dozen chicks- though calling them chicks is being generous. They weren’t the yellow fluff balls of Easter fame, seemingly created to rest in a child’s hands. These were bigger, ganglier and somewhat mangy looking- their adult feathers not quite in. They were the middle schoolers of the chicken world. We would eagerly scoop them with two hands, their legs hanging down beneath our fingers in an odd knock-kneed pose, their long, almost naked necks arcing like ships’ prows.
I don’t remember seeing it happen or hearing the crack of the wooden door as it came down like judgement on the neck of the bird. I do remember crowding around the cage with my peers, watching it struggle and claw the dirt. “What happened?” “Is it’s neck broken?” “What’s wrong with it?” “It looks funny.” “Can we help him?” “Yes! Make him a little bed!”
The next day, the counselor gave us the broad strokes- our little patient didn’t make it. But a friend who’d been at the farm just after our class soon told us the manner of it- the wounded bird had been pecked to death. As I lay in my hot, narrow cot that night listening to the summer bugs, I thought of it. The struggling bird lying there, panting, one flat, black eye fixed upwards like a beached fish, powerless as the flock gathered as one and descended.
The fear. I sit in summer sunshine with my sons in the midst of one of the best mornings of my adult life, and there it is before me like a shimmering mirage obscuring the horizon. This is one of the swampy places, where the terror finds you even in your joy- perhaps because of it. For me, although we have come so far, this is one of the great fears against which we have yet to be tested: the flock.
I want my sons to venture out into the world. I want them to stand at the rocky edge of what they know and welcome what is to come. I want the acceptance of this unknown world to swell beneath them, the benevolent laughter of their peers cresting to patter gently about them- a welcoming. I want Sam’s ridiculous dance moves and insane vocabulary to be a cause for celebration, not ridicule. I want his steadfast love of the color purple to endure until he leaves it behind, untarnished. I want the visible marks of Jack’s victories to be as unremarkable as the color of his hair- and not a signal that he is unfit to take his place among the flock, that he should be sacrificed. After all that has been done for our family, all the kind, skilled, adult hands that have borne Jack and Sam up, will it be their peers who take them down?
I drove through campus during move-in weekend last week. The faces of the parents I saw reminded me that this is not a fear that is unique to those who parent a child who is disabled, different, or medically complex, nor is it one that only afflicts the parents of young children. First day of preschool, first day of college… is there really anything we fear more than the brute power of the flock?
Jack will be heading back to DSD today, his first day of preschool. There are only a few children in his class, all with differing levels of hearing. This year at least, we have found him a supportive educational community, and we can put aside the fear for a little while longer. And yet, even after working so hard to make DSD a reality for Jack this year, I struggle with the decision. Jack and Sam spent a fantastic August together at Sam’s daycare center. Though shadowed by a nurse, Jack has been able to enjoy all of the ups and downsides of spending his days with peers. It’s the first time he has been in a non-special education / non-medical facility. He seems to have been able to fully participate despite the noisy rooms, despite his communication challenges.
Are we choosing a small environment devoid of “typical” children for Jack because we are afraid? Or are we choosing it for all of the right reasons- for the qualifications of the teachers, the amazing facilities, the opportunity for a bilingual education? And what about Sam, who went off to school today feeling alone and missing his brother. Am I making the right choice for him?
The rain came a day after our games, washing away our little town. Cucumber Sauce- population of three humans plus an infinite number of figments- was gone before we heard the water in the gutters. The little chalk town where the bakery is run by a pink seahorse who bakes sausage cake for turtles (but not for horses, because horses don’t eat sausage), isn’t a place where anyone can live forever. We’d be fools, and very bad parents indeed, if we tried.