During our church services, young children are called to the front of the sanctuary. They are usually given a trinket or encouraged to use props to help illustrate a popular Biblical story or a heartwarming but educational anecdote. From there, they are instructed to follow a woman in a jaunty, brightly colored hat to their age-appropriate Sunday school programs while their parents continue to worship. Erik has never been a part of this group. It is simply not possible at this time because of the sometimes crippling side effects of his syndrome. Instead, I search for glimpses of my child through the windows surrounding the congregation during the service, hoping to see his face as he leads Marla by the hand. He loves going to church, and we have never forced him to do anything that causes him discomfort in a place where he should feel safe and loved throughout his lifetime. Unfortunately, it has been a long road reassuring him that he is safe and loved in this often noisy environment filled with the children he prefers to avoid. As the adults gather after the service, Erik is in his element. He reaches his arms out to each and every person that passes by, almost frantically grabbing at their clothing and smiling up at them. In fact, he is usually so desperate to grab onto strangers that Brian and I are sometimes forced to carry him out the front of the building so he is unable to get his hands on people. It can sometimes be quite awkward. It's beautiful but scary, sad, and frustrating at the same time, too.
Some Sundays I don't think about our odd church arrangement much at all. We attend every other Sunday and dutifully call Marla at home the night before to instruct her to meet us inside the front doors. However, some Sundays I think a lot about it as we sit quietly inside. I wonder why we have to watch other children sit still listening to stories as Erik wanders the rest of the building haunting classrooms and the nursery as much as he can tolerate. He seems to fill the role there as the greeter who never fails to spread smiles before disappearing when things become too loud or frightening.
This Sunday was somewhat difficult for me once again, but I noticed that my eyes don't threaten to fill with tears much anymore. They remained bone dry, but my heart was heavy. The people who watched me grow up in the church patted me sweetly as I passed by and offered friendly hellos, but I honestly don't really know much about them these days. Williams syndrome has isolated us all now for years. I am thankful, though, for some friendly faces in the crowd, and I find myself grinning back.
Erik, however, seems to be another story.
While we sit quietly or sing strange, contemporary songs that seem to punctuate new-fangled church services these days, Erik is behind the walls making his rounds. The choir room. The classrooms. The library. The commons. The offices. Each time we emerge into the hallway with the rest of the coffee-swilling, cookie-munching crowd, Erik is standing at Marla's side with his hand nestled in hers, smiling up at an ever increasing number of fans, most of which obviously know him by name. Marla is always smiling broadly. As we said our goodbyes today, Marla told us both that Erik was truly a joy. Her husband just had colon cancer resected, and she informed us that she really needed some time with Erik.
I still wonder if Erik will ever be able to sit still enough to join us at church. Or anywhere, for that matter. To be comfortable surrounded by children in front of the congregation, laughing at really lame jokes and learning things like other kids do to the amusement of the congregation. Probably not. At least not in the near future. By then, he will be too old for this kind of activity, anyway. We have missed out on a lot of little things parents take for granted, and I have mourned each and every little thing before I learned to move on. I know that accepting reality will make things easier. It always does.
For now, though, I see how amazing this little guy of mine is. He is a cheerful apparition dancing on the fringes of what is considered normal there, holding a strong, reassuring hand and spreading smiles before sometimes dissolving into the shadows again when the other children appear.
In fact, if you look away for a moment, you just might miss him.