It is 7:05 a.m. on a Thursday morning in early January and I somehow find myself in my car with my almost 10-year old son eating his breakfast in the back seat, trying to perform the small feat of taking him to see his best friend in Minneapolis while still getting him to his school in Minnetonka for its 8:10 a.m. start. Well, to be honest, I know exactly how I came to find myself in this situation. My son had not seen his best friend in over three weeks; since before the school break and winter holidays. Now that the new year had started and life had returned to its regularly scheduled program, we had tried for days in a row to run into him. But we had not had any luck. And then on Wednesday, we found out that we might be able to catch him Thursday morning.
My son asked and asked and asked me to take him before school. I hemmed and hawed and avoided. It was out of the way, required disruption of the morning routine and extreme efficiency before 7 a.m. The latter of which was surely daunting. And yet. My son missed his friend. And that is how I end up rushing us out of the house at 7:05 a.m.
My ever-supportive husband, who, to his great credit, puts up no objections, secretly thinks this is a ridiculous endeavor. And I am not so sure he is wrong. But my son is giddy. Gleeful. He can. Not. Wait.
At 7:30 a.m. we pull up outside the building, park and get out of the car. My son looks in the window. A joy-filled smile makes its way across his face as sees his friend. He immediately starts calling to him.
“A! A! Hey A!”
Never mind that we are still outside the building. His excitement always prevents him from remembering that his friend cannot hear him unless we are inside the building, no matter how many times I go over this fact with him.
I prompt him to go inside – after all, it is January in Minnesota and it is cold. And if he is inside, his friend can actually hear him.
Once we are finally in, he continues.
“Hey A! Hey A!” and launches into the inside game they share. His friend sees him.
“Gabe! What a surprise! I have not seen you in so long!” And he comes out from behind the counter, where he is working the opening shift.
You see, my son’s best friend is not a classmate from school or someone he met at camp. My son’s best friend is not another child at all. His best friend is a young guy who works at our favorite ice cream shop, where my son has become a regular of the Norm at Cheers variety, for those who know their 1980s TV. We have gone there multiple times a week for years. My son knows the names of most of the workers and they know him. They have introduced him to fist bumps, “peace out” and Butterfingers. And over the past several years, my son’s interaction with one young man, A., has become the highlight of his visits. He has come to look forward to seeing A. even more than he looks forward to the ice cream. (And my kid LOVES ice cream.)
I fully recognize that this friendship is not typical. That perhaps it would be more apt to call my son’s best friend a “best friend”. And for a long time, I did. I resisted thinking of my son’s interaction with this young man as a real relationship. For one, of course, how could my kid’s best friend be someone who was not another child? For another, could a best-friendship be one-sided? A. might be my son’s best friend, but, of course, my son was not A.’s best friend.
But over time, I started to wonder if those were the things that mattered. I tried to see it from my son’s point of view. He is a kid who engages with his friends at his specialized school for kids with special needs but has never shown much interest or aptitude for playing with peers outside of school. We often have to prompt and beg him to play or interact with his same-age or younger cousins. I have for years made it a goal for him to engage with the other kids at the day camp he attends each summer. I ask him to learn their names. We review questions he can ask them and things he can talk about with them. Each year I include this information in the forms I fill out for camp so that his advocate(s) who are there to support him can work on this goal. And each year, well … suffice it to say, at the end of each session, he does not know more than a handful of his campmates’ names. He certainly has never walked away with anything close to a friend.
Now, the counselors at camp are a different story. He knows all of their names. And they all know him. They accommodate him. Engage with him where he is. Laugh with him. And he loves them.
Counselors and older kids are easy. Peers are hard. Socialization is not intuitive for him. He needs to learn it by rote. And he does not share most of his peers’ interests. He likes elevators and highway exits and 80s music and Weird Al and Hebrew and wordplay and opera. And they like … well, I don’t even know. But it’s not those things. And it is hard for him to keep up with their conversation, what with his ADHD distractedness and expressive language delays. And it is hard for him to keep up with their play, what with his motor skill delays. It is hard for him to even conceive of accommodating to his peers’ interests and abilities in order to engage socially. No matter how much I want him to do it.
And, in truth, I’ve learned that it’s really only me who wants it. This past summer, after yet another day when he had not yet learned his campmates’ names and had not really done anything at camp with them, I finally asked him:
“Do you care about being with the other kids at camp and doing things with them and being friends with them? Or do you just care about the counselors and staff?”
“I do not care about the kids. I just care about the counselors,” he answers.
It is not the response I would like to hear, but it is the response that I expected. I know my kid. But, still, who, when they think about having a child, expects that child will not have friends; expects that child will not care about having friends? (And yes, I recognize the extreme gift it is that, at least at this moment, my child truly does not care that he does not really have friends his own age. Because it is so much harder for those who want friends, but struggle to make them.)
But at the ice cream shop, my son has found a friend. And, after much consideration, I have realized that for my son, this friendship is very, very real. Because what is a friend, really? Someone who is happy to see you when you show up? Someone who does things with you that you like to do? Someone who cares about the things you like? Someone who asks about your day and your life? Someone about whom you care very much? Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.
On Thursday morning, A. comes out from behind the counter to return my son’s excited greeting.
“I haven’t seen you in so long!” My son rushes over to give A. a big hug and A. gives him one back.
They talk and A. engages in my son’s favorite pretend play game. My son asks A. about his holidays. A. asks my son about what he did over the past few weeks. My son asks to sit on A.’s lap and do the game they do with the crossword. A. knows my son and knows about his favorite things and his life. And my son knows A. He knows his dog’s name and his birthday and a bit about his family and friends. He has made him birthday cards and Christmas cards and thank you notes, many of which A. has told us now hang on his refrigerator door. Nothing too much, but more than nothing. Just enough, perhaps. Just enough for a friendship.
This person is so important to my son. And he is kind and interested and excited to see him. It is a real friendship. Even if it looks very different from what is usually expected.
There is a Jewish proverb (Proverbs 22:6) about “teaching each child according to his way”. I think in this saying “teaching” is about much more than academics and formal learning. It is about all the many, many things we learn to do and be as we grow, the many parts of life that make up, well, a life. In this case, it is about friendship. My son has a best friend. That is enough for him right now. And it can be enough for me. Or at least enough to convince me of the value of driving my son to see a kind young man who works at a fantastic ice cream shop before school on a Thursday morning in early January.
My son’s friendship with A. has been brought to him by his eagerness to engaging with people, his joy in doing so and his indefatigable hopefulness that someone out there will share his enthusiasm for elevators, among other things. It was also brought to him by his immense love of ice cream. I am incredibly grateful for Sebastian Joe’s and the amazingly kind staff who work there, many of whom have connected with my son over the years. It was there that my son first learned to eat with a spoon, introduce himself to people, learn their names and have a conversation. None of which came naturally to him.
So many of the things my son does are not done in the usual, expected way. As a parent, I find it hard to remember that it is okay that he is different. And not just a little different. Jewish teaching says that we are all created in Hashem’s image, that each individual is given a soul that is the expression of G-d’s intent and vision in creating that particular being. My child is not a failed version of some imaginary (or real) “typical” kid. It can be hard for me to remember as we navigate a world that is not built for him, but he is who he is meant to be. He is a holy soul, in and of himself. As are all people with special needs. And really, of course, all people.