I love the quiet of a house buried in snow. Skylights are blanketed so it’s a little cave-like and the only light is what comes in from the blizzard outside. And because it’s March there is a bit of warmth to the white, and the assurance that it will all begin melting tomorrow. The bitterness of winter is gone, in ways I cannot begin to explain right now (it is a snow day after all – we have some serious laying around to do). The boys are happy, and when Dad and daughter arrive later everyone will be home and “tucked up tight.” Those small phrases pop into my vernacular all the time (scripted speech? Probably).
by Gail Haley
The older the children get, the more we seem to quote the books we read to them when they were small. Perhaps this one most of all: A Story A Story – let it come, let it go.
Hurricane Sandy may have passed, but clouds remain on our horizon. I’m not yet ready to post about our boy’s ordeal over the past couple of weeks, but as we stumble through the second day of weather-related school cancellations I see a furrowed brow and a short temper that prompts me to warn my younger son to cut his older brother a wide berth. Other families face much greater challenges from aggression than we, but I am so conflict-averse that even the rough and tumble of typical adolescent boys sets me on edge. We are all off kilter from too much TV storm coverage and howling wind and pouring rain, followed now by creepy cloudy silence and listless lack of routine. We know we are fortunate to have the power on and the trees intact – it wasn’t our turn this time but who knows what the winter will bring now that we have used two of our snow days.
We read on Facebook about some families taking delight in the drama of storm prep and others – the ones with kids on the spectrum – wary of how no power or school might unsettle their kids. We are somewhere between. My boy slept in the basement last night to protect his trains and animals from the perceived threat of the storm – his strong protective instincts run from cutting trees with Dad to carefully tending to his stuff: the Thomas trains stored in their sheds and Playmobil animals in the barns – even the portable DVD player that is the Sodor Drive-in theatre tucked safely away. Camping on the couch in his sleeping bag is part of what makes him such a beast today even though he came upstairs at dawn and finished his rest in our bed after Dad went to work, his feet looking for mine while he fidgeted in his sleep.
And as I write I hear the boys talk in warm tones and the sun emerges to cast a brighter, wintry light on wet fallen leaves and bare branches. The clouds are expected to come and go with maybe one more wallop of rain from the backside of the storm. We’ll proceed cautiously through today and look forward to the routine of tomorrow – which, I now realize, is Halloween. Oh boy.
In the end, we just couldn’t face it. Heat, lines, crowds, food, money. Too much. We’ve done our time in the Land (favorite thing ever: The Casey Junior Train, below) and the World and we figured if we went back we were setting patterns that would be the undoing of us, psychologically and and financially. It was the best decision we ever made, vacation-wise, even with the hurricane. We did not want to spend our few days together in theme park survival mode (and I fully admit that this is my problem, this crowd phobia) and we found a destination where everyone found their own space; in the the water, on the shore, sun and shade, together and apart, quietly. That, in large part, was what this end of summer jaunt was about – all of us developing a better sense of where our limits are and stretching them gently in the right directions, and coming to rest, together, at the end of each day.
It was the first vacation in a long time from which I returned not needing a vacation. Under the best of circumstances vacations can be stressful, and for many families with kids on the spectrum, traveling to unfamiliar territory can be daunting. And while we shy away from overly urban adventures we have still a managed to traverse St. Louis, Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles, partly by recognizing that animals and swimming must be on the itinerary.
Life is too short to go to too many of the same places twice. And I have to think that, because we needed to travel for family reasons when our kids were small, the rituals of airports and hotels were ingrained early and we are proud of the way all three of them rise to the occasion, time and again. The fun can bring stress (the TSA, packing special food, meds and myriad devices with their correlating cords, headphones and chargers) but this summer proved at last that sometimes, it’s just fun.
We went straight from camp pickup to vacation; now is the only significant length of time between June and December that we will all be together. There is a lot to process: camp, work and school transitions, the sudden loss of friends and colleagues over the summer. It seems I say in every post that we are learning a lot, but each time I write it I suppose I really mean to say we are learning unexpected things about the twists and turns our lives take, beyond what we have come to expect in the earlier years of raising children and getting older. The more I try to live in the moment, the more these unanticipated events seem to get in the way.
