August 14, 2011
The T rex throws his head back in a gigantic roar, tail sluicing through air at what appears to be a dangerous velocity, at least to my slightly cowering but curious four-year-old. He is safely folded into my husband’s arms, mere feet from eye level with the beast, telling Jeff firmly this dinosaur is “just pretend”, which I believe he whispered more to reassure himself than his daddy. He twists his torso back to me and shoots me a look that implies he can’t believe he’s here, and I return the favor, because I can’t quite believe it myself. The three of us are at Atlantic City’s Showboat Casino “Dinoshore Museum”, which is only one of several adventures this McCafferty trio will be embarking upon today.
Because today, in case you didn’t see it on Comcast or CNN, is the first annual “Zachary Day”.
In the past four-and-a-half years there have been plenty of “Zachary mornings” or “Zachary afternoons”, most of which have occurred because Justin was in a full-day educational program before his little brother was even born. Zach and I have experienced a myriad of day trips together, outings where we’ve conquered my youngest’s sand aversion and trolled the Jersey shore for sea life, or explored any number of the Garden State’s museums. Said excursions, to my surprise, have even included one where I permitted tarantulas to traverse my arm just to impress my kid. We’ve had wonderful pieces of time together, but never an entire day, and particularly never an entire day that included his dad. For years there were too many other pressing concerns to consider, like wondering if any of us would ever get a full (or hell, half) night’s sleep again, or would my oldest deign to eat once more, etc., etc. Day trips to enable Zach to have special time with his parents were not of the highest priority.
But now, they finally are.
I will tell you that some of the joy of this day was seeing my son’s exuberance at learning there’s a place dedicated entirely to the discovery of his favorite hobby, that watching him sift through sand for fossils and marvel at reproductions of monoliths long sent to the grave was an unparalleled thrill. Our ability to sit afterwards with Jeff’s aunt and uncle “of the heart” for forty-five minutes and chat like any other family also seemed miraculous to me, because my son entertained himself, and only asked to go on his next adventure as the full hour came to a close. I could share with you that the highlight of the day was witnessing Zach’s enchantment with the Ocean City boardwalk, that Jersey shore icon which holds a unique place in both his parents’ hearts. I could tell you I simply loved watching Zach revel in its sights and sounds, and the fabulous Thomas the Train ride which wended its way through the amusements at such a height at times it seemed we would scrape the sky. I could tell you these things, and they would all be true.
But if I’m completely honest, the real thrill was a day without the constraints of Justin’s autism, and one devoid of guilt for feeling that way.
Don’t get me wrong. Zach still presents a challenge (he is four, and a boy, after all). He remains mildly on the spectrum, which for him presents as episodes of moderate anxiety, a need for order, and an impulsivity we continue to attempt to reign in without crushing his exuberance for life. He’s made tremendous progress in these areas, but there’s still work to be done. It appears that Jeff and I do not bear the easiest of children, which perhaps is fair, as it turns out we’re not the easiest of adults.
But today, at least for one day, we were able for once to go with the flow, not plan out every move as if we’re negotiating territory on a life-sized chess board. We made spontaneous decisions (!), took our time, and didn’t regard our watches for hours. Zachary adored all of his adventures even without a set plan, adventures that would have been met with varying degrees of disdain and disgust by his brother. My smallest son had his own day, just a day with his mom and dad. I knew his brother was far happier at school with grandma as the day’s chaser, so for once I didn’t question whether or not he was missing out. I reminded myself that it’s important for Zach to have his own time, and that it’s alright not to include Justin in everything. He had his “own time” for four years before the arrival of the interloper. It’s Zach’s turn now, and it’s my turn to finally let myself feel good about it. It was just a day, nothing special in its makeup to most families.
But for us, I know just how unique it was. And Zach, we can’t wait to do it again.