It all began in the parking lot of the dentist office. My son had just told me he couldn’t go inside… he wouldn’t go inside. My reply was calm but I was bracing myself. We had an appointment to keep and I would be with him the entire time like always. He didn’t budge. He didn’t make a sound but I could tell there was a storm rising up inside. I knew what was happening and I had to make a choice. Do I force him to get out of the car or do we try again another day?
Visits to the dentist have never been easy for my oldest son. The lights, the sounds, the people, and the dentist trying to touch his mouth with tools that look sharp and dangerous…HIS mouth. HIS teeth. How dare they, right? No one really likes going to visit the dentist, but the fear that had only been growing with each visit was something more than simple discomfort. I didn’t know what to expect that day, though I had an idea, and I knew we were just going to take it one step at a time.
Step one: Get out of the car. Step two: Walk into the dentist office. Easier said than done.
But we did make it to the waiting room in time, where the tension only continued to build. I sat beside him, internally willing this appointment to go better than last time. My glance caught the frown and shaking head of a man sitting on the other side of the waiting room. The receptionist called us in and stood waiting for us to follow her. She smiled while trying to coax my son out of his seat with promises of a show to watch while they cleaned his teeth. She didn’t understand but she was trying. His grip tightened around the chair. He couldn’t move on his own. After some time had passed I did the only thing I could think of, I picked him up and began to follow the receptionist out of the crowded room.
The man continued to frown as we walked by while he leaned over and quietly told the child sitting next to him “do not act like that boy when it’s your turn.”
“That boy?”… MY boy. My wonderfully talented, intelligent, kind, brave, beautiful boy.
My boy, the very one who was struggling right now. The one trying so hard to be brave. Could the man not see what I saw? Of course not, he had never even met us after all. He had his own child beside him. The rest of the appointment didn’t get better. The hygienist left in the first five minutes to get the doctor. She had given up quicker than last time, so I knew that was it for the day.
Motherhood has made me stronger than I ever thought possible but that day my confidence was shaken. I bit my lip, took a deep breath and held back the tears that threatened to spill over, as we left the office, defeated. We’ve been here many times before. I’m sure we caused a scene that day in the waiting room. I’m sure I looked ridiculous picking up my tall seven-year-old because he was frozen in his chair. While I paid and filled out paperwork he couldn’t wait to bolt out the door to freedom. Anywhere but there. To an outsider, it would have seemed like my son was misbehaving. Maybe I shouldn’t have picked him up. Maybe I could have handled the situation differently. I wondered and thought about what else I could have done, replaying the scenario in my head for the rest of the day.
There are no dress rehearsals in parenthood (or life for that matter). No edits, cuts, or retakes. This is the live show. Unpredictable and dramatic. It’s a spectator sport with highs and lows and an audience ready to applaud or boo your efforts. We move on and try to do better tomorrow. But that first show? It will never be erased. Locked in a memory (or a picture… or a video on a smartphone) just another moment in time for the books.
A week later, we were ready to try visiting the dentist again. The night before, I posted a tiny request in my stories on Instagram, simply asking for prayer for an upcoming appointment with my son. I didn’t share much detail about our challenge ahead but even so in just a short amount of time, my inbox was filled with messages from moms who just got it. They understood and immediately shared words of encouragement, support, and a simple “I’ve been there, I understand.”
Understand. A small ordinary word that holds immeasurable power in this world. A lack of understanding has the ability to divide and alienate while understanding brings people together in unexpected ways. I am convinced if we spent more time trying to truly understand someone else’s point of view, their circumstance, and their story, this world would be a different place.
The love and understanding from family and friends followed us into the next appointment at the dentist. There were still hurdles to face and anxiety to overcome but you know happened? My son did it. He overcame. He made it further than he ever had before and we celebrated. We celebrated his bravery, his determination, and the “hard thing” he accomplished that day. We celebrated the kind of victory that the parents surrounding us understood and they celebrated too. That’s what it means to “understand”.
At the end of the day, it is none of my business what the man thought of me and my son. He would have gone home that day, unbeknown to the embarrassment and hurt he only added to and forget about us. I don’t know him. He doesn’t know me. We have no part to play in his life or him in ours. So why do I care? Human nature I suppose. For whatever the reason I will remember that moment, how he added to the stress that day, but I refuse to dwell on it. It will be my reminder to love people the way we’re meant to be loved. To care about the strangers around me by giving them each the benefit of the doubt. By assuming the best and being quick to say “I understand, I’ve been there”… and if I don’t or I haven’t, I hope at the very least I can reach out and say “help me, understand.”
I don’t know what the future holds. None of us really do. We only know where we’ve been. I know this isn’t the end of our road. The anxiety will still be there, ready to rear its head at the most inopportune times for reasons we won’t always understand. I will continue to take opportunities to educate people about our differently-wired kids and hope they will at least try and listen. But at the same time, I will be preparing my children to go out into a world that often misunderstands, ridicules, and can, at times, be hurtful.
I will also be preparing them to be kind to the people around them. To value differences and to appreciate struggle. To give people the benefit of the doubt. To encourage, celebrate, and build up the people that come and go from their lives. And I will prepare them to grow up and walk out these doors with their head held high. Embracing their differences, their unique gifts, and the challenges that make them who they are. They will leave knowing without a shadow of a doubt that they are loved and accepted by the people that matter most in their lives, so that they, in turn, can go out and love and accept others in the same way.
To the man in the waiting room, thank you. And to my friends and family who reached out in love, thank you. Thank you for reminding me that my actions, my choices, and my words, matter, for better or for worse. That ordinary words spoken in love and understanding make all the difference in the world, even to the people we haven’t met yet.