Even as I write a hurricane (Isaac) has popped up out of nowhere to bluster through our trip and set us back a day – it’s causing both excitement and anxiety, but right now the nearly empty beach is populated by just two people, Dad and boy out for a snorkle in a window of late afternoon sunshine between the bands of wind and rain. This is the revelation of the vacation for me. Usually too chicken to snorkel, the calm waters of Caneel Bay convinced me that even I could venture out into the reefs. Much as I am enchanted by graceful sea turtles and spiky urchins down on the sea floor, the most breathtaking sight is the beauty of our boy moving through the ocean. I have always known he is more content under the water than above it, but I never understood the truth of that until now. While I have to remind myself to breathe through the snorkle, he dives and darts down through the water with an ease that astounds. This is a moment I can savor and one I would give him every day if I could.
And when he comes out of the water he rests. And then he talks. And most of words and phrases are his – not scripted or non-sensical. He wants to know more about his friend who died suddenly of leukemia while he was away (we don’t have a lot of answers; we can’t make sense of it, either). He wants to talk about school and home and his sister going to college. The water has cleared the static in his brain and it reminds me a little of Oliver Sacks‘s stories of people who gain clarity and lose it again. Even though the increased fluidity does not last, the gift from the sea is a window into his mind, and I wish and wonder how we could prop it open a bit longer before the storm arrives, passes, and we go home.
I thought that a break from managing autism would mean less stress but what it has created is a vacuum in my attention span and total emotional disequilibrium. The opportunity to not build my day around the boy has made the opportunities that emerge less easy to embrace – maybe it’s latent exhaustion, or latent guilt, or just a loss of identity. I did not expect to be happy for him to be away, but the sudden moments of devastation take me utterly by surprise. There have been plenty of moments of grief in my life, but this physical emotional ambush is entirely new to me; I need to be able to identify the signs so I can see it coming or my family will stop going places with me. Add to this the realization that, while I was building my attention around him, everyone else built their attention around other things and people. With him away, I feel excluded. I haven’t yet figured out how to reinsert myself back into my own life. I’m lost, boring, and stupid.
And yet these are good problems to have because it means that he is doing well at camp and I don’t have to focus on making that situation better at this point. I recognize the luxury of breaking down and cannot decide if it is a process I have to go through or one I have to beat back. Depression and self reflection and recovery all sometimes seem like the same thing to me. Healthy time and space or withdrawal from life? It all depends on the moment, doesn’t it? On the quality of the thought? Sleeping too much or too little? I seriously do not know.
All I really do know is that an hour of absolute quiet here and there is what I always crave and is what is allowing me to process these thoughts now. No music, no TV, nothing but the humble spin of the clothes dryer and an open window that lets in the summer breeze. I think that if I can have these moments for part of every day I can get my groove back. And as I sit before my keyboard and type this I find – yet again – the startling image of me as my mother. Drinking coffee and typing, thinking, ruminating, and inexplicably driven to write down what is on my mind. How is it that I work so hard to cut new paths only to find myself on these well worn tracks? Am I carrying on a valued tradition or am I just a cheap knockoff of an extraordinary person? I can’t say that I am living in her shadow; our lives are so different. It’s more of a behavioral blueprint that my brain references without my permission. It is the best and worse part of me that makes me overly analytical and controlling and keeps me from being in the moment and thus I never appreciate anything fully unless it’s in hindsight. But I am really good at hindsight, I must say, which can make me good at planning, too. But this constantly looking backward and forward is making me dizzy and literally unable for focus on what is in front of me.
My sister has advice that I remember at times like this. She talks about making sure that you structure your life so that you are in “moving water.” I find this concept incredibly helpful because it can mean so many different things. When you are a stay at home Mom the difference between moving water and a riptide isn’t much. I remember vacations on the Carolina coast when I felt like I was standing still, bouncing gently in the water, enjoying the salt water’s ability to make the baby in my belly float independently. And then I realized I was a half mile down the shore from the beach house that was in front of me a few minutes before, carried south by swirling waters made stealthily swift by an approaching hurricane. I recall the sensation of emerging from the water, feeling the satisfactory weight of the baby settling back into place, order restored. I made my way back up the beach to the place where my life waited for me.
See how that happened? I started out in one place at the top of the post and now here I am making a metaphor out of a distant vacation. Equilibrium restored, for now.
The blue dot is our house at midnight last night, complete with chick pea sized hail and forked lightning. There are moments, during fine weather, when this is exactly what it feels like inside our house. Thanks for the visual cue, Mother Nature.