The digital clock in the truck's dashboard flicked over to 7:41 as I pulled into my parking space. Already the sun's warm fingers were prodding me to roll down the windows and roll up my sleeves. I wished I'd hadn't tossed my shorts aside in favor of jeans that morning, but quickly remembered the reason. While the heavy denim wasn't a good match for the heat, it did serve to hide the smudgy bruises which now dappled my pale thighs.
I popped open my morning Diet Coke and relished the sting of carbonation and cold against my teeth, screaming down my throat. Not the most wholesome breakfast, to be sure, but I needed the caffeine. I hadn't been sleeping well, a side-effect of my summer job that would never leave me completely... but that's a different story.
At 7:45, I swung myself out of the truck cab and strode across the street. The high, delightfully savage noises of children at play came tumbling over the blue fence that surrounded the playground. On good days, like this one, Connor's au pair had already whisked him into the school yard and seated him on his favorite bench.
I pulled the curve-topped gate open, noting the familiar creak as I stepped inside. Once in, I subconsciously lifted my Diet Coke and purse up above my head as a gaggle of five-year olds gushed around me, the unwitting boulder in their oblivious stream. A normal morning. Laughter and hopscotch. Mathew and Bradley bounced a ball between them. Darby and Reagan, little tomboys, raced up ladders and down slides. Dannica, Kelly and Megan were all-business in the "kitchen" of the playhouse. Dillon and Dylan were in timeout (again) for insisting on waging a play war between the sandbox and the monkey bars.
Connor was slumped on the bench, bright pudgy knees splayed out and his round face upturned towards the trees. He was quiet. I lowered my arms and walked to him, though slowly. This silent moment would be our last for the day. I took careful note of his marker-stained fingers, pulsing to a rhythm sounding only in his mind. His plump pink lips worked at the air, absently sucked in between his teeth and then popped back into a pout.
His blue-green eyes wandered with the morning breeze and landed on me. The switch in his mind flipped. He was up and pointing.
"Good morning, Connor." I smiled at him.
Three weeks before, he had said my name for the first time. It spurred something inside me, to me counted as one of the very select few he recognized, acknowledged and desired. I had joined the ranks of his mother, his au pair, his Occupational Therapist and his Therapy Coordinator. We five women maneuvered Connor through his days, transporting him between venues of education and physical activity, encouraging speech and facilitating play. And, though it was hard to tell whether this new acceptance of me into his circle had anything to do with love, I knew I loved him. It was the only thing that made me come back for more.
"Push push," he said and grabbed my hand, tugging me towards the swings. When I wouldn't be moved, he turned back to me. "Push?!"
Forcing myself to breathe deep, I squatted beside him, letting my eyes come in at his level, but keeping my weight supported on the balls of my feet. It was important never to let my guard down.
"Good morning, Connor," I repeated. His mouth screwed into a smirk and, though his face began to turn away, his eyes remained locked on me.
The swings, his objective, squealed back and forth as children took their turns swinging and pushing. Connor surveyed me, his strong fingers still wrapped insistently around my wrist. I watched his jaw move, as though he was tasting this confrontation, something we did every morning, to see if there was something new. To see if he could win today.
He dropped my arm and lunged away, but I snagged him by the elbow and kept him in place. My grip on his upper arm was firm, but my fingers and thumb could not quite touch. Connor's bicep was expanding daily. All of the activity on the playground, plus his weekly meetings with the Occupational Therapist, plus his swim lessons, plus his Gymboree class had resulted in the most muscular little five-year-old I'd ever seen.
"Good morning, Connor."
With a frustrated grunt, he swung his thick fist.
I caught it with my right hand and subdued him. By this time, I was an expert. I could pull him into a position which restrained him without exhausting me. I could navigate the four-square pad and the tire swing, reaching the timeout bench without letting go. He kicked at my shins, grunting with each effort.
Above all, I could not appear to struggle with him. The other children at the school were, by this time, entirely used to my presence. They knew I was there as "Connor's friend." But I didn't want to traumatize them. Nor did the school staff want the rest of the kids thinking that swinging at an instructor was an option. Mainstreaming, thankfully, benefited Connor. He socialized more. By the end of that first summer together, he had learned the names of his teachers... a goal I'd never dreamed he'd reach. But in order to justify bringing a child with special needs into a mainstream classroom, the rest of the students must not be negatively affected.
On the bench, feet wedged underneath him, fists controlled and in his lap, Connor cocked his head to one side and waited. I could feel the language brimming within him. Unlike many children with Autism, Connor had no trouble speaking. He made sounds all day long. Words both real and imagined. A constant stream of disjointed sentences eschewed from him, and I was there to make sense of it all... for teachers, for classmates, even for him. And, because we did make so many advances together, it was the morning fight over "Good morning" that frustrated me most. He knew what to say, but stubbornly chose to kick start the day with a fight.
Hindsight teaches me that, while I wanted to maintain a ritual which included a dialogue, Connor wanted to maintain a ritual he believed should include a fight.
I licked my lips and concentrated on maintaining sanity through serenity.
"Good morning, Connor."
His face, glistening and earnest, relaxed. "Good morning, Audrey."
Round One was over. I released him and stood, prepared to dodge another pointed blow, but none came. He bounded up from his place on the bench, just as he had five minutes before. It was as if we'd rewound the morning. I rumpled his hair and all was forgiven, though my shins were already throbbing.
"Push?" he asked, gesturing to the swings. I sighed, relieved to see that they were both vacant, and nodded. Some of our greatest and most complex battles were on the road to accepting the concept of "waiting turns" or "sharing toys." He understood both, but single-mindedly ignored them.
He sprinted across the yard to the swing set. I admired him as he ran. He was aware of his limbs, propelling him forward in total control. He knew how to pump his legs to swing higher, a concept lost on many kids his age. But he liked to have me push him. It wasn't until later than I discovered he literally needed to feel the pressure of my widespread palms on his back, that this weight, when administered correctly, could soothe him and start his day off better.
Shana, one of the instructors at the school, approached; she had my purse dangling from one hand and my Diet Coke in the other.
"Here," she said, smiling at me. "What do you think? A good day?"
We watched Connor together. He never took his eyes off mine, totally locked on me, his friend.
"Well," I answered, taking another sip of my soda, "It will be better than yesterday."