I close the door after they leave for school and in the sudden quiet of the apartment, scoop up the half-eaten yogurts from the table, the toys from the floor, the water cups, when the doorbell rings. It is my 5-year-old son Henry standing defeated in the doorway.
"I didn't get to push the button."
"It's okay, Henry. Push the inside one instead." I can see my husband and the girls, bundled up for the cold, sweating the heat of the hallway, waiting on the elevator ding, the pressure of time always a problem in the morning.
"Henry, you'll make all of us late, and THAT is not fair," Molly shouts down the hall. Seven-year-olds are indeed the arbiters of justice.
"Come on, Henry." Gentle voice, gentle voice, gentle voice. "It's okay, you can push it when it gets here."
"Push the up button," my husband comes back over to Henry, suggests all the different combinations of elevator button pushing. "Come on, buddy, we really have to go now." Gentle voice.
"YOU'RE JUST TALKING!" He is winding up. "TALKINGTALKINGTALKINGTALKINGTALKINGTALKING!" Leaning against the wall, the weight of his backpack is taking him down. I have dropped the yogurt, the random toys, water cups on the floor, left the door unlocked and now am in the hallway too.
When I found out I was having twins, we already had a 1-year-old; I imagined my greatest parenting challenge would be having three kids under the age of 2. That three kids with needs so similar at once would be almost impossible. The thought of having a child with different needs never crossed my mind. And this has been the hardest part of parenting so far: having one child for whom the rules are different than the other two. They are all bright and funny and loved dearly. And they are all maddening and curious and surprising.
But having Henry adds a great deal of uncertainty to every activity we do. After a particularly disastrous and what must have been a painful vacation for him at a theme park this past summer, I looked at my husband and admitted we have a child that we can't just bring to new places and expect it to be okay.
Usually when mornings like these happen, one of us leaves with the girls so that they won't be late for school. Because our daughter is right: it isn't fair. But I am home waiting for the maintenance guys to come fix a pipe in the bathroom.
The girls are obsessed with not being late for school. Henry is a saboteur in their eyes. He is either making them late, refusing to leave places, hiding, or running out of places without me when he's had enough, forcing me (us) to run after him.
And even on a good morning we are one mistake away from a meltdown like this. All it took today was my husband hitting the down button. Once he saw the green glow, he probably knew he'd sealed their fate.
I mentally scan through the deals I can make. Then my husband stays at Henry's level. "Do you want your superheroes?"
The tiniest "Mmm hmmm" with a nod. His glasses slide down his nose.
Many mums of boys remember the transition from Thomas the Tank Engine to superheroes as bittersweet. It happens around preschool when they start real interactive play with other little boys. At least that's when it happened for Henry. I missed the sweet days at the train table, and it was odd to see my little darling running around a classroom trying to get the "bad guys." It happened around the same time his behavior issues began to get worse. Or his toddler behaviour, as I sometimes put it, didn't get better.
For my son, superheroes, superhero movies, and the matching figurines became a progressive, unconquerable obsession. Each movie or cartoon he watches with a new Batman, a new Superman, a new Iron Man means he must also have a new action figure with the exact matching cape, costume, the shape of a mask, a belt, his boots. A new one must be ordered on the computer today! He wakes up in the middle of the night asking about when the box is coming in the mail. He will ask every hour until it arrives.
But the superheroes are also Henry's weakness. (Every hero has one.) They are the only way to bring him back from a meltdown.
"Okay then, let's go."
I watch them finally go off, the girls angry, my husband and I holding our breath. Henry calls out to me, turning around at the elevator, "Mummy, don't forget to bring Spiderman when you pick me up, okay?"
We still don't know what we are really dealing with, with Henry. We've seen a few specialists and therapists, and we will see more. His sisters are only beginning to understand that he can't control his meltdowns, that he doesn't do it on purpose. My vocabulary is pathetic for this task of explaining. There are books next to my bed and loaded onto my iPad meant to help with all of this, but mostly I stumble and sound tired or annoyed. Mostly, I am stumbling, tired, and annoyed.
Henry's twin sister is thriving in a separate classroom for the first time this year in kindergarten. I was worried they would miss each other; she told me she's happy now because Henry cried all the time. That's not fair, I thought. None of it is, to anyone.
Henry walked around in his Superman costume one day last spring, and a New York City police car pulled up next to our family around Madison Square Park, playing the musical theme from the movie, Superman; they drove next to us for a good couple of minutes. I loved it. Strangers around us got a kick out of it. Henry, however, seemed very concerned and wouldn't look over at the patrol car.
"What's wrong, buddy? The officers want to say hi to Superman," I said.
"Mummy, do they know I'm not the real Superman?"
"Yes, Henry. I think they know that. They know you're not Superman."
"Do they know I don't have super powers?"
"Yes, Henry, they know you don't have super powers. They know that. Don't worry."
"Do they think I'm Superman's helper?"
"Yes, they think you're his helper. They know he's busy today."
"Okay. Mummy, can you tell the police that I'm not really Superman? I don't want them to be disappointed. Just in case."
And we walked, his cape behind him, his hand in mine. No one was disappointed.