Fast Forward Birthdays


     As my family gets older, it seems like birthdays are happening more often than they should.  Yes, I know they occur on the same day every year.   But sometimes I feel as though my life has become a Twilight Zone episode where the hands of the clock are spinning at warp speed, the calendar’s pages are flying off the wall,  and I’m whirring along on a treadmill in fast forward.
     Friends have asked me when I first felt like I was an adult.  The answer—embarrassingly late, perhaps—is when my twins were born.   Seven weeks premature, Max and Sarah came into the world underweight.   Sarah struggled to breathe, suffered from jaundice and heart irregularities; they both stayed in the hospital for 16 days.   Bringing my babies home and learning how to care for them was an awesome (and exhausting) responsibility.   I had become a parent and by necessity morphed into an adult.

     The truth is that families grow up together, and the parents of special needs kids grow up on an entirely different trajectory.  When my twins were toddlers, I was consumed with running to various therapists and special schools to “rescue” Sarah from autism, while trying not to neglect Max, the “neurotypical”  kid (who turned out to have ADHD).  Whatever pleasure I felt in watching my bright, verbal son sprint ahead developmentally, was compromised by seeing his twin sister lagging farther and farther behind.   My husband says observing Sarah’s early development was like watching the grass grow.  And then she hit puberty, went on a new medication, and suddenly (finally!) took a leap forward.   The words of one of Sarah’s few optimistic doctors still echo in my mind:  “Every time I work with Sarah it feels like I’m pulling nails out of her coffin.”

     So as the years went by—slowly then, they didn’t fly—our daughter climbed out of her coffin into a wonderful school.   At Winston Prep they believed in Sarah’s ability to learn and honored her inexhaustible efforts with their own.  She made her first close friend in high school, began to travel independently on buses and subways and carried a cell phone like other teens.  At long last I didn’t have to worry about keeping her busy on weekends so that she wouldn’t feel lonely.   Finally I could start to exhale.

     But there wasn’t really enough time to relax or regroup before the next parental challenge.  Max went into full-scale teenage rebellion magnified by ADHD.  Don’t think messy room.  Think sewer or garbage dump.   And he wasn’t just rude or disrespectful.   Most of his vocabulary consisted of four letter words.   And while all kids lose, forget and break things, our son’s loss of cell phones, keys, homework, wallets, bus passes, sports uniforms etc. is probably in the Guinness Book of World Records.   Of course this made him chronically late for school and just about everything else.  Waiting for Max was like waiting for glaciers to melt.   If I wasn’t around to scream, nag, edit and remind, he would still be filling out college applications instead of graduating.

     Max will be home soon for vacation and (coincidentally) my birthday, March 10th.  Is he coming Friday or Saturday?  Or perhaps early Sunday?  He’s not sure.  I’ll have to wait and see.  (Some things never change).   While most people are too polite to ask about my age, they have no trouble asking the age of my twins.   When I say they’re 22, the typical response is:  “Really?  I didn’t realize they were so old.” (Neither did I!)   Or else: “Boy, did they grow up fast!”

     Well, actually 22 is not so old, it turns out—especially for kids with disabilities.  For special needs kids, 22 is the new 17.  The latest scientific research shows that their cerebral cortexes take longer to grow.  Obviously, Max and Sarah aren’t growing up fast, though somehow the years zipped (or slipped) by.    I’m the one who grew up fast.  Older than 50 and younger than 60, I find it hard to admit my age even to my elliptical machine.  But it’s March 10th on Sunday, and even if I wanted to forget the new number and rewind, my family won’t let me.

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