Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Christmas Rainbow

(I just updated the date on this to give people notice that I finally got the video up. So if you've read this already, just scroll to the bottom for the video, if not, just read on for the full effect)

It's finally over, and we are all still alive and happy, the world did not end, governments were not overthrown, buildings are still standing, and best of all, we're happy! No, it's not the wrapping, that's still going on. Perhaps I should turn back the clock a few months and explain...


It started sometime in September, the school year was just getting into gear and the school my two youngest girls go to announced the play they would be putting on this year for Christmas. The show would be The Wizard of Oz. They would cast Livie as a Lullaby League dancer, all would be the non-verbal girls and they would have them sign the words while dancing. Then, the surprise of the century...they asked if Gracie, my 5 year old youngest child, would like to play the role of Dorothy!

DOROTHY? GRACIE? Sure she was doing very well so far this year. Her social and behavioral issues were getting better by the day, and her echolalia (ability to copy and mimic what she hears) was almost legendary; but my little girl, taking the lead in this play? I could hardly contain my pride and joy, I let the idea swell and propagate fantasies of movie deals and singing contracts, or at least You Tube viral video success!

We went to a back to school night a few weeks later, and another ominous thought pattern germinated. We were in the auditorium of the school with a group talking to the music teacher and she was explaining about the play. I started getting teary eyed when she talked about Gracie and Dorothy and 'the song'. Then, I realized...she didn't mention anyone else, no understudy. The fate the school's play was riding squarely and EXCLUSIVELY on Gracie's and our family's back. Did they realize what they were getting themselves into? We're not exactly one of those clutch players out there. It would be like having Peanut's Charlie Brown as your baseball team's closer, bringing him in in the bottom of the ninth with a one run lead, no outs and bases loaded. Or having Lucy Van Pelt as the football holder for that game winning field goal. Stuff...just...happens to us; life goes on, but we'll often leave the tattered remains of special events crumbling behind us!

We tried to shake off these ideas like a bad stiff drink. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. We went headlong into 'wizard mode'. We got the movie, the CD, the Dorothy doll, the costume, the shoes. She began to learn every nuance of every line of the movie. My wife called me one day and put her on the phone to have Gracie come on and say in perfect clarity:
It really was no miracle. What happened was just this.The wind began to switch - the house to pitch and suddenly the hinges started to unhitch.Just then the Witch - to satisfy an itch went flying on her broomstick, thumbing for a hitch
We even got to the point where we worried that she would wind up reciting everyone else's line too, and maybe even get upset if parts of the movie were left out.

Through it all, she would sing clips of the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to us, but she'd never quite give us an a capella rendition all the way through. It really didn't concern us though, because she had every bit of it down pat, we knew with the right prompt, she would just move right through it with no problems. Everyone in her life knew she had it too, she'd sing it on the bus for the bus driver, in bed, she was also singing it at school for the music teacher and everyone else who could stand it.

As the weeks drew us closer to the date, we became more and more paranoid. I'm not much for superstition, but outside of the circle of people that knew she was going to be Dorothy, I was keeping silent. I just thought that if I made a big deal of it, that the you-know-what faerie would come along and put the whammy on the whole thing. As the weeks turned to days, the paranoia became more concrete. We were hoping and praying that no illnesses would go through the house, as is pretty much the tradition between Thanksgiving and New Year. So when my mother-in-law went to tend to her sick son a week before, who wound up having the flu, we forbid her from setting foot back in the house until the day of the play.

We finally got to the day of the play and my fear of this imagined bad luck was at a fever pitch. I was convinced of a broken leg on the ice; or a broken down car on the way; or a torn Dorothy dress or some other unforseen event-shattering event. Nothing came. The only truly possible fear left was her ability to hold it together for the two shows that were scheduled for 9:30 and 12 noon. We knew full well that if she got it in her head to not do it, or something set her off, we could have a major meltdown of both her and the play.

We had the entire family in the audience; we pulled the three kids from school and my mother in law and brother in law, we all took up 2/3rds of the front row. We wanted nothing but smiling familiar faces greeting her for every scene. The show started with a scene with Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, and Dorothy all walking in to the auditorium and up to the stage. It helps at this point to understand the structure of the plays at our autism school. Most every child in the play is shadowed by a para, a teacher or a therapist. They will help guide them with stage direction and feed them the lines they need to say. So when I say the three of them walked on stage, it's really the six of them, the kids with their 'shadows' carrying the scripts, sometimes a bag of treats and always a boatload of patience and determination to help the child shine.

Anyway, there she was in all her blue gingham dress and pigtail glory. The first scene was a blur and then she was sat on the edge of the stage for her big number. I could see it in her eyes, the audience was a little intimidating. During dress rehearsals, there were very few people in the audience since 90% of the school personnel are up on stage with the kids helping. She fumbled through the first few lines, froze a little, got through another line and kind or hummed along with the music teacher singing along through until the end. I was in her line of sight right behind the music teacher and I was mouthing every word, trying to will her to get on track, but she never did. I was not devastated, but I'm not going to say I wasn't disappointed. I was really really hoping for this, knock 'em dead, not a dry eye in the house kind of home run moment and it was more like a curve ball first strike. Her family was all here, all the cameras were rolling and it was not what I was hoping for.

