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There’s Not a Word for This New Year

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom, author and blogger
12/28/20  8:00 AM PST
new year

2021 “the year of…”

If 2020 has taught me nothing else, it’s that you cannot depend on life or the world to explain itself to you. It does not owe you that. Natural disasters happen. Pandemics swoop in and over the land. Elections take over the news cycle and then, suddenly, pass. And we keep moving forward, because we are creatures tied to a timeline and it is in our nature to keep marching toward the next tick on the calendar.

Living in this state of unnamable expectation has its benefits. As a parent with a child with special needs, I already knew this. There was the stranger who helped load the wheelchair in the van when I threw out my back. The woman in the cafeteria at my son Charlie’s school who plays his favorite Jason Mraz song when he is sad. The nurse from the NICU that became my best friend nine years ago when Charlie was born. There are benefits to embracing the indefinable.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the things we can’t name as everyone scrambles to attach a motivating word to their New Year’s resolutions and declare 2021 “the year of…” whatever.

Certain situations, certain feelings and states of in between simply cannot be named.

There’s that sense of anticipatory nostalgia you get when you realize some new thing you are doing will become a tradition, even in its inaugural state. This year, over the holidays, we took the kids to get milkshakes in their pajamas and then drove around town looking at Christmas lights. I was not halfway through my Oreo shake before I dubbed it “Shakes and Lights,” and declared it our new ritual. I can’t tell how I knew it was special or would be the thing my kids would tell their kids about later, hoping to carry it on to the next generation. I just knew. There was that feeling of yes, this is how it should be and will be again.

Or how about the way you don’t notice your own house’s smell, but can immediately scent anyone else’s like a dog in new territory? To really pick up your own requires a long journey, a sabbatical from home, and then a return. Even then you can just catch it for a few seconds when you step in the door before your body reacclimates. What’s the word to describe that particular phenomenon or that smell other than “home”?

Do you remember, back when we all used to travel regularly, that half asleep, half awake feeling you get on an airplane when the air conditioner is running and the engines are humming and all your technology is in airplane mode and you can feel the slight vibrations all through your body as it searches for the not-quite-there equilibrium. There is not word for that either, other than maybe its post-travel counterpart: “jetlag.”

We are a society who rushes to label things. We like definitions.

We like to be able to Google it and get the answers, all 1,007 of them in the search results. But in parenting a child with special needs, there are so many things that there’s no word for like that ache you get when your child does something totally ordinary you never thought he or she would be able to do. Just this winter, I handed Charlie his Minion toothbrush and for the first time, he put it in his mouth and brushed top, bottom, front, back like we always practice, but on his own. Honestly, he did it more thoroughly than me. I clapped. He clapped, flinging toothpaste on us both, and it was pride plus sadness. Joy plus mourning. Satisfaction plus the urge for so much more. Bittersweet doesn’t even begin to cover it.

We have all been forced to acknowledge the indefinable state of the world this year. And we have seen both the good and the bad in living with a lack of structure. There is so much more freedom to look up and evaluate the way we have been doing things, but also, the view is a bit terrifying.

I don’t have a resolution for this new year because there’s not a word for what I’m feeling. It’s more like a vague sense of expectation, an openness to possibility, because whatever else it will be, it will be different. It’s an idea that if you drew it, would look like open hands – maybe begging, maybe praying. It’s hard to tell.

child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom, author and blogger.
Read her blog, The Mom Gene.
Follow her on Facebook.


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