A line from one of my favorite songs says, "There's people been friendly, but they'd never be your friends / Sometimes this has bent me to the ground." As I have watched Peter's heart and mind develop, I have thought a lot about friendship.
Our life has been somewhat isolated, of necessity, since the process of his diagnosis began. It was obvious when he was only a few months old that he hated change far more than most infants do. The daily treks to church and the grocery store and friends' houses, so stimulating and delightful to Mary, were distressing and frightening to Peter. I stopped teaching piano when he was a year old, and as his issues became more clearly evident, I dropped out of more and more activities so that his life could be orderly, calm, and well-defined. He and I became a quiet circle of two in which we spent most of our hours, and while it gave him the environment he required to learn to talk (our first priority after his initial diagnosis), it was often a lonely little world.
It was intriguing to me to see my friendships shift and change over this time, and it was a struggle not to take it personally. This season of my life simply needed to be quieter, and I could not fault people for being too busy to try to understand it. As I retreated, some friends drifted away, shouting over their shoulders, "We should get together some time! Call me!" And I smiled and waved back, "I will!", taking the path of least resistance. That was easier than trying to explain that we could go to lunch, but I would probably spend at least half the time in the lobby, my son wrapped around my body in the protective hold he craved in stressful situations. I have no doubt that my apparent unwillingness to meet people halfway contributed to the increasing isolation, and I have wondered many times what I could have or should have done differently.
But some friends cheerfully ignored my determined unsociability and simply came with me. They would e-mail me, call me, write notes, and when they said "How are you doing?" they would not accept "fine" for an answer. They didn't always know how to encourage me or what to say, but their efforts made more difference than they could ever know.
All of this came to mind again last week when I saw friendship in its simplest form, landing in a giggling pile at my feet. Peter's preschool, part of our city's wonderful special education program for young children, is not a place where I expected him to make friends as I would define the word. Some of the children are wheelchair bound and communicate primarily through gestures and grunts. Most of the children have speech difficulties, and many have problems making social connections as well. With Peter's own challenges in these areas, it was hard for me to imagine anything approaching friendship to result.
I was wrong, and delightfully so. I dropped him off at school one morning, and he was enthusiastically greeted by Christian, who greets everyone enthusiastically. I encouraged Peter to say "hello", and when it became evident that Christian desperately wanted to give Peter a hug, I gave Peter his familiar prompt: "Give him a hug with your arms." To my surprise, he obeyed, and I had barely had time to register the burst of maternal pride before Emma came barrelling down the hall, radiating excitement at the sight of her two little buddies. She hollered, "Hi, Peter!" and threw her arms around both boys, her exuberant embrace knocking all three of them to the ground in a confused, laughing tangle of arms and legs and little blond heads.
Between these three children, there is a list of diagnoses and possible diagnoses as long as your arm. Emma is autistic. Christian didn't talk until he was nearly four. All three have social and speech delays, and those are only the most visible struggles. But whether or not they could articulate it, they figured it out that morning: Friends are good. Say hello to your friends. Even if you fall down, a hug is almost always a good idea.
They say it's the thought that counts, but I don't actually think that's true. Just thinking about being a friend only makes me feel better inside my own head, and only for a moment at that. Even in my temporarily shrunken world, I want to be the kind of friend who says hello. I want to answer letters, to return e-mails, to call and have lunch, even if we have to eat at restaurants where plastic toys reign and the paper napkin may well be the most nutritious item on the menu.
I want to give hugs, even if we all fall down.