December 22, 2011
I know. Everybody hates repeats.
Each Christmas since I’ve begun writing there has been either some miraculous occurrence or some serious debacle with one (or both) of the kids around the holidays, an event of such significance I would feel compelled to write about it. This year, I have to admit, I’ve got nothing. Chez McCafferty, things have been (dare I say the word), almost “normal”.
And boy, does that feel good.
So, I’m summoning up the repeat, a piece I wrote last year about making a gingerbread house with Zach (constructed out of felt people, you are familiar by now with my lack of culinary skills). I’m reposting it in part because I just don’t have anything that fabulous to write about for my holiday post, and in part because I simply love this piece.
But for those of you who have been with me since last year (and there are more people than just my mommy now, it’s quite gratifying), I’ve included a little letter to Santa from moi, just so you don’t feel completely cheated (after all, how would you make it through the holidays?).
So whether you’re celebrating Chanukah, Christmas, or any other holiday, here’s sincerely wishing the best to you and yours, as well as a profound thank you for taking the time to read my little missives. I’ll see you for New Year’s.
Love and joy to all…
According to my husband I have been an extremely good girl this year (which means I’ve been slightly less than a cranky old harridan most days), so I thought I’d send you a letter with my requests (demands) for my exceptional behavior. We are an ABA family here, and since I’m well past “sticker stage”, here we go:
1) Bring me more patience to deal with my kids (and we’re talking a veritable boatload here).
2) Return some semblance of my failing memory to me. I’ll even take what I had at forty. I think I was “zippier” then (but I can’t remember).
3) Bring Kim Kardashian some post-divorce peace. We share the same first name, I feel compelled to do my part.
4) Let my autism play not sucketh.
5) Let me not lose all of my friends when I mention said autism play on Facebook 1,000 times a day after the holidays (and if I ever figure out Twitter, the same goes for that damn social media outlet too).
6) Did I mention bringing me more patience? If so, refer to request (demand) #2 please.
7) Bring on the world peace (duh).
8) Let my boys remain independent, happy and productive (had to get one more serious thing in here!).
HAPPIEST OF HOLIDAYS TO ALL!!!!
November 30, 2011
He sways precariously between two monkey bars, sweat teeming down his face, regarding the ground below with mounting trepidation. My youngest tells me to catch him, but I know he can reach the ground without incident, so I move a bit further away and tell him to let go. He regards me with a look that is either scorn or disbelief, but disengages his fingers anyway, letting gravity take over. Zach makes a soft landing on forgiving tarmac, rolls to his feet, and grins. “I was scared, but I jumped!” he shouts loudly, and a few children turn around to see what the commotion is all about. Then he’s up, running at what seems to his middle-aged mother to be lightening speed, off to the next challenge.
Finally, finally, he’s once again excited about the next challenge.
There was a long period of time after Zach regressed that he became a child we hardly recognized. He was so silent, desired mostly to be left alone, was only willing to engage in the safe and familiar regimen of organizing his Thomas trains. Anything novel suggested by his parents, grandma, or Early Intervention therapists was quickly rejected, often viewed with fear. This fright extended from new foods to books, and even toys, no matter how compelling we thought the latter might be to him. There were days I despaired he’d ever try anything new.
Now, he can’t wait.
This is our first time at this particular playground, and Zach is overjoyed to attempt new experiences. There’s the rope ladder he never would have clambered upon even six months ago, which he mounts with ease. I watch as he heads toward the swings, invoking my presence with a wave of his arm to summon me to a seat that used to scare him, but now makes him want to fly. There are his gradually more assertive attempts at friendship, his name, age, and request to play dropped almost casually in conversation, with rejection from older kids (or girls) not appearing to bother him a bit.
Subtle changes. Huge leaps of progress.
His adventurous air has extended itself to school, where he tells me he’s been trying to help his friends more lately, has even once shared a special toy without being asked (!). Practicing his letters so he can write to Santa is now a staple of his Mommy time, rather than a chore no amount of cajoling with demand/reward seemed able to satisfy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly to me, are his repeated tries to engage with Justin, with less and less facilitation by me and his father. This is happening despite the fact that Zach told me recently that “Justin didn’t want to play with him”, which of course crushed me, even as I tried to rally with a strategy that would render Justin momentarily fascinated by Aromadough.
