January 6th, 2021
The moment a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Cooper was leaping through the air onto a crash pad at occupational therapy. His therapist and I were acting out one of his elaborate superheroes-vs.-bad-guys scenarios. As usual, he insisted we rotate between different superhero roles and one minute I was flexing my muscles like “girl Hulk,” while the next I was embodying “Deadpool.” I rolled on blue gymnastic mats, completely unaware of what was happening outside of that playful, padded room.
When my son engaged in imaginary play like this, his therapist was always relegated to a second-tier role. Sometimes he allowed her to move freely as a not-as-cool superhero, while other days he imposed rules limiting her imaginary weapons or how hard she could fight. On the hard days, he simply ordered her to stay put and await further instructions, shouting “No!” if she tried to move from her location. We were both used to him interrupting play to correct us or instruct us to start over when our movements didn’t fit with the ideas in his head. His overly active brain moved at warp speed, in many directions, while his verbal-language skills lagged more than a few beats behind, often leaving us in the dark and him frustrated.
But the day of the Capitol riot, Cooper was having a good day. He was demonstrating small windows of flexibility. When the therapist introduced a therapeutic swing to hang on the wooden monkey bar set, he overcame his resistance and yelled,
“Fine, you can use that, but I won’t!” and continued play.
Although his rude tone might have left a parent of a neurotypical child exasperated, Cooper’s allowance of other ideas into the imaginative space was a huge sign of progress. As a result, I was beaming through the session, feeling that small pixels of our shared world were coming into focus. The following day we were planning to celebrate his sixth birthday and I felt proud of him, of us.
After the session, we got in the van and I flipped on NPR. An hour ago, on the way to therapy, I had zoned out during the tedious partisan debate over certifying electoral votes. Now I heard shouting, glass breaking, and confused journalists offering different versions of what they saw: a mob, a riot, a protest gone wrong, a coup. My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Cooper from the back seat.
“Momma?” I turned down the radio. “I’ve decided that I want to be a normal kid when I turn six."
"You are a normal kid, sweetie.”
He turned back to his Ipad without further explanation.
Once home, my son settled into the couch while I obsessively scrolled through the news and texted with my friends from my past doctoral program. We were all political scientists, sociologists, economists, offering memes interspersed with academic analyses about what to call this “thing” that was rapidly unfolding in Washington D.C. “Improvised insurrection” seemed the most apt definition. Something that wasn’t necessarily pre-meditated, but once put into motion, was fierce and couldn’t be easily stopped. Driven by a force larger than what we saw at first glance.
Secretly, the term had reminded me of my life before PDA awareness. Those years when Cooper snapped suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere and burst with rage, throwing things, screaming, willing to fight if I came too close.
A particular moment a year ago came to mind. He was climbing on the back of the swiveling armchair in the living room, playing with the locks on the window above him. Calmly, I asked him to get down, but he responded with a painful growl, as if I had hurt him, and continued. My younger son -- at the time just one year old -- had started to crawl toward him. I shouted again to “Stop” what Cooper was doing, but he screamed “NO!” and doubled down on the window pane, keeping his peripheral vision on me.
The window pane came loose at the same moment I yelled a final, “STOP!”. The glass seemed to fall in slow motion. I caught the pane in mid-air, hovering above my one-year-old's head.
Back then I hadn’t known that the words I had chosen were a physiological trigger for Cooper, a demand that would put his body into fight or flight mode. After the glass fell, he ran from the room and hid from me, acting as if I had broken something of his, not the other way around. I remembered with sadness, the breach, the disconnect. How we then retreated to our own separate corners, weeping, estranged, unable to see each other as anything but a threat to the other. That day, like the day of the Capitol riot, I also wondered, Will we always be like this?
Wednesday of this week, I was home with my children, as usual. I had been feeling tired, resentful and funky so I decided to make a concerted effort to shift my attitude and be really fun and present with them.
There I was that afternoon, laying on the floor in the living room giving them acrobatic lifts. This maneuver had me laying on my back with my arms out like goal posts overhead, palms facing up. Rose took a first turn so she could show Danny how to do it next. She stepped on my hands, I lifted my legs up so she could either hold on to my feet, or lay her tummy on the soles of my feet. Then I lifted up my arms and into the air she flew. It was very fun, and I was glad for the physical challenge. I gave both kids turns, back and forth.
Then Rose was doing something else for a moment while Danny was up in the air, so I gave him a longer turn. Suddenly, Rose turned around and shouted,
“HEY! It’s MY TURN!!! You’re GIVING HIM A LONGER TURN and it’s MY TURNNN!!!”
She started grabbing at Danny, trying to pull him off of my body. I held on to him, to prevent him from falling, but she was still tugging on him, and the move jerked me back over myself almost into a backwards somersault. Danny was screaming, I was crying,
“Oww! That was REALLY SCARY! You hurt my shoulders!” and Rose was laughing. She laughed and taunted and seemed to be getting in an even more elevated state. I picked up Danny and went into the front room which has a French door with a locking doorknob.
“That was really scary” I said, “I’m going in here for a moment because I need to feel safe!”
She ran off and I held Danny on my lap, trying to breathe and reassure him. She came back and started pounding on the door,
“Let me in! Let me in! If you don’t let me in, I’m going to smash this glass!”
I repeated that I just needed to take a little space to feel safe again. She went away for a few minutes more.
The next time she returned, she slid us a note attached to a long piece of yarn. On it was a picture of the three of us in an outside setting. She had taped a pencil on to the picture. Speaking sweetly through the door, she asked,
“Would you like to go on a walk together?... I’m sorry...”
We wrote, “‘Yes,” and added hearts and X’s and O’s. She went off to get ready for our walk, for which she proudly filled her backpack with an enormous first aid kit, a box of a few hundred band-aids, potato chips and apples.
While she was packing her necessities for our small neighborhood walk, I went to my phone to discover messages from friends and family saying things like, “Are you paying attention to what’s happening at the capitol? It’s really bad!” Aghast, I watched as the scene unfolded: a mob storming the capitol as our elected officials attempted to certify the results of the presidential election. They were scaling walls, violently threatening the safety of this historic monument and the people within, breaking glass, wreaking havoc in all forms.
I leaned against the counter. My shoulders still hurt, my heart again beating rapidly. I tried to slow my breathing, to help my body feel safe, to know that in my house, today, no glass had been broken.