When my son Sawyer was young, my wife and I spent a lot of time with him at speech therapists and occupational therapists and neurologists and dieticians. These were usually well-run operations, but we always spent a certain amount of time before his appointment sitting around the waiting room with the old toys the kids never played with and the two-month-old magazines the parents never read.
While I don’t enjoy seeing doctors, I do like their offices. They’re always so clean and efficient, and the people staffing them always seem to enjoy their work. This was certainly true of the specialists to whom we took Sawyer. These were people, from top to bottom, who seemed aware that they were helping children, an endeavor whose inherent goodwill brought an altruistic cheerfulness to the rooms, a cheerfulness all the more noticeable for its bright contrast with the parents’ mood.
There’s a look parents get in these kinds of waiting rooms, particularly if it’s the first time they’re visiting. I’ve had it myself, I’m sure, though it’s easier to recognize in others. They sit in comfortable waiting room chairs while their kid putter nearby, and stare ahead into some unknowable emptiness.
Their kid isn’t normal. Their kid is doing stuff they didn’t know kids would do. Gone is the future of soccer games and dance classes and junior proms. They have absolutely no idea what the future is now. They try to see it but they can’t. They were not prepared for this. Nothing in their life prepared them for this. They wanted kids, they found a good partner, they read the books, they ate healthily, and then this. What does success as a parent look like now? What does happiness look like now?
Once I got used to taking Sawyer to these appointments, and once I stopped seeing autism as some kind of death sentence, I grew to like the mood in those waiting rooms. Not the despair. I wouldn’t wish despair on anyone. I also have nothing against dance recitals and soccer games and proms. They can be a lot of fun. But just like our income, or the house we own, or the job title we have, they are not what tell us we are okay, and that our life has meaning.
Sitting in those waiting rooms, with the dreams of “normal childhood” gone, we are all forced to look elsewhere for some assurance that our kid is okay, that we are going to be okay, that life is okay. We may hope the doctor or occupational therapist will give us this assurance, but they won’t. They can’t. What we’re looking for cannot come from any specialist, or from a trophy or a job. Perhaps we weren’t ready to look for it where it actually was. Perhaps we thought that might be something we’d find when we closer to death.
But now we have to find it or spiral down into endless grief and despair. Which is why I liked those waiting rooms. I didn’t fully understand until I sat there that one of my quiet grievances with life as I’d been living it was the idea, the insistence, that all those trophies and titles, all the failures and successes, really mattered. So much energy and attention were poured into them, that they must matter, they must be some kind of measuring stick.
If those things really mattered, were really the measure of a person’s potential and value, how would our kids measure up? We knew the answer, and so there we all were, having to drop that illusion. None of it had ever meant anything about anyone, including us. We’d gone to proms and danced at the recitals and won the races. Going to prom was no more meaningful than staying home, winning no more meaningful than losing, acceptance no more meaningful than rejection. Everything means something or nothing means anything.
That was the gift of the waiting room, whether we were ready for it or not. I never talked to the other parents, but I felt a quiet kinship with them, the way I used to feel a kind of closeness to another runner when we crouched in our blocks and put out fingers on the starting line. The gun will go off, and we’ll blast out like a single body, and will we remember who we are when we lean across the finish line, each of us ranked by time and place?
Where will we find our value then? Sometimes I think I ran those races more for the losing than the winning, the way the kids flapping around the waiting rooms muttering to themselves, ask us to love whatever is not matter what.