I am 24-weeks pregnant with Olive, the week Elias was born, and today I dropped him off at his first day of kindergarten.
He woke up at 4:00 this morning, crawled in bed with us and asked, “Am I riding on a big bus or a little bus?”
“I don’t know what size bus they’ll send,” I said, “I’ll drive you for your first day. But it’s not time to go to school yet. Sleep sweetie.”
We woke him up at 7:00. “It’s a school day,” I said.
“First day of kindergarten,” Nick said.
“Can I wake Nana and Papa?” Elias asked.
“Sure and then come up for breakfast.”
Thankfully my epic headache subsided to a dull throb, like the hum of a fluorescent light, only noticeable when still, allowing me to feel almost perky as I fried some cheesy eggs for Elias. Nick cooked bacon and made Elias a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch which we packed in his monkey lunch bag (with a Velcro top, no tricky latch—thanks Mary Ellen!) along with a Z Bar, string cheese, fruit leather, grapes, and a juice box.
Elias actually ate his eggs and bacon as we talked about his first day of kindergarten.
I asked him his teacher’s name and he remembered then I reviewed the names of his physical therapist, Resource Teacher, and Aid.
“You’ll have a lot of teachers this year Elias.”
And as I reviewed all the particulars I wondered if I’m doing this for him or for me. Who needs to be held up this morning? Who needs to be reminded that it will all be ok?
“Remember if you poop to let a teacher know so she can change your diaper.”
Yesterday, I cried on the phone with a friend about the idea of sending Elias off to have his diapers changed by the Anchorage School District. Its one thing to send him to Special Ed preschool at age three in a diaper but quite different to send him into a regular kindergarten classroom without big boy underwear.
His teacher reassures me that the rest of the class is not that far away from diapers themselves and that they will accept him. Her years of experience, wisdom, and compassion relieve my fears during our screening meeting—yes, Elias got another great teacher for this year-- but alone in my room, with my head throbbing, my mind can’t release the vulnerability of Elias on the changing table in the handicapped stall of the girl’s hall bathroom. I picture a line of third grade girls entering as Elias departs.
Giggles and stares.
I remind myself that Elias is not self-conscious of his diapers—yet—so to stop fixating on scenarios I can’t control.
“Want to put my shoes on now,” Elias said after breakfast, eager to return to Northwood for a new year.
“Alright but its not quite time to go.”
Nana read him a book as I puttered and fretted.
Another giant leap for Elias, miles away from the tiny fragile baby whose grip I first felt in the NICU over five years ago. The micro-preemie with a brain-bleed who wasn’t expected to survive.
With his school backpack strapped to his small shoulders, he walked toward the door.
Since Elias has bonded so well with Nana and Papa this past week, kicking Nick and I our of his room at bedtime so they can read to him, asking for his grandparents to sit next to him at dinner, to change his diaper, to play in his room, we decided that they should not come to school on this first morning, or he may not want to leave their sight, so they waved from the door.
He waved back and climbed into my green Subaru. All by himself.
“Show me where your classroom is,” I told Elias, as he stood in the entrance to the school, overwhelmed by the crowds of parents and kids.
We passed Ms. Robyn’s room, his former preschool classroom, and she came out to say hello. I found myself wanting to walk into her room, into the safety of the known, the small group of children with special needs. It’s the anticipation of a roomful of regular children, and their parents, that terrifies me.
Elias smiled as he walked through the door and, with prompting, found his cubby and his hook for hanging up his coat. I helped him, the hovering Mama, despite the presence of his PT and the Aide from the Resource Room, both there to assist Elias.
Next it was time to find his nametag. He picked up his name and said with a grin, “I found it really quickly.” And he did.
I helped him put it on his new orange and green snap-up shirt and then directed him to his table, in the front of the room, where three other boys sat playing with Playdo.
“Hi, I’m Dominic,” the boy next to him said. Elias didn’t respond.
“His name is Elias,” I said, “Elias can you say hi.” No response. I stood and backed up, to watch from the edge, like the other parents, to force myself to stop talking for him, to observe and let him just be… Elias.
“What happened to you?” Dominic asked, “Did you break your legs?”
Dominic’s parents smiled at me, apologetically, I smiled back, “It’s OK, they’ll need to talk about it.”
The Aide stepped forward, “No, he didn’t break his legs, he just needs help walking for now.”
Elias squeezed his Playdo and looked around the room.
“I got four shots at the doctor,” Dominic said to anyone who was listening. He made a face in his Playdo. The boy on the other side made a ball, threw it up in the air and caught it. “Look what I can do,” he said.
Elias squeezed his Playdo again, held up the blob and said to no one and anyone, “Look what I made.”
His teacher called us to attention, welcomed us to her classroom, told us a little about their day, and then said, “Well its time for one more hug and kiss and then for all the parents to go.”
Elias looked up concerned. I bent down next to him and put my hand on his back. “Are you going Mommy, “ he asked.
“Yes, its time for me to go home-- but I’ll be back to pick you up after school.”
His teacher reminded me that I could stay a little longer if I wanted to observe.
Elias’s lower lip quivered and he looked toward me with sad eyes, “When do I get to go home?”
And I don’t know what I answered, something about seeing him at the end of the day, all I know is I had to leave the room before my tears fell--so the moment I saw his attention drawn in towards the boys at his table, and his lip pull back in,, I gave him a kiss and departed, so I could cry in the hallway, away from his familiar blue eyes.
I wanted to stay and watch but I couldn’t.
The sobs came once I closed the door to my car, and I sat there in the handicapped parking spot with my head in my hands.
And now its not yet noon and I write not knowing about Elias’s day, my former 24-weeker, sitting in a kindergarten classroom with 17 other students, out of my reach, flung into the unknown world of school days that parents can’t quite smell or taste.
We can ask questions. We can visit. We can observe. But it’s not our place to stay.
It’s theirs alone. Our babies, now children… adults someday.
And until this morning, even with warnings, I couldn’t come close to comprehending how hard this day would be.
--Excerpted from Following Elias, originally published on Parents.com. Copyright 2009 by Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.