See, See my playmate
Come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three
Climb up my apple tree
Holler down my rain barrel
Slide down my cellar door
And we’ll be jolly friends
For ever more.
~ Phillip Wingate
At every play date I notice our uninvited guest. It doesn’t ask if it’s OK to join us; it just shows up. It’s awkward and it’s messy and it leaves its mark on everything we do. And as much as I like to think of myself as a gracious host, once in a while I’d really like it to get the hell out of my house.
Brooke was still in her pajamas. She ran to the front door and rapped on the window. Knock knock knock. She looked through the glass expectantly.
“Is Annie* here yet?” she asked.
I looked at my watch. It was 8:30 a.m.
“Not yet, sweetheart. Annie will be here at eleven o’clock. We still have two and a half hours before she gets here.”
She turned away from the window and looked around the entryway as though searching for something she’d just put down and couldn’t find. She turned back to the window. “Is it two and a half hours now?”
Brooke asked for a play date with Annie nearly three weeks ago. Luau had reached out to Annie’s mom right away, but alas, even the best laid plans don’t always work as we hope they will. Our first date had to be cancelled when poor Annie was sick with the flu. The second fell to the wayside when we realized we’d booked it on the same day as a home consultation with Brooke’s behavioral therapist. Valid reasons didn’t make waiting any easier.
And so it was that every single day for the past three weeks, Brooke had asked for a play date with Annie. Every day she said, “I will have a play date with Annie.” Every day she said, “I like spending time with her.” And every day she said, “She will come to my house and we will make cookies with chocolate chips.”
Even after the twentieth time, the script hadn’t lost its charm. Brooke wanted a friend to come over. I swear I would have moved heaven and earth to find a way to make it happen.
So there we were on Sunday morning – chocolate chip cookie ingredients at the ready and one little girl ready to burst out of her skin.
Annie showed up raring to go. After exchanging pleasantries, her mom headed out to do some shopping. Annie was sweet and poised and happy to chat and bake. She talked a mile a minute, her speech marked by the typical first-grade lilt at the end of each sentence. She made conversation with me as we measured and poured. I did my best to rein Brooke in as she ran in circles around the kitchen, lighting just long enough to take her turn pouring sugar or flour into the bowl before resuming her laps. Annie seemed unfazed, telling me how she and her mom bake cookies too and how she can break the eggs herself and she’s really good about not getting the shells in and how her babysitter makes these really delicious ones with cinnamon in them and how her brothers really love them and they can eat a million of them at a time and oh, so we read this book in class the other day and it was about this long journey and how sometimes it’s really about the journey, not where you’re going and Ooooh, Brooke – it’s your turn to pour now.
She was delightful. And it was killing me.
I tried hard to bring the conversation back to Brooke. “Honey, why don’t you ask Annie if she has any pets.”
“Annie, do you have any pets?” she asked as she grabbed a handful of chips from the measuring cup.
“I do! We have a dog. She’s a girl. Her name is Lavender.” Brooke wandered off into the den. Annie didn’t seem to notice. “So it’s good that she’s a girl. Cause Lavender would be a pretty funny name for a boy dog, don’t you think? Oh, and she’s not really lavender, she’s kinda brown.”
I thought we’d lost Brooke completely, but she came back into the kitchen carrying Katie’s stuffed spaniel – the one we joke is our’ family dog’. She laid him down on the counter in front of Annie. it took me a minute to realize why.
“Brooke, honey, are you showing Albo to Annie?”
“Yeah. He’s our dog,” she said as she headed off again.
As the cookies baked, I sent the girls up to Brooke’s room to play. I wasn’t sure what the hell to do with myself. I was trying desperately to heed Brooke’s aide’s advice. She had very gently told me to just let them go. “They play together at school,” she’d said. “Just let them run around. They’ll be fine.”
For better or worse, I’ve grown accustomed to facilitating Brooke’s play dates to within an inch of their lives. The last one we had, I may as well have bought the kid a pony to make sure she was having fun. I’d set up a cupcake bar. I’d put out twenty kinds of toppings to decorate with. There was sugar in every color of the rainbow. There were marshmallows and chocolate chips and sprinkles and crystal stars. They’d listened to music and played with play-doh and finally eaten not one, but two cupcakes each.
But I was trying. I hung down in the kitchen and busied myself cleaning up.
When I made my way upstairs to ask if they were ready for lunch, I found Brooke’s door closed. I knocked and opened it. Brooke had pulled nearly all of her dress-up clothes from the closet and spread them across the floor. She was dressed as a very pink princess. Annie was lounging on Brooke’s reading chair looking bored. I asked Brooke if she had asked Annie if she wanted to dress up too.
“Annie, do you wanna dress up too?” she asked.
“No thanks,” Annie said.
I felt like I’d let her down. I looked around the room for something to suggest. Brooke found a game that she wanted to play. Annie seemed marginally interested. I did my best to explain the rules to Annie and then made myself scarce again. I headed back to the kitchen to prepare lunch.
Over lunch, Annie chatted and Brooke ate. Annie must have mentioned her ‘best friend’ at least forty-six times. OK, so it was only four times, but somehow it stung every time. Brooke talks about Annie ALL. THE. TIME. She adores her. She seems to feel like she’s connected with her. So forty-six times I found myself wanting to say, “Hey, kid. We get it. You have a best friend. Mazel Tov, but let’s move on now, huh?” I didn’t.
After lunch, I brought the girls outside to play. And they did. At opposite ends of the swing set. Again, I tried to gently prompt. I felt like Big Foot trying to sneak into a tea party, but I felt like I had to do something.
“Hey, Brooke,” I began. “How about showing Annie how you do Jack and Jill?”
It’s one of her favorites. She climbs the steps of the play set with a bucket, comes down the slide and tumbles to the ground while singing Jack and Jill. It’s always been a hit with guests.
“Annie, you would be Jill and I’ll be Jack,” she said as she ran off with the bucket. She offered no further explanation, so Annie stayed put.
“Honey, can you ask her if she’d like to come with you?” I said.
“Hey, Jill, do you wanna come with me?” she yelled behind her.
Annie made a half-hearted attempt to follow along.
“Hey, Annie,” Brooke said at the bottom of the slide. “Do you want to do Jack and the Beanstalk now?”
“Sure,” Annie said to Brooke’s back as she ran off.
Brooke ran into the brush along the side of our yard, working her way through the tangle of bushes and branches toward her favorite tree. Once again, Annie stayed put.
I was getting tired. And sad. And frustrated.
Not a single interaction is easy. Not one. Not one comes naturally or flows freely. Every single overture takes thought and explanation and prompting. I looked over at Brooke. I could barely see her. She was hidden in a tangle of branches and leaves. I suggested that she ask Annie to join her and that she explain to her that the tree was in fact the beanstalk.
Annie pushed her way through the brush to join Brooke. I could see that she was uncomfortable. Anyone but the most sensory seeking little being would be. Jack and the beanstalk never had a chance to materialize.
When Annie’s babysitter came to pick her up, I was relieved. I hoped she’d had a good time. I hoped she’d want to come back. Honestly, I really wasn’t sure. But I hoped.
I closed the door as she left. Brooke said, “I had a play date with Annie. I like spending time with her.”
And my heart broke just a little.