From Chicken Soup for the Mother of Preschooler's Soul

Picking and Choosing

The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clearness before he decides, never decides.

Henri Frederic Amiel

Jessica plants herself in the aisle and inspects the stickers.

We’ve done this so many times, you’d think she’d have them memorized. The selection doesn’t change much— butterflies and Pooh and flowers—but she deliberates as if she’s never seen them before.

Maybe she hasn’t.

It’s difficult to know what Jessica thinks or sees or remembers. I do know that making choices is hard for her. Of course, most things are hard for her. Jessica has a rare genetic disorder that causes seizures, partial blindness and sensory dysfunction.

I don’t even remember all the things the doctors have diagnosed; I stopped listening a long time ago. I find choices hard, too, but that was one choice that wasn’t difficult to make.

“You need to pick, honey.” The frozen french fries in our grocery cart are beginning to thaw.

“Hard to choose,” Jessica says.

Indeed it is.

When she was nine months old, the neurosurgeons asked me to choose brain surgery. They wanted to remove most of the left side to control her seizures. No parent should ever have to make that choice, but that didn’t stop them from forcing me to make it. When the surgery didn’t work, I chose not to sue.

When I chose to leave my husband after years of unhappiness in my marriage, he said, “I think we would still be together if not for Jessica.” For all I know, it could be true. But I chose not to blame my daughter for my own failings.

Sometimes it is hard to choose. To remain undecided, uncommitted: I wish I had that choice.

Finally, I grow exasperated with Jessica, who stares at the selection of stickers without moving. “Choose!” I command. “If you don’t pick right now, we’re going to leave without any.”

Jessica loses her focus, and I wish I had chosen not to make my threat.

“Mama is mad,” she says.

She is learning about emotions and isn’t always confident she has identified one correctly. She’s not entirely sure what emotions mean, but she knows she doesn’t like it when I’m mad.

Her own feelings she keeps to herself. She has an autism-spectrum disorder; I wrote the name of it down somewhere, but the diagnosis isn’t helpful. It doesn’t tell me what to do or how to parent her, how to reach her or quiet her when she’s agitated or keep her from becoming agitated in the first place, how to respond to the cruelty of others who feel threatened by her differences, or how to write my books when I’ve spent the entire day rocking her in my arms. Mostly the doctors give unhelpful diagnoses and I do the best I can, and sometimes wish I had made different choices.

“Mama is mad,” I agree.

Jessica doesn’t understand fine shadings like bored, impatient, frustrated. To Jessica, people are mad . . . or not.

“We’ve been standing here for twenty minutes. Let’s go,” I say firmly.

“Want stickers!” she wails.

“Then PICK!” I wail.

“Hard to choose,” she says.

And I start to laugh. Indeed, it is hard to choose—hard to choose to take the next breath when the neurologist says your newborn daughter’s brain is massively deformed; hard to choose to write the next story when everyone rejected the last one; hard to choose to walk away from a marriage to a nice man who never grew up.

Jessica beams when she sees my smile. “Mama not mad,” she says knowingly.

“No, Mama’s not mad anymore.” And I give her a big hug. She pushes me away slightly so she can look up into my face.

“Mama picked happy.”

I glance at her, startled. But she has turned back to the stickers, undecided between Pooh and Mickey Mouse.

Pick happy, I tell myself, turning it over in my mind as if it were a foreign concept. I think of all the joy and all the sorrow I have felt since this child came into my life, and I reflect on the irony that she is the one to teach me the answer to the most important choice of all. Even if, otherwise, she finds it hard to choose.

Jennifer Lawler

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