A teacher for 22 years


August 30, 2020 by whirlyjoy

Aida was waiting and excited, when we picked her up this week for her birthday outing. We’d promised her Spiro’s pizza, and although she came to the door ready to go, when she saw the car pull up, she wouldn’t leave the porch until we’d gone over the plan to her satisfaction. “Restaurant!” she signed. Yes, I replied, but for takeout. “We’ll pick up pizza in a box and take it to the park.” She was dubious until she saw the Dragon Lover in the car. Her grin said, okay, things are a little different but I’m willing to go with that. She tapped my shoulder from her seat behind me, when I climbed back into the driver’s seat. “Pizza park,” she signed.

Most years, Aida’s late-summer birthday is a big gathering — I send an open invitation to extended family, and to the many teachers, para-educators, therapists and home caregivers who’ve been a part of her life. This year of COVID is just the DL and me. We set up camp chairs and a folding table to make this picnic a little more festive. I brought the plush birthday cake hat with wonky stuffed candles, as a visual indicator that today is her birthday, even though the usual party can’t happen. When I hand it to her, she surprises me by actually putting it on her head.


The DL had been planning to take the Wonderdog with us, until I reminded him that Aida would not enjoy that. For her whole life, pets have been a thing to avoid — literally veer away from on the sidewalk or at the playground; I’ve more than once had to grab her arm when she arced out towards a busy street, having spotted a perfectly friendly, properly leashed dog coming our way.

The Wonderdog is a lap-seeker who believes that everyone must love her, and she hasn’t given up on trying to prove this whenever Aida visits us at home. My daughter simply refuses to make eye contact with this exasperating creature, and stretches out her hand to push it away when it draws too close to her on the couch. It seems good for both of them, to have their world views challenged like this; and anyway it makes me laugh to see them together. But still, this is Aida’s birthday.


Aida unexpectedly keeps the birthday cake hat on during the whole meal, and I realize she’s playing with what the wide brim does to her visual field. She pulls it down low over her forehead, then angles her face in different directions, peering out along the bottom edge of the soft brim. Is the blue of the visor rim blending agreeably with the turquoise of the evening sky overhead? Is she framing trees in her sight with the sweetly curving boundary the hat creates? Or perhaps lining it up thrillingly with the power cables above our heads?

At certain very satisfying angles, she brings her hands up to either side of her face and performs her finger-flicks, movement as fast as a hummingbird’s wings, accompanied by her distinctive chirping vocalizations. The candles wobble around on top of her head as she does this, up out of sight but is the feel of their slight weight swaying part of the overall sensory experience for her?


I don’t know that Aida understands the concept of age, or birthdays, or the notion of celebration as separate from the favorite foods and people involved. For many years, her birthdays have been bittersweet for me; stark reminders of how her developmental age doesn’t measure up to her age in years. Milestones on a path filled with unknowns and fear of the future.

But I try to make her birthday special every year, in ways that she can appreciate. And looking back I can see that, so often, the special I plan isn’t the special she experiences. For 22 years now, she’s been teaching me different ways of looking at the world — from the deep satisfaction of stacking LEGO blocks by size and color, to puzzlement at all those vastly different animals being called “dogs,” to unexpected delight in how a ridiculous hat with a birthday cake on top frames up her world.

4 thoughts on “A teacher for 22 years

  1. Diane Martin Rudnick says:

    Beautiful picture of your lovely 22 year old. Kai is 22 as well!! I am so glad that everything came together for her very special day, and that she truly enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah Walton Stillion says:

    I love the picture of her in the hat! Your musings on what her musings might be with that hat is quite lovely. She is amazing and I can’t believe already 22! She teaches us all.

    Liked by 1 person

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