I was standing in the vestibule of a local drug store raging like a rabid dog. Clearly I was in need of a major life change. I had put it off for far too long. I won’t make that mistake again, although I will never be able to change the underlying cause of my troubles.
Stress is the common mistress my husband and I both keep. We are infused with her presence. We pretend to forget her existence. When she dares to surface we do our best to suppress her influence.
Fourteen years ago my husband John and I welcomed a son. It was Benjamin who first matched us up with this queen of heartache. He was born with a rare neurological disorder. He cannot walk, talk, or use his hands. He has seizures daily. He has endured six surgeries, countless scans, EEG’s, blood draws, and takes a total of 27 pills daily. Our ten-year old son Sebastian reaffirmed the queen’s status when he was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. Thankfully he is not quite the picture of the classic autistic child but we don’t expect to suffer from empty nest syndrome. Parenthood certainly didn’t turn out the way we planned, but we habituated. When you have children with disabilities, your base is so skewed you get used to unreasonable norms. I suppose that’s why my moment took me by complete surprise.
It was five years ago. Sebastian was ending the absolute worst year of school. His placement in an inclusion kindergarten had been a complete disaster. Numerous stressful meetings, evaluations, and a legal battle with the NYC Board of Education had destroyed my dreams for Sebastian. His failure was my failure. My coping mechanisms were depleted. These are the types of life experiences that poison a person down to the cellular level, and no amount of time at the gym will release such toxins.
We struggled to find a new school. In desperation, I reached out to friends who discovered wider options out of NY. We had always assumed Benjamin’s physical disabilities would lead us to the suburbs where we could live in a wheelchair accessible home. I never imagined Sebastian would be the reason to drive us out. It felt as though the whole foundation and identity of our family was at risk. We had never been anything but Brooklynites.
Every safety net I had constructed snapped. I was stunned to realize that my career as a special educator had not prepared me for life as a parent of children with disabilities. Some things truly cannot be taught in a lecture hall. An intense series of events had brought us to this point where Sebastian had no place to fit in. John and I tentatively stood on the idea of leaving our beloved Brooklyn. John wasn’t ready to commit. His ambivalence was clouding my judgment. I thought I wanted out, but I was terrified. Fear of failure is a powerful anchor but the seas were surging and the winds were building a mighty force.
On an otherwise uneventful day, the four of us went to a local drug store and ran into some neighbors. We were talking for quite sometime. Sebastian was particularly overactive. In between my sentences I would redirect him. “Don’t touch that. Stay over here. Come closer.” I got a strong sense that I was being watched. I continued to instruct Sebastian. “Stop jumping. Look at this toy.”
As we continued the conversation with our friends I grew suspicious that one particular customer was annoyed. She was idle on the lengthy check out line. Surely, she wasn’t angry with us? I have a habit of being paranoid that I’m doing something wrong at any given time. I attribute this to thirteen years of Catholic school. I tried to dismiss my suspicions by distracting myself with her appearance. I would guess she was in her late sixties. She was wearing a spaghetti strapped white and red floral sundress with three inch red pumps. From behind you’d assume she was a much younger woman. The conflict between my expectations and reality puzzled me.
Sebastian’s patience for our shopping expedition had clearly peaked. I took him to the store’s vestibule. It was a large open space between two sets of automatic sliding doors. We could see ourselves on the store’s security television. This had a calming effect on Sebastian despite the fact that our presence was frequently activating the doors. As we talked about our images, red pumps huffed by us. I wasn’t imagining her aggravation and I wasn’t about to dismiss it either. I felt my true Brooklyn spirit surface and I confronted her.
“What is your problem?” to which she answered, “You should put him on a leash. My dog is better trained.” I know I yelled something back at her but it wasn’t witty or hurtful enough to make an impact. She and her dog calmly proceeded down the street.
I really wanted to chase her down and summon my South Brooklyn warrior but I couldn’t leave Sebastian unattended. Still raging because I hadn’t thrown the ultimate insult back, I turned to make eye contact with John for his support. He and the long line of customers stared at me. Their blank horrified stares assured me, they hadn’t heard the exchange. From their point of view I was experiencing an unfortunate mental breakdown of sorts. Stress had knocked me down and stolen my sanity. Somehow I had to get back up. That hussy had to be put in her place.
It was at that very moment I decided Brooklyn was no longer the place to raise my sons. That woman embodied everything I wanted to leave. I was done living in a community that had so little tolerance. The few bright spots could not illuminate the many ignorant corridors. Like any dysfunctional relationship, I was ready for my love affair with Kings County to end. I didn’t want to be crazy in the middle of the vestibule, or crazy in the middle of a major life decision. The doors slid open and we stepped out.
Approximately three weeks later we relocated to West Orange, NJ. To this day I’m not entirely sure how I had the nerve to surrender my family to such a complete metamorphosis. At the time I only knew it had to be done whether I feared it or not. I was most astonished and grateful that John geared up for the change. Lessor stressors have driven families apart. He either loved us tremendously or was intimidated by my determination.
We packed our minivan to full capacity. I did not leave a space for Stress. I defiantly slammed the door in her face and drove to the mainland. She was out of my life for the moment. I knew she would eventually find a lifeboat. Indeed she is a most despicable mistress, a water resistant flame. I mind her like you would a distant hurricane. Whether near or far she touches us. I respect her natural course but I will not allow her to take me down. I will stand firm. There’s only room for one woman in this house.
Originally published as “The Moment I Knew” on The Huffington Post