Mar 27, 2014 0 Share

Lesson in Limits

LIttle boy hugging little girl from behind.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

As I stand making small talk with the other volunteers, I can't help but steal glances at the front entrance. I'm at the monthly special needs respite evening, waiting for “my” kids to arrive. Due to various illnesses, cancellations, and scheduling conflicts, we haven't seen each other since November, and I'm concerned that they won't remember me, that we'll have to start building bonds of trust all over again. Yet I needn't have worried; Darcy* comes right up and wraps her arms around my midsection. “Hi! I'm sorry we couldn't be here last time!” she says, already taking responsibility. I reassure her, “Oh, no problem! I missed you, but of course I understand. I'm just happy you're here now.” 

By contrast, David* plays it cool; when I greet him, he doesn't meet my eyes for more than an instant, and by then he's already off and running toward the basketball hoops. This sets the tone for the evening. He's on the run almost the entire time, flashing his trademark mischievous smile as he runs up the stairs, out to the doors, everywhere he knows he's not supposed to go. Keeping up with him is even more of a challenge than usual, and I'm thankful for my athletic clothes and running shoes. But chasing after David comes with a silver lining in that it shows me how far we've come. Though both twins vie for my attention (“Watch me! Help me! Look! Are you watching?!”), I notice that both David and Darcy run off with other kids, separating from one another for longer periods of time. This represents a major change from their first respite night together, in which they clung to one another like barnacles. This time, I perceive a new ease and maturity. They're still in sync, but they're more relaxed about being apart. Seeing that makes me feel great, because I know that both kids have to feel safe and secure in order to go their separate ways.  

Out on the playground, they call out, “On your mark, get set, GO!” and race, over and over. I'm usually the only grownup who joins them in their sprints, and I always let them win. As I jog, I don't care about looking silly or undignified; their smiles and hugs are my reward. Since these kids are racing junkies, running with them is the best way to show I care. All the while, I attempt to take photographs, but I see the futility of that enterprise. The kids' expressions are priceless, but they're moving far too fast and often to be captured. 

One would think that David would have burned off enough energy on the playground, but no … he keeps me on my toes in every subsequent activity. The most challenging moment comes when he leaps up onto the gym's stage, picking up microphones and pounding on keyboards. These are expensive pieces of equipment, not toys, so I know I need to intervene. As I kneel beside him, I strive to strike a balance between being firm and being kind. I want to be his buddy, but I also want him to respect my authority. “David, no,” I say, with quiet conviction. “We cannot play with these.” And wonder of wonders, he listens. Perhaps it's because he knows I mean it, and perhaps it's because I reserve my “No” for situations in which it's truly necessary. Either way, I'm relieved. But a part of me wonders: Will he still like being with me if I set limits? 

At the end of the night, I receive an answer. As I'm walking through the dark parking lot on the way to my car, the interior light from Darcy and David's parked van illumines my face. David spots me and calls out, “Bye bye!” 

“Bye! Good night!” I say. We've already parted well, so what he does next astonishes me: he jumps out and gives me a spontaneous hug. “I'll miss you, miss you,” he says. 

My jaw drops. The kid with whom I've been setting limits for the past three hours will miss me? There's nothing to do but smile at him and tell the truth: “David, I'll miss you too.” 

*Fictitious names