GC and I were sitting on the couch watching TV, I had the foot rest extended, dog curled up at my side, blanket on my lap protecting me from the cold bowl of ice cream I was enjoying. I had put the Roc to bed 45 minutes earlier and I assumed he was sleeping peacefully.
I was wrong.
“Mommy?…” came a small voice from the landing overlooking the family room.
“What’s up Roc? I thought you were sleeping,” I said, looking up at him, waving my hand for GC to turn the volume down on the TV.
His voice cracked, his face crumpled, and the tears came when he said “I don’t have any friends. How come I don’t have any friends Mommy?”
Time stood still, my mouth dropped open, and I felt my stomach plummet so fast I thought it might go through the floor. I have wondered if and when he would utter those words, when he would ask, when he would feel the pain of isolation. It was more painful to hear them than I had imagined. The anguish in his voice cut me to the bone. I know that it took so much for him to come out and tell us what he was thinking. I know that he was laying in bed thinking them, thinking about himself, thinking about the kids at school, the kids in the community, and feeling pain that he wasn’t connected in friendship with any of them.
I thought I might throw up as I got up off the couch, silently placed my bowl on the counter and started upstairs. My mind raced and my heart thumped in my chest, my thoughts spinning over, wondering where to start.
“Let’s talk Roc, climb into bed, schooch over a bit, I want to lay down with you,” I told him as he ground his hands against his eyes, he’s always hated the sensation of tears. A memory of the Roc as a toddler screaming at his reflection flashed in my mind. My baby hitting himself in the face, trying to smash his tears, and the desperation I felt as I tried to keep him from hurting himself. I push the memory away, the desperation I feel now so similar to then. I try to concentrate.
“Roc, you do have friends,” I start, but he interrupted me, “At School! I don’t have friends at school! I don’t have a friend to play with on the playground…” he said tearfully.
I searched my mind for what to say, because the reality is that the Roc does not have friends. He has family, but there is no one from school he talks about, he cannot tell me the names of his classmates, no one comes over to play with him that isn’t related to him. He is so painfully anxious around unfamiliar children, and almost every single time we interact with a child, I have to prompt him through the introduction and how to ask the other child his name. Most typical first graders do not have the patience and persistence needed to be friends with the Roc. Again, memory floods my mind and I cannot help but think about seeing the Roc during lunchtime the week before while I was working as a substitute paraprofessional at his elementary school. I got to see my boy sit in the same spot he does everyday, and while being in that noisy, busy lunchroom, and eating his lunch is a huge success; it doesn’t take away the sting of watching him surrounded by children but utterly alone. No one talked to him, and he talked to no one but the para who helped him open his yogurt. My heart ached as I searched for the right things to say to his tearful face.
“I’ve heard you love to play with A and N in Ms. G’s room, I’ve seen the pictures Ms. G sends me on the computer! You guys play camping and pizza party, right?” I asked him enthusiastically. “Are there any other kids in your class that you talk to?”
“I don’t know their names,” he said.
“Well, let’s talk about friendship and how to be a friend, okay?” I asked.
I went on to talk about how friends greet each other, share toys, play nicely, and listen to each other speak. I also talked about how some things are harder for some children and then some things are easier for others, and that everyone has things they are good at and things that are hard for them. I could see him processing. I hoped that what I said made sense, and that it wasn’t overwhelming.
I left his room that night feeling like I could have done or said more.
I went back in a couple hours later to sit on the floor next to him while he slept, tears slipping down my cheeks, feeling utterly powerless.
Here we go, I thought to myself as my battle weary heart thumped in my chest. A few years ago our battles were different, not harder, not easier, but closer to home. Food issues, potty training issues, going to the store without screaming, getting a haircut without a meltdown, echoalia, pronoun reversal, getting on a bike, going down a slide alone, asking questions, stimming, etc.
These social skills issues are a heartache of a different variety, and now his heart is hurting too.