I have mentioned before that I believe being transparent and sharing my situation helps me to live a happier life. Most people who know me also know lots of details about Gray and my family. I have come to take that on as a kind of identity. But, there are times when I find myself in places where it just isn’t necessary or appropriate to bring up that part of my life. For example, at Lena’s preschool, I am just a mom of another Pre-K kid. Of course, Gray and Hope have made appearances at her preschool since last February, but it is a pretty irregular occurrence. The teachers who have had Lena in their classrooms over the past 2 years know the situation, but most of the parents do not.
Over the last several months, I have become friendly with one of the moms in Lena’s class. Lena really enjoys playing with her daughter, and her mom and I have enjoyed chatting during their play dates. She and her husband own a restaurant and I really love having long conversations with them about food and cooking. Throughout high school and college, I waited tables and tended bar. In my downtime, I would hang out in the kitchen and pick up cooking tips from the chefs. I love food and I love cooking and I even miss waiting tables. So, it feels like a special treat to stand around at a birthday party or school function, watching my perfectly-normal 4-year-old play while I talk about restaurant gossip with other parents. It makes me feel like a typical parent…normal even! In fact, during a play date, I mentioned the article that ran in The Advocate Magazine to this mom and she had no idea about Gray or Hope.
Time and time again, I find myself surrounded by a group of moms and realizing that I feel like a have a double life. They are talking about subjects that mothers of typical kids discuss and I am left thinking, “if you only knew how different your life is from mine.” It can be refreshing, but it can also feel a little strange and disingenuous. I am hoping that, as we have more time and successful experiences with Gray, we can just start doing more things as a whole family without having to create a big fanfare around Gray and Hope. I envision a day when we can just show up places and blend in. It’s humorous, right? When I started this blog 7 months ago, I needed Hope to announce and explain Gray’s bizarre behavior. Now, I have moved on to Hope becoming less noticeable so that Gray’s new social skills can shine through.
Last weekend, Lena was invited to a bowling birthday party for a kid in her class. Because it was scheduled at a time when no one in our family had other commitments, I decided to bring the whole family. None of my kids had ever been bowling before and I thought it would be fun to try this out as a family event. I called ahead and booked a lane next to the party so the rest of my crew could have a place to bowl without disturbing Lena and her friends. We made a social story for Gray on his iPad and off we went. On our way in from the parking lot, we met my mom-friend and her daughter. I introduced her to Gray and Hope and we all walked in together. Gray did so well walking into the bowling alley and waited patiently while we got shoes for everyone and set up our things at the lane. When it was his turn to bowl, we unhooked his tether from Hope and walked him up to select a ball and throw it down the lane. Hope waited quietly under the table at our booth while her boy took his first shot at bowling. Gray didn’t care for the sport too much. He really wanted to accompany the ball down to the end where the pins were, and he was frustrated when we wouldn’t let him go. Nevertheless, his anger was fleeting and he happily returned to the booth where he sat with Hope and ate snacks. In between his turns, I sat in the booth and chatted with the moms on the other side where the party was going on. About an hour into the party, I thought to myself, “Does anyone notice that there is a DOG here with us?” I really don’t think that they did. Even the mom who walked in with us seemed to forget that there was anything unusual about the situation. We talked about the upcoming school year and kindergarten choices for next year and other typical 4-year-old mom topics.
When it was time to sing “Happy Birthday,” Gray popped up on his knees and grinned at the group singing his favorite song. At the end, he clapped and smiled. Then, he sat back down in the booth and happily accepted the pizza and snacks that were passed around. Through all of the chaos and noise, I sat and quietly marveled at how normal our family looked with our “invisible dog” who kept us in order. I had fretted over the decision to bring the whole family to this party and I had tried to consider a back-up plan for bailing out if things got rough with Gray. Sitting there at the party, the idea seemed ridiculous to me. The event was completely stress-free.
When the party ended, Zoe and Lena asked if we could stay and visit the video arcade. We played games for over an hour while Hope sat on the floor and watched all the action. All three kids enjoyed a simulated ride video game and Gray had a blast riding a motorcycle while I assisted with steering. Afterwards, we all loaded up in the car and drove to a sports bar to eat burgers and watch the baseball game on TV. On our drive home, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. We crashed a party, took the kids bowling, played video games and made an impromptu decision to eat at a restaurant. We were a typical family on a Saturday afternoon. It’s days like these that renew my commitment to spread the word about autism service dogs. I mourn for all of the families who are affected by autism and cannot enjoy a Saturday the way that we did. Last year, my family spent Saturdays trapped at home as well. That life is passed now. With our magical invisible dog, we are filling our social calendar.