The night is a pleasant 68 degrees, but heat emanates from the bright stadium lights, and I’m damp beneath my Rock Bridge High School T-shirt. My boots clink on the aluminum steps as I climb past the student section and up the bleachers. A few people in the stands wave and others call out “Good luck!” I slide into the seat my husband, Steven saved for me while I helped our daughter, Sydney, execute the night’s events.
“She’s ready,” I say, glancing at the scoreboard. A minute thirty left in the half. Steven pats my leg.
“But are you?” he says with raised eyebrows and a smile.
From our perch, I see her on the sideline with the rest of the homecoming court. Stunning in a full-length navy dress and silver pumps — from the children’s department, she wears a white sash like the nine other lovely, accomplished candidates. Suddenly she punches an arm forward and stomps her foot.
“What is she doing?” I say. “Oh, no. Is that the whip? Or is it the nae nae?” I prepare to bolt down to the field, but Ethan, her escort is on it. He takes her hand and gently tucks it into his elbow.
This sweet young man, handsome in his brand-new suit, is a fellow cheerleader, but more, he’s her friend. Throughout the years there have been many — Katey and Raegan and Lindsey and Jordan, the kids who’ve seen Sydney first and her disability second.
“Thank God for Ethan,” I say to my husband as we both keep our eyes trained on our daughter below. “Come on Syd, keep it together,” I whisper nervously.
When Sydney was born with Down syndrome, we had no idea what to expect. She was a cherubic baby with coppery red hair, an adorable button nose and sparkling blue eyes. She loved people and music and food. Not much has changed in 18 years, except now, rather than suspect, we know what a gift she is. Sensitive and compassionate, Sydney regards herself and others without judgment. She accepts everyone just as they are, though the reciprocal has not always been the case.
We’ve made inclusion with her developing peers a priority, which has often meant that I go along to parties and field trips and dances, I sleep in a cabin of seventh grade girls at science camp, and learn the routine for cheer tryouts to teach to her. As I’ve observed the kids in their natural habitat, I’ve seen the bravado that masks their insecurities. The pretense actually reveals an awkward and touching innocence. They’re all searching for their place in the world by measuring themselves against one another. They all want to be accepted. Sydney is no different, she’s just more transparent.
I remember the day she said to me, “Mom, somehow I’m a little different,” with a look of resignation so full of knowing I wanted to wrap her in my arms and never let her go. But to champion her true potential, I’ve had to do just that: Let Go. Again and again and again, tempering my instinct to protect her. I’ve tried instead to empower her, to love herself, to be herself, even if it risks rejection.
Last night, I fell asleep on the couch, exhausted by the activities of homecoming week. My phone buzzed, startling me awake. Sydney, alone in her room, texted me, as is her practice, with her deepest thoughts and feelings.
I feel very emotional 😭 and I’m literally FREAKING Out
I’m so proud of you, honey. It’s a big day tomorrow!
Thanks mom I am praying for you 🙏🏻 thanks for all your supports and needs you deserve to have an awesome award 🥇goes to you I mean it you did it you helped me through times and lots of supporting so thank you mom you are great I love you so much ❤️
Mothering a child with special needs brings the same unbearably exquisite moments coupled with the same painful heartaches, the same sleepless nights, and the same anxiety.
I love you, too. You are fabulous. 😘️
Thanks mom I love you more than cheese 🧀
And mothering this one always brings a smile to my face.
The time has arrived and the crowd quiets as the announcer begins introducing candidates alphabetically. Sydney’s last name puts her at the 50-yard line.
“And now, the 2017 Homecoming Queen is . . . ” The words echo across the football field in a pregnant pause.
We’re on our feet as the crowd erupts. The students roar. Sydney’s big sister squeals. Her dad beams. Ethan picks up our girl and swings her around, a genuine princess moment. The crown placed on her head slips down over her eyes and she’s rushed by screaming cheerleaders, who claim her as their own.
Awestruck, a deep quiet holds me still. I find it profoundly symbolic; as she’s experiencing this ultimate gesture of acceptance, I’m far away, watching. Sydney is on her own. A surge of hope for our collective future swells within me and my heart fills with gratitude for this community and these students. With their vote, these beautiful kids said: “We see you. You belong with us.” And that message doesn’t just change her, it changes them. It changes all of us.
My friend in the row below turns around and jubilantly places both hands on my face, saying “Oh, my gosh, Lisa! You better get down there!” My reverie is broken; everything shifts into fast forward as I make my way down the stairs, laughing through my tears.