Social lives matter for our special needs kids. Jillian’s first Homecoming

One of the biggest and best moments of my life with Jillian — up to and including her wedding in June — was her first Homecoming dance. As Jillian got older, her friendships with “typical” kids dwindled. By the time she reached middle school, they’d vanished entirely. No one was ever cruel to our daughter. They just moved on. It was heartbreaking.

Kerry and I could do everything the law allowed to get Jillian educated. What we couldn’t do, no matter how hard we worked, was to get people to be her friend. From the day Jillian was born, I didn’t dread getting her the schooling to which she was legally entitled or the challenges we’d face in raising a daughter with Down syndrome. I dreaded the day Jillian would realize she was different, and wondered why.

All the stuff that makes being a girl worthwhile — the sleepovers, the boy talk, the birthday parties — would they happen for my daughter? Or would high school weekends be an ongoing exercise in loneliness? Pondering it made my heart ache.

(Kerry didn’t worry. She had no doubt Jillian would do everything socially her typical peers did.)

Once, when she was in about 6th grade, Jillian did come down from her room on a Friday night to announce weepily, “I don’t have any friends.” That was the extent of it. Actually, Jillian had one very good friend, Katie Daly, with whom she shared all the good girl stuff. But boys?

Which brings me to that first Homecoming.

Jillian played soccer in a league of kids with special needs. One of the kids on her team was Ryan Mavriplis. Moms attending practices noticed the two flirting on occasion. One day, right after practice, Ryan summoned Jillian to come with him to the other side of the field, away from the parents.

“Do you know what Homecoming is?” he asked Jillian. She had just turned 15, a high school freshman. Ryan was 16, a sophomore.

“No,” she said.

Ryan informed her it was a dance. “Would you like to go with me to Homecoming?” he asked.

Well.

Jillian ran across the field, yelling to heaven and earth. “I have a date! I have a date!”

The next week would be consumed with what Jillian called “mother-daughter time” — finding a dress and shoes, hair, nails, makeup. The whole nine. I spent the week offering silent thanks. My daughter was going to Homecoming.

I’ll never forget one instant. Ryan had arrived — “I’m here to take your lovely daughter to the Homecoming, sir,” he announced at my door, flowers in hand — and settled into the kitchen. I was at the bottom of the stairs. Jillian appeared at the top of the stairs. “I a little bit nervous, a little bit,” she said.

Can I tell you what she looked like, at that moment?

Like she’d been kissed by the sun and moon. Like an angel, on assignment to Ohio for one night. Like everything I’d ever hoped for. She and Ryan went to that Homecoming, and to several others, at his high school and hers. Proms, too, then weddings of friends. And finally, more than 10 years into it, their own wedding.

Kerry was right. Jillian would have a social life. Her closet remains full of those dresses, testaments to a life fully lived. My daughter went to Homecoming.0F4B0793-Edit Cymbidium orchids, under a porch light.

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