Part of me thinks that no one should ever have to outgrow Toy Story.
Ever since the 18th birthday earlier this spring, I’ve been in a state of emotional turmoil. It’s only a slight exaggeration. Now I try to make some sense of a teenager’s room that runs the gamut from Winnie-the-Pooh to Scooby Doo with everything in between. It’s a collector’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. I’ve learned the hard way that throwing the wrong thing out means I will be hounded eventually to replace it – it could be five weeks or 5 years from now, just long enough to make what cost me $1.99 in 2003 now cost $67.99 on Ebay today. I know parents who have purged their house of everything Thomas and Pixar to help their kids become adults but my problem is that I really am loath to replace Toy Story with the Man of Steel. To me, that’s just another kind of arrested development. More importantly, he’s not interested in that stuff – he sleeps soundly through superhero movies on a regular basis. He loves what he loves.
And the books. Which ones will he ever read? How can we know what will prove useful or interesting, just by waiting patiently for him to notice the ones placed where he sees them every day? To get rid of the easy readers seems mean, to get rid of the more advanced books seems pessimistic.
Will he look beyond the action figures to the books behind them? Maybe.
Downstairs are the bins of paperwork that requires filing or tossing – one for school, one for insurance, one for general ASD stuff, one for transition, one for keepsakes and artwork that show developmental progress, or the lack thereof. But I only end up weeding things out I know are redundant – I just don’t know when a school or a court will need to see what we have and I’m afraid to get rid of something that could be a key piece of evidence of … I don’t know. And every bin or toys or papers brings a flood of memories and emotions that don’t want to stay on the shelf where I keep them. I am trying so hard to focus on the future that sifting through the past seems like a bad idea just now.
So I guess I’ll stick with The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music – at least they are live action – and wait a bit longer for the moment when we can at least move some stuff up to the attic. And we will know soon enough what schools, doctors, agencies and lawyers require and then, maybe then, we can let go of at least some of the past.
As I angled the camera to get a good photo of the blue candle, I saw that the reflected flame is more beautiful than the original. With all the talk of Holland* and dashed hopes that some of us face with an autism diagnosis, with all the planning and worrying still to come, with all the explaining and misunderstanding and misinformation in the world out there, with all the emotional collateral damage yet to assess, there is still a light that shines in the darkness of what my life would have been without him (and his siblings, who show such tremendous grace and humor under pressure). As much as ever, I embrace what I wrote in 1998 when I tried to describe what turned out to be autism: this boy is closer to heaven and hell than I will ever be on this earth. His unfiltered (or sometimes, overfiltered…) take on the world reveals the sublime and the absurd and gives me the courage to keep fighting demons that, without my children, surely would have overtaken me long ago.
But I know the roles can reverse. There are many who justifiably curse the cloak of darkness that autism drapes over their child. It’s impossible to be grateful for every moment; there are millions of them that are best forgotten. But it’s in those dark moments that we are most grateful for the light when it does return (if we can just remember where we hid the matches).
*The Welcome to Holland essay inspires many people when they first face a disability diagnosis, but Susan Rzucidlo’s Welcome to Beirut has always been my personal favorite for families on the spectrum.
I took this photo in the parking lot of the Lurie Center in Lexington, Massachusetts, a branch of Massachusetts General Hospital that serves children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. These are iconic fries, a not-so-secret symbol of what it often takes to get an ASD kid to and through a doctor’s appointment; I can only imagine the tears spilled when they hit the pavement. The clinicians at the Lurie Center are among the best in the world and yet even the skilled and gentle support they offer can’t always extend out into the parking lot where worried parents and anxious kids struggle – sometimes mightily – to fit yet another specialist appointment into their lives.
