The Intersection of Broadway & Kindergarten
I walked into James’ preschool classroom at The Susan Gray School and was greeted by his energetic, always smiling, size-zero teacher, Ashley. “I heard the amazing news,” she said with exhilaration, sounding even more bubbly than usual. “We are all so excited for you!” Good news travels fast.
It was only a few hours prior that I had found out that my show, “Wrap Your Heart Around It – One Woman’s Journey from Depression to Dessert” had been chosen by the United Solo Theatre Festival to perform on Theatre Row this fall. Ashley then says, chuckling, “I can’t believe you are walking this road to Broadway at the same time you are walking the road to kindergarten!” It took several very long seconds for her words to register. “I can’t believe it either?” I replied, not sure exactly what I was feeling — happy, overwhelmed or scared to death.
As I gathered up James’ glitter-and-glue art project of the day from his cubby, we talked about the whens and wheres for both events. James would be attending kindergarten around the corner, and I would be performing on West 42nd Street in New York City. Geeeeeez!
James and I hold hands and march up the pavement heading towards the car, while Ashley’s words play over and over in my head. The timing of these events makes me smile. It reminds me of my belief in the power of God, the universe, and life itself. It leaves no doubt in my soul that the roads we travel take us to exactly where we are supposed to be…eventually. But I haven’t always felt this way.
When I found out six years ago that the baby I was carrying would have Down syndrome, I felt instantaneous unexplainable grief, followed by years of deep depression. On the outside I acted like I was okay, but on the inside I was dying. Slowly. Then, when James was almost three, I quit performing. I thought that THAT might be the answer to fixing what I felt like was the unraveling of everything I knew and believed to be true. But soon, not only did I stop performing, I stopped going… anywhere. I stopped getting dressed. I stayed in my robe for days. Then weeks. I stopped brushing my teeth. I replaced my love for high-end restaurants and fancy desserts for large amounts of buttered noodles and gallons of Ben & Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Cookie ice cream. I played Book Worm on my computer for hours, always seeming to easily find words like die, knife, and pain. I was in an emotional and spiritual tailspin with no hope of seeing how I was going to crawl out and no real desire to even begin the process. The only comforts I could find were in thoughts of suicide. “Jim and James will be much better off without me,” I’d think.
But today, somehow, somehow, I’m here. Smiling from ear to ear, excited about my future and helping my six-year-old son into his car seat. James is wearing a soiled but adorable bright blue designer shirt and his hair is spiked up like his daddy’s. As I buckle him in, still mulling over Ashley’s words, I can’t believe how far we’ve both come. And then, without any prompting, James says, “I unt toooooo ing ssssongs wezze bobby!” which translates to “I want to sing songs please mommy!” I burst into tears. He has just said his first sentence.
As an artist and entertainer, so much of what I do is about communicating with people. And to have a child who can barely communicate with me, let alone the world, scares the hell out of me. So the fact that he has just strung seven simple words together feels like cause for a party on my deck, or a parade with huge floats or at the very least a shopping spree!
James’ world is about to change drastically, which means mine is too. He has been going to The Susan Gray School since he was two. We carried him in on that first day. He was wearing a really cool Diesel shirt, along with a plastic head-helmet, glasses and leg braces. He had no vocabulary and barely a few unofficial signs that I made up. But for four years, day in and day out, this place has embraced him, loved him, taught him, and challenged him. I wonder if the teachers and staff know how much they have done the same for me. He has been learning and growing and preparing his whole short life for his big next step.
We pull away from the school. As requested, I turn the CD player up loud and he sort of sings along to every song, all the while entertaining a sock monkey my sister made him out of his late Grandpa’s socks. He is grinning and happy. I tell him, “We’ve got some errands to run, buddy,” and I start planning the order of our to- dos. Stop at UPS to ship out accordions to get tuned. Schedule next script meeting over the phone with the director and producer. Call James’ doctor for immunization records. Meet with the wardrobe stylist. Go to Home Depot for locks and Target to buy school supplies. At a stoplight I glance at my calendar. I have exactly 101 days till my Broadway performance. Shit! I add to the list…get my ass to Zumba class!
