Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome once again Pages and Patterns guest blogger, Francesa Ciotoli, who reflects on the pages on her shelves and patterns in her life. As always, readers are invited to share your reactions in a comment.
Joe and I recently took Christopher and Ava to the Wild Safari at Great Adventure. Prompted by Christopher’s interest in cataloging animals according to their habitat (thanks to a favorite DVD), we wanted to give him an opportunity to see the real deal. I’m not ashamed to admit I was pretty excited about the opportunity to get near a giraffe, an animal I have adored since childhood.
It was a spontaneous decision, something that almost never happens in our family. Outings usually require intense preparation. Christopher is highly allergic to several foods and I always have to pack more than enough food for the day. We usually prepare him for where we are going using highly structured language—“First we will go… Then we will do…” Having pictures helps a lot.
This kind of preparation helps decrease Christopher’s anxiety and sets limits. It requires anticipating as much as possible what to expect and plan for the inevitable triggers that cause an OCD spin, which is usually stairs. Have you ever noticed how many staircases exist around you? They are literally everywhere! Long flights, shorts steps, winding stairways, twin sets: Christopher wants to climb them all.
In fact, the compulsion to climb stairs is so strong Christopher will race ahead to them heedless of cars or anything else in his path. So the anxiety to keep him safe often keeps us at home.
Despite the fact that we had little knowledge about Wild Safari and no time to prepare Christopher or ourselves, we took a leap of faith, packed a makeshift lunch, the Epipen®, jumped in the car, and ventured out.
The ninety-minute ride went smoothly—we talked about the animals and both kids were obviously excited. Even the forecast of showers couldn’t cast a shadow on our smiles. The radio sang along with us as we pulled up to the park entrance, blissfully unaware of what lay in store.
How could we know that to reach the safari we had to pass the water park? How could something so innocuous derail the day? Imagine the stairways of Christopher’s dreams: towering twisting tube structures attached to complex, snaking staircases that seemed to touch the sky. Christopher immediately started screaming, “Stairs! This way! I want stairs!” And from that point on, he had one mission: to get to those magical stairs. Nothing else mattered.
We soldiered on, handing our ticket to the collector (who has surely seen his share of roaring children) and taking a slow, torturous trip through the animal kingdom. Joe spent most of it squeezed between the car seats trying to calm Christopher, I did my best to block out the screams and not crash the car, and Ava took it all in stride—as she has done since birth.
The ride was wild, but not in the way we anticipated.
It’s hard to keep composed at such times. Joe and I often feel that we are in a battle with Christopher’s OCD and it is emotionally and physically exhausting. As I gripped the steering wheel and prayed that the cars ahead of us would move already so we could complete the damned tour and go home, I saw rising ahead of me the sleek neck of a giraffe.
For a moment my world stopped as this impossible creature gracefully lumbered forward, weaving on stiletto legs among the cars. All limbs, she seemed to be coming toward me alone. I savored each long step that closed the distance between us. I rolled down my window (despite posted warnings NOT to do so) and reached out my hand.
Running my fingers over her neck I gazed up into her luminous, velvet eyes. Her long black tongue unfurled to lick my hand and I was enraptured in that deep peaceful silence of two beings connecting. And then she was gone—onto the next car, the next hand, the next photo opportunity.
As we drove home—completely spent—I kept envisioning my girl, marveling at the contradiction of grace and awkwardness, the paradox of power and gentility, the ridiculous improbability of meeting a giraffe just off the Garden State Parkway. The encounter hasn’t left me; I can and do conjure it at will during stressful moments. It’s a soothing balm.
Perhaps this is because it’s similar to my relationship with Christopher. At times, looking into my son’s eyes is like falling into a deep well. We are completely different creatures trying to live together. I feel the complex paradox and primal unity of that connection.
Although our safari trip was awful, I can’t say it was a failure. Writing this I am struck, once again, by the contradiction that there is suffering in beauty and that I love my son because of and in spite of our differences.