Every summer, the Pittsburgh Zoo closes its doors to the general public for one evening and invites in those with special needs. It's called Dream Night at the Zoo and it's a completely sponsored event, which means that these awesome kids and their families get in for free. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes action and up-close meetings of select animals. And while all this is so much fun and we love it immensely, my very favorite part of the night is the people.
I am not a people person. If I had the choice between going to hear my very favorite band at a concert (complete with backstage passes and a tour of their touring bus) and staying home and spending a quiet evening in my pajamas sitting around the backyard campfire with my family, I'd choose the latter nine times out of ten. I just don't do crowds or noise. Or crowds. (GET OFF MY LAWN.) In fact, in an effort to avoid crowds at all cost, the first thing I think about when I plan a vacation is peak season versus off season. I will go to great lengths to find out when the off season is, and begin making arrangements to be there. Because few others will be.
So to say that I love the people most of all at Dream Night is kind of a huge deal. I've been to the zoo plenty of times, and I know for a fact that it's far, FAR more crowded during Dream Night than on a regular "we're open for business" day. And while the crowds irk me in ways that I make me realize just how unsocial I really am, they make up for themselves in the end.
There is something vastly different about families with a special needs family member than regular families. Every member of that family is affected by this change. The "normal" kids learn in a hurry that life does not revolve around them. This means that they get over themselves by the time they're 10 and are instantly matured into mini adults. The siblings are empathetic and loving and patient and understanding. Yes, they are totally someone that you want to babysit your children.
Parents of special needs children are all that, with the added wisdom of parenthood. And there is a camaraderie among us that comes of living through something we have no control of whatsoever, but we love it anyway even if it's not anything at all what we wanted. I mean, it's our kids. We'd move mountains (and heaven and earth) to do for them what needed done, and heaven help the one that stands in the way of what we think is right for our children. But the moment we see another parent struggling with the exact same struggles we're dealing with because of a dear and special child in their lives, there is a bond that connects us with no words ever needing to be spoken. We just know, without knowing a thing, that we're walking the same path, and unless you're on that path nobody else can even possibly understand. We're the ones that can help each other the most.
These are the people that were at Dream Night. And while there were so many of them, and walkways were crowded and lines were long, they were the best people to be surrounded by. When Micah was trying his hardest to violate the double door policy designed to keep the deer in the enclosure, and our family held up the line behind us, there was not a single sigh or eye roll among the crowd. They knew, and they understood. It was their kid standing unmovable at the gorilla cage, taking up the best viewing space while the mom tried to cajole them away. And it was their kid screaming at the Hawaiian dance because they liked it so much and were that excited about it.
When Micah was playing at the slides, I was just walking around smiling at the sweet kids playing. That darling boy with Downs, and that adorable little girl. They always catch my eye, those sweet kids with DS, and I always just smile broadly because I know how much joy they bring their families. I know. And as I was walking around smiling at random kids, adults would see me smile and smile back, because they knew, too. And that, too, is the difference between Dream Night crowds and any other crowd. Other crowds would never smile back. In fact, they'd look at you suspiciously and wonder what child you were planning to abduct. I know, because I live in Dream World and catch myself smiling at random kids in public places far too often and the parents are sufficiently freaked out.
At the zoo last evening, it was far more like visiting with family you didn't quite know than strolling with total strangers. And it was pretty awesome.