Still somewhat choked up from hearing James’ first sentence, I am rushing and weaving in and out of traffic, believing that if I push harder things will get done faster. Not true. I get stuck at every light and in every traffic line. The universe wants me to slow down. And then I look up and realize that I am now waiting behind a metro yellow school bus. “That damn yellow school bus,” I say, partially laughing out loud. It’s here. The moment that sent all this into motion is really here.
I was standing in my closet one day, looking out the window that overlooks our driveway. And in a vision-type moment, I saw from a distance, through the glare of the morning sun, a yellow school bus coming down the street. I saw James and me rushing out to meet the bus to take him to kindergarten. The bus had stopped in front of our house. And when I looked up, it was then I realized he would be picked up by… the short bus.
The devastation of what I saw sent me to my knees. I collapsed on my closet floor into a pile of dirty underwear. “I can’t do this,” I screamed. “I can’t fucking do this!” All the horrible, ugly, selfish things that you think to yourself, but pray no one will ever hear, came pouring out of my mouth. “God, I don’t want a special needs child!! And I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that I HAVE one.” And then, what I heard next, not from an external far-off place, and not in a James Earl Jones-ish voice, but from a deep place inside my gut, was this: “Lynn, I’m not asking you to wrap your head around it – I’m asking you to wrap your heart around it!”
That day was a turning point for me. I surrendered to the fact that I could not fix the situation. But I had no idea how I would love it.
I found my way into a therapist’s office and reluctantly onto an anti-depressant. And I started writing. At first, just for my own healing process, but then I discovered that the more I wrote, the more clarity I got, and the more I could feel myself changing internally. It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen over a few weeks, but over months and months of soul searching, reading every self-help book I could get my hands on, the occasional passion fruit cocktail on my deck, a new way of praying, and more writing. I began to look at things differently. I began looking at the world through James’ eyes… nicer, bigger, softer.
Traffic finally lets up. I watch the taillights of the school bus I’m stuck behind disappear down a side street and James and I head to Target to pick up the items on his very long list of mandatory kindergarten school supplies.
The first item on the list is a notebook. I let James pick between two colors and he picks black. The son of an entertainer for sure. Next, scissors, markers and pencils. We head towards the children’s clothes, hoping to find some hip-looking, uniform-compliant attire, and James is chewing on his monkey. He garners stares from two little boys. I try not to notice that they are staring. I try not to care. But I want to punch them. Hard. Right in the face. But I keep moving. As I do, we pass the lingerie section, and I chuckle at the site of a pink robe. I buy a new Spanx… promising myself that I won’t have to wear it on October 18th!
Home Depot in next. I have a phone appointment as we drive, which James hates. It interferes with his singing. We make an unplanned pit stop at Nordstrom’s, not giving up on the cool uniform quest. I find a few things, over my budget, but I give in. I give in because in some dysfunctional, crazy way I attempt to hope that expensive clothes will somehow make up for his slanty eyes, slurred speech and wide walking gait. Before I sign the bill I recognize my insecurity and fear and I ask the sales lady to put half of the items back. Half is the best I can do today.
In Home Depot I continue to look lost as I search for door locks. The other day, after a grueling appointment with James at the ear doctor, followed by his monthly hair cut – both visits leaving the two of us frazzled and looking like we just walked out of one of those machines that suspend you in midair – I was enjoying a cocktail and a clove cigarette on my deck when I heard, “Excuse me ma’am.” I turned around to see a neighbor from up the street standing in my side yard. “I just found your son walking down the middle of the street, barefoot,” he says. I take a huge gulp of my passion fruit cocktail and try to hide the clove cigarette, somewhat embarrassed. I get up to go retrieve him and he says, “No, no, it’s okay. I already put him back in your house.” I say thank you and try to explain that James can get out of the house now in like thirty seconds and I don’t ‘really’ smoke, and I don’t often drink at 5 o’clock; it’s just been a hard day. He doesn’t seem to believe me. I don’t blame him.
