Reprinted with permission from nemhouse.com
Nate’s Bar Mitzvah is one week from today, and it’s safe to say I’m freaking out. I’m having trouble focusing on my work, I’m waking up in the middle of night with a list of worries barreling through my brain, and I’m hunting for comfort food like a heat seeking missile. I’m anxious and emotional, and it’s getting worse by the day.
If this was an average Bar Mitzvah I’d be very busy right now stressing out about the last-minute details, and focusing on all the things I still have to take care of. I’d have a to-do list a mile long and I’d be obsessing about getting everything done. Planning a Bar Mitzvah and throwing a party for 75 people is busy and stressful, and the final week before the big day is anything but easy.
…there’s one wildcard I can’t control, and that is the guest of honor. The Bar Mitzvah boy. My Nate.
This of course is not an average Bar Mitzvah. In addition to standard event-planning worries I have some large fears that are nagging at me. Fears that are causing me to lose sleep and to eat my kids’ Goldfish crackers by the handful. Fears that are making me wonder if I was crazy for thinking of doing this in the first place. Fears that are building every day. Party details can be checked and double-checked and a final errands-push can take care of the last-minute to-do list, but there’s one wildcard I can’t control, and that is the guest of honor. The Bar Mitzvah boy. My Nate.
Nate’s developmental disability significantly impacts him in a variety of ways. His social skills, his flexibility, his impulse control, his attention span and his tolerance for stress are all effected. He’s unlikely to do something just because he’s supposed to, and he’s especially unlikely to do anything that provokes his anxiety. He often doesn’t respond politely when someone greets him, and he will completely refuse to engage in an activity if he doesn’t like it. When he’s anxious or uncomfortable he hits, he scratches, he pinches, he screeches, he whines and he hides under chairs. He says mean words and throws things. He begs to be allowed to go home and he insists on playing with his iPad to block out the rest of the world. On a bad day, his behavior can be exasperatingly hard to manage.
I’m proud to say that Nate’s difficult behaviors don’t scare me. I navigate his challenges every day and have a million techniques to help when things get rough. I know when play-dough is a good option, when a threat of a time-out will work, and when extra hugs are needed. I know his heart is good and that he’s trying his best. I understand him. What scares me though, and what sends bolts of anxiety through my body when I think about it, is the possibility of Nate exhibiting this behavior in front of so many people I know and love.
He may rise to the occasion and show everyone his best self. Reminding myself of this side of Nate is soothing, and makes me so excited for the potential this Bar Mitzvah holds.
Under normal circumstances Nate’s most challenging behaviors happen privately. We avoid pushing him out of his comfort zone in front of a large crowd, and we take active steps to keep him calm and happy when we’re in public. We’re strategic and do a lot of planning so outings and public interactions run smoothly.
Next Saturday, however, when the sanctuary is packed with our loved ones and Nate is expected to perform in front of all of them, there will be nowhere to hide. If he decides to punch the Rabbi, hide under the lectern or scream into the microphone, everyone will see it. If he turns his back on his guests and orders them to leave, everyone will see it. If he refuses to participate and insists on playing with his iPad during the service everyone will see it. It will all be so publicly on display, and there’s a huge chance it could be mortifying.
As anyone who knows him can tell you, when Nate is involved anything can happen. That’s what scares me, but also what provides some comfort. There is a chance he’ll be overwhelmed and impolite, but there is also a chance he’ll blow me away with his poise, maturity and charm. I’ve seen Nate light up in front of an audience and outright steal the show during school choir performances so I know it can happen. He dances. He smiles. He cracks jokes into the microphone. It’s spectacular to watch.
Next weekend when he sees the audience full of people he loves — best buddies from school, past and present favorite teachers, treasured cousins, special life-long friends — he may light up the room with his joy and enthusiasm. He may recognize the significance of the day and choose to cooperate. He may rise to the occasion and show everyone his best self. Reminding myself of this side of Nate is soothing, and makes me so excited for the potential this Bar Mitzvah holds.
The reality of being Nate’s mom though is that I have no idea which Nate will show up at the temple next Saturday. I can help him practice wearing his yarmulke and standing in front of the sanctuary, but I can’t force him to behave himself when the service starts. I can choose a party theme he likes and order M&M’s with his face printed on them, but I can’t make him enjoy himself.
One of the best things about Nate is how authentically himself he is all the time, and this special event held in his honor cannot be a time when we try to pretend he’s someone he’s not.
My guess is he’ll rapidly rotate between feelings of anxiety and joy, refusal and engagement, fear and fun. He’ll hate some parts of the day and love others. He’ll surprise his guests with his charisma but also with his anger. Every emotion he’s feeling will be worn boldly on his face and there will be no secrets. He can’t fake who he is, and I can’t control his response to this special occasion. One of the best things about Nate is how authentically himself he is all the time, and this special event held in his honor cannot be a time when we try to pretend he’s someone he’s not.
My anxiety is sky high but this Bar Mitzvah is happening. Like every coming-of-age ritual, it will be an opportunity to celebrate a young man on the brink of adulthood. To honor his uniqueness, his strengths, his spirit and his heart. To acknowledge he is his own person with his own personality, and that he deserves to be respected and adored for exactly who he is. Friendly or not, cooperative or not, participating or not, he is treasured and he is loved.
Like generations before him, Nate’s Bar Mitzvah will be a reason for family and friends to come together and to shower him with love. No matter what happens I hope he feels it, and that he never forgets the feeling.
Read more of Rachel’s writing and life with Nate at nemhouse.com, where she and her husband Brian share their “imperfections and lessons learned on parenting, career, and wellness.”