July 14, 2012. The air quivering with heat and lake levels low from lack of rain and blistering temperatures, we greet the scorching day with folding chairs in arms, intent on staking out a shady spot amidst the dusty, burnt terrain. Sophie, Pat and I have taken the one hour trek to Green Chimneys, where the annual family picnic is being held at a nearby sister facility. There is an inflatable obstacle course on the lake for the kids to climb and navigate, but the water is too low and so the kids, mostly boys, stare longingly, arms folded over bare chests, at the now unattainable goal. Pat and I play volleyball with our kids and before we know it, boys of various ages and abilities have joined us on either side of the net. Soon an energetic if not disorganized game ensures. Sophie, no longer the epicenter of her parents’ attention, hangs her head and walks away. Later, Pat and I enjoy a few minutes’ chat with the founder of the school, Dr. Sam Ross, an octogenarian zealously devoted to his mission and the kids he serves. Still full of energy and verve, I can only imagine the robust force he must have been in his more youthful days. He is a beloved leader of young minds and hearts and I watch as he surveys the picnic, the mass of healing children and parents, his rheumy eyes benevolent and triumphant, a portrait of pride derived from a lifetime of selfless work and accomplishment. Peter is glad to see us but a little grumpy from the heat and the realization that we are together today for only a few hours. The separation between child and family is unnatural, intuitively wrong, and we all do our best, in our own ways, to ignore this fact so that the reality doesn’t overwhelm and smother what is meant to be a happy day. I try to stay busy with both kids and we spend a lot of time swimming in the lake. My family shouts playful jeers as I’m made to pass the deepwater swim test, just like the children. Peter and Sophie clap afterward as the lifeguard writes a fat “X” across my hand, memorializing my success. Pat watches from the dock with towels in hand. For the most part, Sophie is fine as long as it’s just Peter and us, but when I start talking to other kids or adults, she slinks off sulking, face transformed into an angry caricature of herself. She resents these outings, the attention given to Peter that is more streamlined and less demanding than the daily routines of home. She doesn’t appreciate that our time with Peter is limited for now and that the nature of our relationship is therefore different – at least temporarily, from our relationship with her. Though I try to reassure her, there is little I can do to alter this fact. She has us 24/7, for better or worse, and Peter does not. After an attempt to chase a few rubbery burgers with several cups of water, we head over to another part of the grounds where a climbable water slide has been set up. One of the counselors sits atop the inflated climbing wall, ostensibly there to maintain order and safety, but he’s spraying the kids in line below with a hose, setting off rounds of gleeful protest. Pat and I, seeking yet another spot of shade, strike up a conversation with a couple that recently enrolled their 6-year old as a day student. It’s not long before we’re swapping war stories of contemptible treatment by our respective school districts. Forever amazed by the fact that although individual circumstances differ, the overall plot remains unchanged, I listen with amusement as the mother, an educator herself, shares with us that she shoots certain individuals in her district a not so discrete bird whenever their paths cross. So many Green Chimneys parents are combat veterans who’ve fought their districts tooth and nail to get the appropriate placement for their special needs children. I’m glad we’ve met a few more veterans today; shared experience breeds hope and comfort and reaffirmation that the prize was worth the fight. Earlier one of Peter’s friends eagerly approached, wanting me to meet his mother, whom he sees only rarely. He is a sweet but troubled boy with a difficult background, always happy to lap up the extra interest and attention I try to show him whenever possible. His mother matter-of-factly tells Pat and me that once she works through her own issues, she’ll be able to bring her son home. The love in her eyes is apparent but there’s also a deep sadness and lack of confidence emanating from within. She is the other face of Green Chimneys, a mother fighting just as hard for her child but for very different reasons. When the picnic winds down, we decide to take the kids for an early dinner and ice cream. We aren’t quite ready to say goodbye and are grateful Peter’s social worker approves the impromptu off-grounds request. When we drop him back at school, later than we planned but earlier than I’d like, we remind Peter that he’ll be home the following weekend and that it’s only a few days away. We kiss goodbye and hug each other tightly. Then, as I plunk myself back into the car for the long and often quiet ride home, I turn my attention as a mother back to Sophie, one hundred percent. This unnatural shifting of familial rank and place throws her and the rest of us off. I’ve come to appreciate that this pendulum effect is just one of the many forms that payment for the price of progress takes.