So that is why I am meandering up and down the Home Depot aisles looking for unescapable door locks. James doesn’t understand using his ‘inside’ voice, so every customer we pass by is greeted with a very loud demon-like sounding BYYYYYEEEEE! We pass the appliance section, and I smile again in reflection.
It’s been about two years since my dryer broke one day, spewing sparks followed by a large bang. I was about to be really upset. Then, I realized that this meant I could get a new dryer. I even got excited with the thought of getting one of those Kelly Ripa Electrolux Deluxe models that makes everything perfect! “I’m gonna have the perfect biceps, make the perfect cookies and throw them in midair to the most perfect looking kids!” I thought.
James and I headed to Sears. Inside, I found the sales lady, found the Electrolux, and then I found the price. “I think I’m gonna need the I-don’t-do-anything-but-dry-clothes-dryer,” I said. “Oh,” she says, clearly disappointed. “You want the Plain Jane dryer. Those are over here.” My perfect life would have to wait.
As I stood staring at the stark white dryer with only two buttons, an elderly woman approached me with tears in her eyes. “Is this your son?” she asked. She proceeded to tell me that she just lost her son; her oldest boy who had Down syndrome. “He was sixty years old when he died,” she said. “They told me to put him away, but I didn’t, and I took care of him his whole life. Can I tell you something?” I stood, nodding. “I know how hard it is right now, but I promise you, if you can find a way to not look into the future, not live in the fear and live in this day, you will feel more love than you ever imagined!” The tears were instant. She’s crying. I’m crying. And I notice that the sales lady is crying. “Okay, so yes, this is now the softer side of Sears!” I think to myself.
But her words reached a place inside of me that up until this moment had been unreachable. I put James in his car seat, and I got in the front seat. And right there in that Sears parking lot, I let go. I let go of the fear that kept me frozen and focused on the future. I looked at James and I saw him differently than I ever had, and instantly it felt like the whole car filled with some sort of unexplainable peace. It surrounded me. Engulfed me. And I fell in love. I looked at James, and for the first time in four-and-a-half years, l said, “I love you. I love you! Just the way you are!”
I came home that day and sat down in front of my computer – Book Worm now in the trash – and I started to write down what had just happened to me. And within an hour it all came pouring out. When I finished, I realized I was looking at my story – my rocky, bumpy, extremely crooked road. I cried happy tears for the first time in too many years.
It’s been a full day. And at bedtime, I lay down next to James. He does this thing when falling asleep where he has to touch every part of my face and name it. Ooose (nose) eeeeth (teeth) and eeeeuuuurrr (ear) as he sticks his finger deep inside. I try not to jump or laugh. It’s like he has to keep making sure my face is still there before he will fall asleep. In between the pointing I whisper to him, “James, you are about to start kindergarten! You are gonna go to a new school, with new teachers. They want you to wear a really ugly uniform, but I’m working on that.”
Butterflies arrive in my stomach as my thoughts turn to New York City. Geez oh man! I’m so thankful for the opportunity to tell my story from the stage, with the hope that something in just the telling might help others in their own life journey.
It’s only been a couple of years since the short bus and the broken dryer. “Wrap Your Heart Around It – One Woman’s Journey from Depression to Dessert” will take the stage in New York City just two years to the day of its first performance in my home in Nashville. This is confirmation for me that it is not our job to figure out the ‘how’ but it is our job to live in the now. In this day. And by doing that, we will end up right where we need to be. For James and I that will be at the intersection of Broadway and Kindergarten.
Finally asleep, he starts to lightly snore and I brush a tear off my cheek. I am shocked at how much love I have for him. Truly shocked. And I’m grateful for how far he’s come. That he can read and count and give amazing hugs. I still hate his syndrome. But I do love this little boy. And maybe more importantly, I love who this little boy has made me.