But with this photo I see and offer up hope that persistence pays off. Not always, not when we want it to, but it is hard for me to adequately convey my joy at seeing these fries and knowing that they were not going to cause me the meltdown we once might have had just seeing them ice cold on the ground. My boy looked at them and remarked, “Someone’s been to McDonald’s!” and then danced – literally, with iPod – toward the entrance. Next to the door there is a wisely placed trash can, which he glanced into and noted, a little somber now, “There’s the box.” Some part of him knew and felt the pain of the child whose fries had met the wrong fate.
It was a lively day in the waiting room, with several families with antsy children waiting to be greeted by doctors and therapists. We recognized one clinician as she came out to greet a child. We knew her from work we did as part of a research group a few years ago, and she delighted at seeing our boy. He spoke politely with her and then began to tease me about what he wanted from me in exchange for being brave about having his blood drawn (more research – that’s another post – and the covet du jour was yet another Scooby Doo movie) that day. I saw her look at him, and at me and as she listened to us negotiate I saw on her face a measure of disbelief that this could be the same boy she knew in 2009. She looked at me and lowered her voice and said, “Do you know how lucky you are?” And even though I said yes, later I had to stop and take stock of how far we have come from our french fries in the parking lot days. Our challenging times are by no means gone but they are different, and it is best not to dwell on what they are like now – they will return soon enough.
A parade of sparklers from last summer, about a thousand years ago.
I think it is me who is regressing this January. We did a lot, learned a lot, and worried a lot in 2012. I am wiser but much less brave than I was a year ago, having gone from sending our boy away to camp for a whole summer to being reluctant to send him to school for even a day. Sickness and Sandy Hook (not to mention a totally dysfunctional Federal government) make me think we are more vulnerable than ever and while we have a plan (as of yesterday) to get him healthier I haven’t the slightest clue how to rebuild our confidence. We were always wary of the outside world; now the outside world is wary of us. When we ventured out over the holiday season I noticed that I stopped using the word “autistic” to explain odd behaviors – in fact I avoided saying anything at all to anyone about him, and made more of an effort to avoid eye contact. I am ashamed that I want to be invisible, angry that people are spreading ignorance and fear about autism and appalled that I have allowed it to affect my behavior. Still, we go out a lot and, like many parents these days, we do our best to show and tell our children how much we love them. And, quite literally, we hang onto them a little tighter than we used to.
So. It’s a picture perfect autumn day and we are listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air talk with Michael Feinstein describing his new book/cd about Ira Gershwin. Great program. They play a clip of a radio show in 1933 with Rudy Vallee and George Gershwin chatting with a little piano playing, followed a little later by a second clip of Ethel Merman singing “I Got Rhythm.” Our boy has been next to me in the car the entire time, tapping away on his iPod and soaking up the October sun; it’s been a long day of doctor’s appointments. The Merman recording, Feinstein explains, is from a tribute to George Gershwin that took place just after his death from a brain rumor at age 38. As Merman approaches the bridge in the song – “Who could ask for anything more?” – the boy turns to me and asks,
“I think so!” I reply, but when I get home I look it up because I wasn’t listening that closely. He was right. It was 1937. Oz was released in 1939. The Fresh Air broadcast made no reference to that film or its music but only (and ever so tangentially) to the composers who wrote some of the songs for it – Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. The only other clues to the era might have been the melodies themselves and the accents – the Brooklyn/Boston/vaudeville kind of patter – both Gershwin and Vallee have voices that sound very much like Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in Oz.
How is it – how is it – that some one who is not supposed to be adept at inferring anything can infer himself right back to 1937 at the sound of a radio broadcast and a familiar accent? Auditory processing deficit? Not today. Fear of music? Not today. Trouble making connections? Not today – at least not at this moment.
During the course of this busy day I jotted down at least a half-dozen moments that are worth writing about, but this is the stunner because it reminds me for the umpteenth time that , in our lives, autism creates so many more opportunities than we give it credit for. They are random, yes, and we don’t always know what to do with them, but they’re there, waiting to be noticed, valued and put into context. It’s kind of like a treasure hunt, every day.