Spring break 2012.
The Roc was excited to go to the zoo. He kept saying, “We’re going to the ZOOOO! We’re going to see ANIMALS!!! We’re going with my grandparents!” that morning and it made me smile. It also made me remember the last time we went to the zoo.
The Roc was three, would turn four in two months. We had the knowledge that autism was a part of our lives for ten months, though it had been there much longer than we knew. The Roc and I were visiting my family in MN for 10 days. I lived with a deep thread of anxiety running through my body every single day during that time, and I choked on my grief if I tried to explain my thoughts and fears about the present and the future. But I remember feeling hopeful and excited at the beginning of the day, thinking that all kids like the zoo. All kids like animals! It was a gorgeous day, the zoo wasn’t over crowded, and I had hope.
I was deflated by the end of that day.
We attempted the bird show, but as soon as we sat in the little theater I knew it wasn’t going to work so I left my family inside to enjoy the birds and the Roc and I waited outside the little theater alone. I leaned against the floor to ceiling glass and watched the monkeys outside chasing each other while the Roc paced the window next to me, his hand trailing, looking in their direction, but not seeing the monkeys. I wondered if he would ever be able to sit within a crowd, attend to a speaker, enjoy a show like the one we were missing. I could hear the oooooohs and aaaaaaaahs inside as I watched my boy stim and my insides ached. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders as my family excited the theater, and pushed down on the grief bubbling to the surface as we moved on.
The Roc was more interested in looking at any water we could find that day than the animals I desperately pointed out to him.
As the children around us rang out with, “LOOK MOM! LOOOOK!” and I did the same, “Look Roc! Look at the BIG cat!” the Roc would shrink away from the children, from their piercing shouts. He never looked where I pointed, he didn’t seem to care about the animals that made all other children shout with glee. He climbed the display rocks, stared at the little streams of water in the enclosures, and then he would take off again. He didn’t look for the animals, even when they were right there. I settled for getting a picture of him with an animal in the background.
My heart hurt.
We stopped by the farm and the Roc did not hesitate to touch a big horse, and I my eyes filled with tears behind my camera.
I wished for him to look at me and smile, to share the moment with me, for connection.
I followed him into the goat enclosure, most parents watching from the other side of the fence. “LOOK MOM!” a common exclamation from the children around us. I again tried to get the Roc’s attention, I showed him how to pet a goat and watched him giggle as his hand made contact with the goats back.
I wished for him to look at me. My heart hurt.
I remember my mom looking over her shoulder at me as I buckled the Roc into his car seat at the end of the day. She smiled and said, “That was fun wasn’t it?” but I saw in her eyes that she knew, she could sense how disappointed I was. How much my heart was hurting. We didn’t go back to the zoo when the Roc and I visited the next summer.
Almost 4 years have gone by since I snapped the pictures above.
Spring Break 2012
The Roc kept asking, “Are we there yet? Are we close to the zoo? It’s taking SOOOO long to get there Moooommmmy!” as we rode with my parents to the zoo two weeks ago. The parking lot was filling up as we parked, and I felt that familiar anxiety creep up my spine, crowds and the Roc do not mix well. We got our tickets and my parents noticed that the dolphin training show was going to start in about 25 minutes. The Roc immediately said he wanted to see it. The area was packed with people looking at the giant fish tanks and the station where you could get your hands wet. We looked at what we could, the Roc enjoying the station that had a big gush of water like a wave. Memory snippets of the last time we were at the zoo flashed behind my eyes and I wondered if he was going to look for water more than animals again. As the time for the dolphin training drew closer we made our way to the viewing area to get seats. It was filling up fast and I directed the Roc to sit between my mom and I. I wondered how we were going to get out of all the people if the Roc suddenly decided he couldn’t be there. I didn’t need to worry, he watched the water and asked over and over when the dolphins were going to come out. The Roc was pressed up against me as the trainers came out and the show started. When the first dolphin came into the front pool and started to interact with the trainer the Roc said, “Look Mommy!” and I looked at him instead and I willed myself not to cry.
The Roc was so present, grinning and excited to see the dolphins. He was sitting among a crowd in the bleachers, he was watching the dolphins, listening to the trainer talk. I wished I could take a picture of his face, capture his pure joy. He was so happy. Over and over I looked at the Roc enjoying the show and my heart soared. Tears pricked my throat the whole 15 minute presentation and I had to force them away. Who gets emotional at a short dolphin training session?
It wasn’t about the dolphins.
My mom grabbed the Rocs hand as the crowd poured down the stairs and I lost sight of them. We met up outside and decided to go see the new (to me and the Roc) bear exhibit.
The Roc was so excited to go see bears. “We’re in a cave!” he told my Mom as they entered the area first. “BEARS!” he shouted as we rounded a curve and came to the viewing area. This time he smiled for the camera.
We walked the outdoor portion of the zoo and the Roc stopped to see each and every animal. He was excited to eat lunch outside with grandma and grandpa, and we adults couldn’t get over the fact that we were eating outside in MN on March 15th!
We visited the rest of the zoo after lunch and the Roc was so excited. He enjoyed it all, loved finding all the different animals, always wanted me or one of my parents to see what he was seeing, and I heard, “Look Mommy!” more times than I can count. He did find a little waterfall that got his attention, but he watched it for awhile, came over when I told him I found flamingos and when he went back to the waterfall he said to me, “I just want to go look at it one more time okay Mommy? Then we can move on.” I leaned against the railing and watched him, marveling at how he is still attracted to water and waterfalls, but how he has changed in so many other ways.
Almost four years ago we walked the same paths, looked at the same exhibits and I had felt crushed. I was wishing for so much, for me, for the Roc, for conversations and connections. I wanted what I saw all around me, I wanted what I had expected. I didn’t know we would come back almost four years later and I would have what I wished for, and so much more. Conversations and connection being tip of how far the Roc has come.
As we walked back to the car my Mom said, “Roc, you did a great job today!” and he replied, “I really liked the zoo, that was really, really fun! When can we go again? Can we come back tomorrow?”
“He really did do a good job didn’t he?” I said to my mom, memories from the last visit to the zoo dancing behind my eyes, contrasting images from the day flashing alongside. I didn’t know, couldn’t know how things would change in four years.
“He did,” she replied and smiled at me.