Patrick doesn't get invited to very many birthday parties. Part of it is his age...kids his age are doing smaller and smaller things for their birthdays now and to be honest, he's not on a lot of short lists. Part of it is that he's a guy and so the birthday thing tends to get less and less important a little earlier than for girls. And part of it is that Patrick has very few real friends. So, when I received an email invitation from a family of a boy from school that was a couple years younger than Patrick I didn't know what to do. I weighed in my head the options: 1) blow it off -- too busy 2) take Patrick and feel uncomfortable...I'd know no one and I couldn't shake the idea that this whole thing might be a little too much of a "aren't we nice people" kind of thing 3) just go with it...talk to Patrick about it. If he thinks it's a good thing, follow his lead. My life with Patrick has been pretty much all about following his lead, so why stop now? I went with option #3.
Saturday came around. Caroline had a birthday party early in the day. Patrick's was an afternoon pool party -- a dream come true for my swimmer with big ideas. When I had asked Patrick about the little boy who had invited him to the party he had instantly known who he was. He was enthusiastic and said, "I know him! He's my recess buddy!" So, even though I couldn't pick the birthday boy out of a crew of kids, off we went to THE birthday party. Patrick was excited.
The little guy is an only child. His house is large and the backyard is filled with a swimming pool, play structure, guest house and small stream running along the back patio. His parents are loving, kind and welcoming. I'm cautious. You never want your kid to be "the little project". You don't want to hang out with people who only see your child as disabled, different, or less than. I wasn't sure how this whole thing was going to play out. I was out of my comfort zone...Patrick was not.
He entered the back yard with confidence, looking for his friend. His friend was swimming in the pool: surrounded by giant sized beach balls, a class full of kids in the pool and plenty of adults keeping a watchful eye. The friend yells to Patrick: "Hey Patrick! I'm over here! I'm so glad you're here!" He hops out of the pool, strides to Patrick and welcomes him warmly. It was clear that he had been waiting for him. His attention turns to Patrick...can he get him a beach ball, can they swim together, can they put on goggles and go underwater. Patrick, of course, plays with his friend. Seamlessly. Effortlessly. Comfortably.
These two are friends. It's for real.
How could I not know this child? How could Patrick have a friend from school that I not know about? When will I be able to give Patrick the same undeniable respect and freedom that I gave my older two at school?
It's clear that this whole moment was mine to wrestle with...Patrick and his friend are off, no looking back. It's time for me to realize that just like every other typical kid, Patrick has his own school secrets that are just for him. He has favorite recess games (no idea which ones they might be), favorite spots to hang out on the playground (no idea) and clearly a favorite recess friend...and that is his private, special hidden place all his own. How arrogant of me to think I would know all of his friends...all of his secret details of his day. How small minded.
It's time for the cake. If you know nothing about Patrick, know this: the guy will celebrate LARGE with you when it's your day. Patrick herds like a single-minded shepherd an entire class of youngsters out of the pool, away from the small fish at the pond and toward the cake. It's time! Many people sing...many people cheer...only one says clearly: "Happy Birthday Niko! I love you!" Niko, king for the moment, receives the first piece of cake and broadly pronounces: "The second piece goes to Patrick!" It is clear...these two are friends. For the millionth time in two hours, I'm humbled...speechless and struck to the heart with a feeling of gratitude.
The party wraps up. We need to head home and so Patrick walks over to say good-bye to his friend. Niko hops out of the pool. He tells me that in addition to saying good-bye to Patrick he needs to tell him something else. He asks me if it's OK. Of course! Niko looks Patrick closely in the eye and tells Patrick thanks for coming to the party and that he has something else to tell him. He gets real close and says, "I'm not coming back to school next year." I watch Patrick. He seems unfazed, as usual. I ask where he is going and he tells me that he's gotten into GATE (the gifted program at another school) and that he'll be going there. I congratulate him and tell Patrick that he will still be in Davis, just at another school. Patrick tells him that he will miss him. He thanks him for the party. He's ready to go.
I pause to say good-bye to Niko's mom and thank her. Then I mention how wonderful it was to see our two boys be such good friends and that I am sure that Patrick will miss Niko at school. She pauses with tears in her eyes. She doesn't know how to go on, but she must share a story. She tells me that one day after school Niko asks his mom about heroes. He mentions that he doesn't think heroes like Superman or Spiderman are around any more. His mom says: "Heroes don't have to be like that. They can be everyday people that make the world a better place or make us better people by being around us." Niko speaks up. "Well, mom, Patrick is my hero. Patrick tries so hard to live in our world and no one ever takes the time to try to live in his. He's a hero to me." I look in that mom's eyes and can honestly tell her that her little boy just did. My heart is full and sad.
Why do friends have to come and go so quickly?
Perhaps, it's to force us to pause and notice the many, many gifts lying unnoticed and unopened right in front of us. Two little boys took the time to share their worlds. They found comfort with each other, laughter, fun and adventure. I'm grateful they had that chance and doubly grateful to have been allowed to peek through the window and see their friendship in full bloom. I've spent the past few days reminiscing about my secret playground friends in school and where they could be now. Friendship, life, time together...it's just too short. It took two little boys to remind me again to cherish it all every minute -- a summer afternoon, a pool party, a birthday cake and yes, a secret friend.