Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Very Favorite Part of Ethan's Holiday Sing-A-Long

As usual, the holiday sing-a-long at Ethan's school was a swirl of (somewhat) controlled chaos.

Picture 400+ kids crammed into the gym; parents and other loved ones squeezing on the the bleachers; rambunctious younger siblings running circles on the squeaky floor; the principal adorned with a Frosty the Snowman hat attempting to bring about calm and only halfway succeeding.

Ethan's class came in and plopped right in the middle. I saw him look for us, find Anna and I, and wave furiously, flashing that gap-toothed smile thanks to his first top tooth he'd lost the night before. The scores of kids attempted to sit criss-cross applesauce and keep their hands to themselves. The excited chatter that bubbles over when it's Christmas and vacation is coming and we made gingerbread houses and ate candy and my teacher gave me presents filled the air.

I was scrunched in a hard folding chair by a large but loving Grampa next to me who left me no room to wiggle. I couldn't complain. From the sounds of it, he had just arrived from down south somewhere; when his grandson saw him he ran to give him a hug with a smile that hinted of tears of joy.

The music started and as always in this gym with old equipment and strange acoustics, there was immediate feedback that continued throughout the song. You know that screechy sound that gives you a nails on the chalkboard feeling? I looked at Ethan and sure enough, his hands were over his ears. I saw the nervousness on his face. I prayed it would go away before his afternoon was ruined by the anxiety of waiting for more screeching sounds. Thankfully, it did.

The kids sang more of the public-school-sanctioned, generic Christmas songs: Frosty the Snowman. Rudolph. We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Then the piano was pulled out. From the distance I could just make out the top of a head of brown hair. The gym grew miraculously still. We all listened, and then came those simple notes. I sang along in my head: Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way...

There's nothing particularly special about the song, other than it being a Christmas staple. What was special was the one playing it.

"A" is a little older than Ethan. He has autism and some other medical issues. "A" has come a long way, his mom and others continue to testify. A few months ago I walked into the nurse's office to pick up Ethan and A. was there, reading flawlessly to a few staff members. I could hear the joy in their voices as they praised him.

And here he was, at the piano as he was last year, having his moment. A. can hear any tune, sit down, and play it. This day he was playing harmony as well. Grampa next to me, as with many in the room, took a little while to catch on. A. was so short, you couldn't really see who was at the piano from where we were. "I think that's a kid playing," he said to his adult daughter.

I wanted to say, not just a kid, but a miracle. As A. played, the air and my heart filled with every good and sweet feeling. All in one rush from a few simple notes there was hope and joy and faith. There was that same sense of wonder that blossomed the day years ago when my non-verbal brother began singing "Happy Birthday" out of the blue at 12 years old in the car, stringing phrases together when he couldn't put simple words together. There was that knowing that as his mom watched I knew she wasn't just seeing this moment but a string of moments leading up to this minute or two on the piano...that in a flash she had to be remembering her son as a baby and receiving a diagnosis and living with grief and fear and then the hope that came as this child who had many things stacked against him progressed and learned and began to awe those around him, including the naysayers. There was a stinging in my throat, that ache of memory of schools and lack of knowledge and of a different time when I was young, when autism was just a word on a paper to most people, when no one would imagine taking a moment out of the school assembly filled with rambunctious typical kids to slow down and honor the simple gift of a special child.

Yet here, here A. was, and I'd like to think that even those who didn't know somehow knew down deep that they should pay attention. Something in the air called for it. In the stillness, God, you are there...a song I heard once whispered.

This was my very favorite part of Ethan's holiday sing-a-long. A. fumbled over a few notes and finished strong. Applause echoed off the gym walls.

We finished our singing that afternoon with "This Little Light of Mine." No other song would have been as fitting. Let it shine, A. Let it shine.

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