This particular celebration promised to be an exceptionally special evening since the family honoring their daughter is among New York City's most affluent and privileged. Their names would be recognizable to readers of the gossip columns. A book on the shelves of our local public library chronicles the story of the Bat Mitzvah girl's great-grandfather and his remarkable business acumen.
When the invitation arrived, I wondered what to do. Sweet M emphatically wanted to attend. This would be the highlight on the social calendar of the middle school girls. But the invitation was addressed to Sweet M, not to us as a family. She was invited, parents were not.
Sweet M is twelve — old enough for a neurotypical child to be dropped off at a party with little or no concern. But she is not neurotypical, however much "progress" she has made toward a normative presentation of self.
I mulled the possibilities. If she went alone and something set her off — a smell, a gesture, the noise — then it could be a very public social catastrophe. It could spoil the event for everyone, not least of all Sweet M. And given the circumstances it could end up on Page Six of the New York Post.
If she didn't go at all, she would be disappointed and would feel left out. She would miss an opportunity, one that is only available to her by the demographic fiat of her school placement.
And if she went with me or her father as a shadow, well, that would be safer, but not very cool for a middle school kid.
Over the course of three weeks I considered the options, and finally decided, on the last day to RSVP, to call the hosts to explain that Sweet M would like to come, but that she would need one of her parents to shadow her. To give you a sense of what we're talking about here, when I called I did not speak to the Bat Mitzvah girl's mother — I spoke with their social secretary. She was wonderfully gracious, a plan was made, Sweet M organized a beautiful outfit for herself, and off we went to the event, me in black, in the background, a shadow, in tow.
The party took place at one of New York's elite cultural institutions, where an auditorium and three galleries accommodated the festivities. You can imagine the background: sweeping marble staircases, countless crystal chandeliers, and priceless artworks on every wall. Lavish floral sculptures, some more than the height of an average room, set the stage. Fresh sushi and other delicacies were prepared by a team of chefs. An assembly of party entertainers made miniature artworks, provided individual psychic readings, and instant "life-stories" for the amusement of children and adults alike. A special checkered dance floor for the kids was rolled out across one gallery. Dozens of museum guards stood stationed in front of each 19th-century masterpiece to ensure that no swirling preteen careened into a Hudson River School landscape.
The part of me that wishes for my own child to have an extended community and beautiful fête to celebrate her ascendancy to young adulthood experienced a twinge of envy, as might be predicted. The part of me that is interested only in the beauty of the moment was absolutely enchanted by the elegance of the occasion. There was no denying the sheer artistry of the event itself. And the part of me that retains a particular class ressentiment found the extravagance of such an event disturbing.
But I don't think any of this was on Sweet M's mind. She was just having a good time, dancing, looking all around, drinking lots of ginger ale and Coca Cola.
When the time for additional celebratory speeches honoring the Bat Mitzvah girl came, the children and adults gathered in another of the galleries. Sweet M, who'd been nearby, left me at the rear of the gallery to join her peers who were sitting on the floor at the center of the room, near the microphone and the master of ceremonies. One by one the siblings of the Bat Mitzvah girl gave delightful, loving speeches about their sister. Then the MC asked if any of the Bat Mitzvah girl's classmates would like to say a few words.
From far away, across the room packed with nearly 300 people, I could not see her, but I could hear the familiar sound of a throat clearing.
"Umph humph, I'd like to say a few words."
It was Sweet M, using the prosody of a television announcer.
My heart stopped. What was she going to do? I had been shadowing her well all evening, and all had gone well, but at this point I was across the room with dozens of people between us.
She got up, took the microphone, held it in both hands, and looked straight at the Bat Mitzvah girl.
"Rachel," she said, pausing for a moment, "You give one great party."
Everyone in the room burst out laughing, not exactly with her, but a little bit with her, and a little bit at her.
This was one of those Little Miss Sunshine moments. Toothpaste is out of tube, horse is out of barn, train has left station. Your kid is on the stage and there is nothing to do but wait and hope. Given the occasion, prayers might also have been in order.
Sweet M seemed unphased. She surveyed the room, then looked back at the Bat Mitzvah girl, and continued.
"Rachel," she said, "Now you are twelve. Now you are a woman. Happy birthday Rachel. You are the best."
Every word she spoke was slow, deliberate, and seemed to come from the very bottom of her heart.
The room burst into applause and I sat on a couch near the back of the room, tears streaming down my face.
The couple next to me asked if she was my daughter, and I said yes, and that she's on the autism spectrum -- that this was about as much as she'd said all day, let alone in front of a room of 300 people.
They marveled with me, and the speeches and party continued. When I caught up with Sweet M, I congratulated her on her speech. "Thanks," she said. Other adults came along to congratulate her on her remarks as well. Eventually we got our coats and grabbed a cab, and headed back downtown, to our real lives, before the carriage turned back into a pumpkin.
• • •
In the cab I congratulated her again.
"M___", I said, "Your speech was beautiful."
"Thanks," she said, with evident satisfaction.
"I just have one question."
"Do you like Rachel? Are you two friends?"
Sweet M turned to look at me with preteen-are-you-kidding-me-exasperation, "Mom, I don't even know Rachel."
"But then I'm puzzled. You gave such a beautiful speech. What possessed you to do that if you're not friends?"
"Well," she said with a mischievous smile, "Don't tell anyone, but I just wanted to hold the microphone."
And there you have it. That's my girl. She may manage to look NT, but she's autie through and through.
However old she gets, she's still my oddball pumpkin, the one who doesn't need a gilded carriage. She'd be the priceless one I was standing by that evening, guarding against the possibility of a swirling social catastrophe.
In the end though, she was on her own, at the center of her own world, her own gravity pulling us in.
As usual, names are changed to protect the people we encounter in Sweet M's universe.