Unlike The Zebra

A trip to the zoo on a beautiful fall morning is always fun. Sometimes it can be even more. 

Here’s what I mean. My family — my wife Anne and our special needs son Trot — and two friends were at the Birmingham Zoo just a few weeks ago. And, the dilemmas and challenges of raising a special needs son, including, at times, disagreements between Anne and me, were apparent on that cool sunny morning.

First of all, Trot was excited about going to the zoo, as he always is. He’s as sweet a person as you can imagine, and always has been.  He’s now 20, though because of his special needs challenges, functions like a seven-year-old.

In fact, over the past few years, I think he has become even more excited about going to the zoo because I let him sort of do his own thing. I give him the freedom to roam; this let’s him know that I believe in him.  It gives him confidence, something crucial for special needs children; I can see it, I can feel it. If he gets lost, he knows to go to a zoo staff person or to the main office for help. That makes him feel secure; that makes me feel secure.  It works.

Trot, of course, is still Trot.  So as much as he enjoys the animals — especially the seals — he also delights in walking around looking for speakers, hidden among the rocks, used by the zoo to play music and make announcements.  Whenever we visit the zoo,  which is at least once a month, he says excitedly, “Dad, let’s look for rock speakers.”  Yes, I say, though once there, I typically let him go off on his speaker hunt by himself.

It’s so important to me that my wonderful son have a good time when we go to the zoo.  It is one of the joys of his life.  But for him to do that, I firmly believe that he can’t have us — Anne or me — telling him where to go and what to do. He doesn’t want to be treated like a child. 

When I compare how I felt in the past to how I feel today taking Trot to the zoo, I realize not only has he changed but also I’ve changed. As he has gotten older, the zoo experience has become much more relaxing for me.  Typically, it’s just Trot and me — part of our Father-Son routine — though on this morning, mainly because we had friends coming to meet us, Anne joined us.  

Anne and I differ.  She tends to be more protective of Trot than I am; an honest difference that I know many couples face, even with children who don’t have special needs.  Nonetheless, I feel the dynamic changes when Anne is there.  “Where is Trot?” she asks me at every turn.  “Anne, he’s okay. He’s old enough to wander about.  It’s fine,” I answer.  I can sense her discontent.  “Anne, we have to give him more independence.”

I have seen his growth, his evolution, his increasing confidence, and, in our meetings with specialists, I have interpreted their advice to mean that providing him with more independence is exactly what we need to be doing at this point in his life.  This is especially crucial as we prepare him for adulthood and, yes, for those days, that will inevitably come, when Anne and I are no longer here to take care of him.  

Yet, I get it; I understand why Anne feels the way she does.  Raising a special needs child is complex, daunting at times, often all you have to rely on is intuition, and, couples disagree.  I also think there is a sense of nostalgia for Anne, especially as Trot gets older. When Trot was small, he was so controllable. He was so easy. Now he’s 20, a strapping young man, and it no doubt makes her miss those early days.  I understand; I miss those days as well.

In our backyard at home, Trot has a treehouse that was built for him when he was three, 17 years ago. It needs to be taken down because it has rotted and the steps are broken.  Anne won’t let me take down that treehouse; it’s a symbol and a sense, I believe, of how much she wants to hold on to the past.  Those were simpler times in our life with simpler decisions.

We’ll go back to the zoo. It will be a beautiful morning. Anne and I will disagree, but, in my heart and my head, I believe Trot will do just fine. 

So, in a sense, this story ends much like a visit to the zoo. We tend to wind up right where we started though a little bit more time has passed. We’ll go back, look for speakers, and I’ll let Trot wander.  Unlike the zebras, not everything is black and white.