My 30th Birthday somehow turned into a week long celebration. It started on the highest note possible where I hung out with a small group of friends for a night of good food, good drinks and laughter. The week ended with me in tears, sitting in the passenger seat of our car and driving away from my daughter again for the first time in years.
In case you are new or you’ve forgotten, my almost 10 year old daughter Hailey hasn’t lived with me since she was a toddler – for reasons we really don’t need to rehash right now. All you really need to know for this post to make any sense is that she lives far away with her grandparents, is Autistic, and I haven’t seen her in person in about 5 years. Some reasons are my own fault and some are because neither I nor her grandparents could really make the trip.
You’re probably already judging me. I wish you wouldn’t. I couldn’t possibly begin to explain the whole story and frankly, I don’t want to – it’s really no one’s business and it’s not something I wish to continue dragging my daughter’s name through. But here we are. This post is about this week… the week I got to see my daughter.
Our First Meeting
We made plans to meet up Thursday evening for dinner. I was nervous… borderline sick. I was worried about how I would feel, or worse… not feel. But more importantly, I was worried about how Hailey would react. Does she feel abandoned? Is she happy? Is she going to hate me? I don’t really know the answers to those questions even now.
Much to my surprise, Hailey chose to ride from the hotel to the restaurant with Jeremy and I. I sat in the back seat with her and she seemed content. I was afraid she would be scared. Once we got to our destination, I was further surprised when she held my hand to walk from the car to the restaurant door. In that moment, I remembered… that I forgot what it felt like to hold my daughter’s hand. That realization hurt and I blinked back tears.
The hardest part of all of this is that I don’t know my own daughter. In a lot of ways, she’s that same happy, bouncing little girl that I have always known. But in many more ways, she’s a different child entirely – one that I don’t know how to take care of. But somehow, sitting across from her at the dinner table, it all sort of came flooding back to me. The Mommy I had suppressed all these years came straight to forefront like she was never gone.
It took a lot for me to hold back. I wanted to correct, to guide, to Mommy. But it’s no longer my place and even if it were, I don’t really know what’s normal, what’s allowed, what’s not okay. For the most part, it seems like they let Hailey be Hailey – which is probably the best thing for her and everyone around her. So what if she’s poking a hole in a styrofoam cup and dribbling the remains of her lemonade on the table? She’s quiet. She’s cleaning up after herself. She’s content in her own little world. She’d just had a rough day of being in a car. Let her do her thing.
We all had a great time at dinner. Hailey even gave me a big, squeezy hug before they left to go back to the hotel. My heart broke and melted at the same time. We made plans for me to see Hailey again Saturday morning, which turned into me having alone time with her for a few hours. I was understandably terrified. Again, I don’t really know my own daughter any more. She’s Autistic and has a lot of speech delays. I worried that she would get scared and get upset while we were alone together. Her Grandmother (who she affectionately calls MeMaw now) assured me she would be okay.
Our Chosen Outing
We took her to the Aquarium. I realized this was both a great idea and a bad idea. The last time I went to the Charleston Aquarium, Hailey was a toddler. My late husband Charlie and I took her years ago. It was hard being there without him. I’ve found that I sometimes still struggle with places that spark memories. But I was determined to get through it and make many more with her.
Despite my fears, we had a great day. It was a good chance for me to get an idea of where she is developmentally. She doesn’t talk much and I’m not entirely sure if I was prompting her correctly for answers. But she was otherwise incredibly independent and even if she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me what she wanted, she could definitely show me!
There were a lot of times where she wanted to see everything in the aquarium in order. But then we got to a point where it started to get crowded and she cared less about the order, and more about people not being in her way (that’s so my child). There were some exhibits where she spent much more time at than others. She liked being outside, looking at the Stingray feeding tank. She laughed every time the stingrays flapped around in the water, trying to get at the shrimp some people standing nearby were feeding them on long, metal hooks. Some indoor exhibits she stood at for 10+ minutes, just watching the sharks and bigger fishes go by, or especially if there were turtles involved. “Turtle” is one of the very few non-prompted words I heard her say.
I think the most scary part of the day for me was dealing with strangers. It broke my heart because all they see is a 9 year old girl and they interacted with her that way. I had to step in a few times to help guide her from doing things they would otherwise let her do. I wanted to let her touch the starfish, but she didn’t seem to fully understand that she needed to keep her hand under the water or that she needed to be gentle with it. She didn’t hold it long before I told her to give it back to the lady. She was handling it a little too roughly. However, she did had a great time feeding the horseshoe crab and didn’t hesitate to feed it every time the lady asked who wanted to help! Haha
We made a full round of the aquarium and decided to get some lunch there at the tiny cafe. I wasn’t sure what to feed her. Pizza… no, we just had that, although I’m sure she would have eaten it again happily. They had salad, which I know she likes, but I didn’t realize it was an actual salad – it sounded from the menu like it was in a wrap. She agreed to PB&J and she picked her own orange flavored Tum-E Yummies drink when we let her look at the drink case and choose.
After eating, we went to the gift shop. I wanted to buy a stuffed turtle for her. We walked around and I showed her a couple of options. I showed her a plush turtle with a hand puppet slot and she tried to do it herself. Then I showed her another turtle and asked which one she wanted. She chose the hand puppet turtle, of course – because it was really cool. We walked further and she took a bubble blower off of the shelf and handed it to me. And then she had this look on her face that made me absolutely fall apart. Next thing I knew, we walked out with both the turtle and the bubble blower. (In all fairness, I also told her she could have one or the other. She chose the bubble blower. She really, really wanted it. So we decided to just get both).
After lunch, we walked around the first floor of the aquarium a bit more. I wanted to recreate an old picture of Hailey, but the area we took it in has since been redesigned, so that was out. I got plenty more of her, complete with smiles. She says “cheese” every time she realizes a camera is pointed at her – it’s really cute and really funny.
I knew I would cry if I said goodbye for too long and I didn’t want to upset Hailey – not after the really nice day we had. But I knew that was it… my few hours with her were all I would be getting and it wrecked me. It opened a lot of emotional wounds. As I passed her back to her grandma outside of the aquarium, I said my goodbyes and blinked back tears. I gave her hugs, kisses and told her that I loved her. I distinctly heard “love you” and my world shattered. I had to get out of there.
I left much more abruptly than I meant to. I wanted to ask about meeting up for dinner or something else later in the day, but I was afraid I was asking for too much, too soon. I also wasn’t sure if I could handle another goodbye right now.
I can’t wait to get the chance to see Hailey again. It probably won’t be until the coming Summer when Jeremy and I make the trip to her instead. She already missed school for this adventure and I don’t want her to miss any more on my account. We’ll be busy during Spring, moving into the house. It just makes sense for everyone to wait for Summer.
I am thankful to her grandparents for making this trip possible. I really do appreciate it.