By Tamar Bihari

Harvard is a beautiful campus.  The ivy may be gone – they removed it when I was an  undergraduate, as it was damaging the buildings – but the rest is all still there: the low-slung red brick buildings encircling the green swath of Harvard Yard, the white stone temple of Widener Library with its majestic columns and endless steps (steps I remember sledding down with trays swiped from the dining hall), the blend of history and youth, world renowned professors strolling past undergrads playing Frisbee in t-shirts and shorts.
When we visited this past June, my 10 year old son Damian declared it exactly like Hogwarts.

That felt especially true in Annenberg Hall — the dining room with its high arched ceiling studded with stained glass windows,  the dim light filtering into the large wood-paneled room where my former classmates stood on line that weekend for breakfast and lunch, just as we had done in similar dining halls across campus twenty five years earlier.   So many familiar faces in that room.  Transmogrified into middle age, but the essence of the person often seemed unchanged. In one case, I didn’t recognize an old friend until he spoke, and then face and voice and memory all coalesced in a big hug.

Back in early spring, when I first got the invitation to this 25th-year college reunion, I was tempted for a moment to toss it in the trash.  Reunions are stressful. You wonder who you’ll see, how they’ve changed, if you have time to lose that extra weight, how you’ll look to these people you knew well once upon a time. A cascade of insecurities and regrets: Do I have time in the few months before reunion to change, to grow, to be and do everything I thought I would become?  You don’t, of course.  It’s strictly come as you are.

When I looked over the class survey questions, even more doubt welled up.

Every five years, a committee compiles a survey of our classmates, its multiple choice questions running the gamut from politics to movies to sexual activity and what car you drive.  Including, of course, questions about how much money you make, about your career, about your level of success.  

My classmates have some impressive accomplishments under their belts: Judges, activists, high-profile journalists.  A Grammy winner.  A film producer with more than one box office smash on his resume.  The host of NPR’s All Things Considered.  One of my college roommates ran for governor of her state, and became a local celebrity.

Me?  Well.  Um.  I worked in the film/TV business — classy shows, but in a distinctly unglamorous job (assistant film editor).  I quit to write, thinking it would afford me more time to be home with my then-theoretical children.  But I focused on screenwriting, which – let’s just say, it’s not the easiest profession to enter.  I’ve since shifted to prose: fiction and nonfiction both.  It suits me better.

But something else got in the way of that skyrocketing career trajectory.

My husband and I had a child.  Damian, a beautiful boy with a high forehead and huge brown eyes and a wail of a cry.  High needs from the get-go, exhausting and perplexing.  He was diagnosed with autism two months before he turned three, and suddenly everything made sense.

I could still have worked, of course.  Could have gone out and gotten a decent paying job. Could have hired a nanny to drive him across town to his therapeutic preschool, bringing a packed lunch of the very few things he would deign to eat; a nanny who would, with luck, play with him in a local park before his occupational therapy session and work to engage him whenever she could.  I could have checked in with her to make sure she’d spoken with his floortime play therapists that day, encouraging them in all the right ways as they worked with him.  I could have taken time off work to meet with the supervisor regularly, make sure he was progressing and learning and changing.

I know other parents who did just that, who continued to work full time and somehow found the time to manage their autistic children’s development.  But I was already home with Damian, inextricably entangled in his life.  I was, in fact, his security blanket.  He had terrible separation anxiety. He needed me as a translator, to make sense out of an overwhelming world. 

So I stayed home, writing some but mostly working with my son.  A private kind of career.  No promotions, no raises, no handshakes or “great job!” commendations.  No holiday parties (except the sticky kids-on-a-sugar-high kind), no staff lunches.  Just me and my child and all his therapists.

I don’t regret the decision.  I can’t.  Damian (seen here in his Harvard reunion shirt!) has progressed amazingly well over the seven years since his diagnosis.  He’s mainstreamed in school, he has friends and ambitions and a delightful imagination.  Most people can’t see the autism in him these days.  I chose my path, and it’s been a good one.

Oh, maybe sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d made a different decision – or, rather, a myriad of different decisions at various crossroads in my life, each potential path branching off in a new reality, a different me.   But this is me, now, in 2008.  I haven’t won a Grammy, Emmy, Oscar, Edgar, Pulitzer, or any other major prize.  I haven’t made millions. I have no big shiny accomplishments. I’m just, well, me.

In the end, I decided to go to my reunion because I wanted to see people, not because I wanted to be seen by them.  I had a one-sentence précis of my life ready, in case anyone asked.

To my surprise, I had a wonderful time that weekend. It didn’t matter that I had no list of amazing accomplishments in the years since college.  Not to my old friends.  And, although I said “wow,” and “that’s fascinating,” often that weekend – and meant it – I too was more interested in hearing about the texture and flavor of my companions’ lives than the specifics of what they’d achieved.

Then it came time for the survey results.

On that Friday afternoon in June, smack in the middle of the four-day reunion weekend, I sat with several hundred classmates and spouses in the beautiful, historic Sanders Theater, contemplating the big picture.  I was surprised to hear how many of us made squarely middle class incomes, how many women had chosen to stay home to raise their children.  I wasn’t as alone as I’d thought, which was unexpected and comforting.  Still, an awful lot of my peers are doing very well, with vacation homes and hefty financial portfolios.  So, y’know.  Not so comforting.  

A couple of survey questions were freeform, including one asking you to describe an accomplishment you’re most proud to claim.  The survey committee picked eight to highlight, out of about six hundred responses.  They chose well: a medical breakthrough, a political achievement, an extremely prestigious award won, a truly good deed accomplished.

And this: “Helped my son grow past the impairments of autism into an impressive kid.”

Sitting high up in that carved wood theater, gripping my husband’s hand, surrounded by the susurration of applause from these, my classmates, I started to cry.  My friends say the ovation was huge.  I couldn’t tell you.

I can only tell you that I needed this.  It filled me.

There are so many different ways to measure a life.  So many different kinds of success.  What’s yours?

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  • Julia Kay November 22, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    I saw this was posted a few days ago but didn’t have time during the week to sit down and read it until now. Congratulations on having your accomplishments recognized! And congratulations on a beautiful telling of the story! And of course, congratulations to you and Dan and Damian for Damian’s amazing growth and development.

  • Janice November 21, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    I can’t think of any greater achievement! It’s good to hear from you, Tamar.

  • Mimont November 21, 2008 at 11:27 am

    So nice to see you got the applause you deserve. What a heartwarming story after all you’ve been through. Thanks!