The play went on and she was having issues with her clip on microphone, it was either too close or too far, she actually scared a baby out of the audience with her loud voice. We were now in Munchkinland and we got our first look at Livie and her Lullaby League troupe. They were the cutest 4 girls on pink tights and tu-tus. Livie did her signing and turns in sync with the others and I was back on top. It's not that she was perfect, but she did wonderfully in my eyes. I slowly began to change my perspective. I had been through two or three of these shows over the past few years and I've realized that it's never about the perfection of the show, but about individual triumphs and especially the moments. I had forgotten this in all the preparation and panic. She was in every scene, she had so many lines, she was performing in front of dozens of people and working with dozens of others, she's 5! Of course she's gonna flub; it's not about perfection, it's about her making tremendous progress over the past few months.

I took a different tack from that point on; enjoying the moments every kid had. Cringing a little if things didn't go well, cringing a little more if it was Gracie or Livie, but relishing every good move or line each kid had. Grace kept having to move off the stage with the rest of the kids, then back on for every scene, and every time she came back in, she would cry in protest, yelling 'mommy, mommy' causing my wife to spasmodically sit up and sit down. But the minute Grace hit that stage, she had that game face back on and she made it through, even though we could tell she was tired of it and really wanted it over. The last lines of the repeated 'There's no place like home, there's no place like home' had definite poignancy for her, but she got through it.

They brought back out all the kids for a curtain call after the end, and even though it was an excruciatingly long time to keep clapping, it was the least I could do for all these kids and their shadows who had worked so hard. I clapped through the munchkins; the monkeys; the Lollipop Guild; a big uptick of enthusiasm for the Lullaby League; the witch and the wizard; then the scarecrow, tin man and lion; then Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. Then my little girl came walking out on her own and got one great round of applause. But it was not just me clapping thunderously, but the rest of the crowd as well. They too saw the hard work she had gone through and were sharing my happiness and pride for her. I finally got good use of that tissue I was holding through the show.

Everyone was very congratulatory as they left the auditorium and the three kids, my mother in law and brother in law went back to the house as well. They school packed up the video equipment and then it hit us: she had ANOTHER show in less than an hour! Gracie appeared to have coasted to the end of the show on fumes of patience, how was she going to make it through the 12:00 show? They had implemented this two show thing a year or two ago, because there was just not enough room for all the parents. The price was that you had a few dozen kids who may be at the end of their usable reserves, and the odds of major meltdowns were easily doubled for all.

Okay, I know the afterglow was a little too short-lived, but we had a real fear of a situation, where she would absolutely refuse to go on. We knew our child's will and if she did not want to, it was not going to happen. The second-show curse was, if not real, at least being prepared for. The school was not taping, the teacher told us she was going to walk her around mano a mano to try and decompress her, we were preparing for the worst. We sat ourselves in the front row, the two of us, 20 minutes before the show started and stared straight ahead as the crowd slowly made their way in. It was a digital clock with red numbers high on the wall, but it felt like a clocktower over the dusty wild west town; a silent gong of 12 bells as the dustdevils swirled in my head. The keyboardist was in place, the music teacher; the strains of the opening notes played and the three (six) opening scene characters came on to the stage. Gracie threw out a high pitched sing songy "Good Morning!' to the audience as she climbed the stairs that broke the ice a little, but my tension level was still maxed out.

They started the dialog for the first scene and I was biting my nails, thinking she was still not on her game, but it was not going too badly. The last line was said and Auntie Em and Uncle Henry walked off the stage behind her, and she was fed the last lines of "beyond the moon, beyond the stars" just as the music was starting and sat down... and NAILED IT! I could not hold the camera still as I exhaled and welled up. I could see her teacher do basically the same thing as Gracie continued through the song, not flawlessly, but on the Oh-my-gawd-she's-doing-it-'Ometer, she busted the gauge! My Pride-o'meter and Releif-o'meter went off the charts as well. No matter what happened from this point on did not matter. She had given me that moment I was looking for; that memory that would last a lifetime. It was no where near an America's Got Talent drop Simon's jaw to the table performance, but it sounded like that to me. The applause was not as thunderous as it would have been had the audience known the whole context, but it was still a rousing applause.

The play went on, and we were on the mark about her being tired of it all. She was having trouble keeping her eyes open during the show; which probably saved us. She was too tired for the fight and just wanted to get through it all and was very compliant. She only lost it once during the show and it was only because Livie did as well. Despite all the noise of the dozens of kids up on stage, the one cry that curves Gracie's spine is Livie's. Livie stopped crying briefly so that she could do her Lullaby League dance, after all, the show must go on. After that, Grace's teacher tried and cover her ears, but ultimately, they had to take Livie out for a break so the show could go on.
It finally was over, the last 'Oh Auntie Em, there's no place like home!' was uttered and we were in the clear. I was so proud of them both. Livie was the best bow-er in the quartet; Gracie even added one more AWWW moment when she curtsied instead of a bowed. I received my best Christmas present in a long long time a few days early; it wasn't what I asked for, but it was better than I could have hoped. Life never ceases to humble, amaze, frustrate, delight and challenge me. I may wish to have it some other ways sometimes, but I wouldn't want it any other way than it ultimately turns out. Merry Christmas
Forgive my amateur-ity...this is my first attempt at uploading a video. Sound quality is poor, and it might cause your machine to lock up, but I wanted to put it out there just the same, you know us proud papas:

video