Justin didn’t buy it. But these brothers are slowly making progress in their relationship to one another, and it’s glorious to see.
I end my musings when I see that Zach has stepped away from the giant slide, and is now contemplating sliding down a contraption that strongly resembles a fireman’s pole. My feet close ground quickly as I tell him he can’t imitate the girl in front of him who is most likely in double digits (and as the words come out of my mouth, I have to laugh at the fact I’m telling my child not to imitate someone). Thankfully he listens, turns, and throws himself back onto green plastic, which will take his newly exploratory soul back to earth, and into my arms.
Which despite his adventures, is exactly where he should be.
May 25, 2011
I’ve mentioned this before in my writing- when it comes to my children’s education, I have two very fortunate offspring. My youngest is thriving in his local public school, entertaining himself almost weekly with fossil digs, and “bear hunts”. Most recently, his joy was compounded by singing exuberantly in a choir of a hundred pre-school children (how a music teacher can convince that many three-to-five-year-olds not only to mimic her hand movements but learn (most) of the songs’ lyrics as well, is beyond my comprehension). He loves his friends, the paras, his teacher (trust me, many of his sentences at home begin with “but Miss Liz says”), and is almost as eager to see that school bus arrive each morning as his mother is. In ABA terms, school, for Zach, is a primary reinforcer.
And then, there’s Justin.
My eldest child has always adored learning, easily surpassing my computer skills by the age of two (I know, that’s not saying much), and often flinging books at me over the years to read to him until I taught him to hand them to me (it’s tough to read the work of Eric Carle with double vision). That early love of literature has fortunately flourished into his own ability to read, a skill he possesses for which I am eternally grateful. He’s not big on math (neither was his mother), but I’m certain he would have been a killer contestant in a spelling bee. He’s formed a friendship with one of the students in his class who has technically adopted Justin as his little brother, and I’m told he now moves rather easily from task to task, location to location, with little angst.
And trust me, I’m grateful for that too.
Ms. Hillary Clinton once stated that it takes a village to raise a child, and I can assure you it takes an entire planet to raise one with autism. His progress to this point has been a culmination of the efforts of his teachers from his last two placements, as well as his current one. Justin has benefited from dedicated staff at all five of the schools he’s attended up to this point, educational facilities spanning two different states. His father and I are thankful for the compassion and caring he’s received from all of his centers of learning.
I simply must say however that his current school is different, and I was reminded just how special it is when I learned about its history this past weekend at the Search Day Annual Dinner Dance, where we celebrated the school’s fortieth anniversary.
The Search Day Program is unique in part because it was the very first twelve month specialized school for autism, the brain child of a very dedicated group of parents in the sixties who recognized a need for a different type of learning environment for their children, and stopped at nothing to achieve it. Some of these early founders went on to establish Autism New Jersey (formerly known as COSAC), a state organization which provides support and advocacy for parents of children with autism. I’m a proponent of putting things into context, and I can assure you that what these parents achieved in that time period, while IDEA was in its nascent stages, prior to the internet, and before any widespread knowledge of autism (or compassion for those who have it), is nothing short of miraculous. I’m forever indebted to their advocacy and determination, and I’d just like to thank these pioneers for providing a venue that has helped so many children, and their families, reach their full potential.
Due to the collective efforts of various teachers, parents, and corporate sponsors such as Home Depot, TD Bank, Foodtown and Wegman’s, Search Day has expanded from classrooms situated in the rented space of a church basement, to the excellent facilities it is comprised of today. Search’s campus now includes three buildings and thirteen acres of land, on which the various school programs, a Career and Life Center, and a Campus Store, are located. Through the efforts of those who helped raise funds for various projects a new playground has been constructed and a swimming pool installed, the latter in which I’m hoping my eldest will learn to paddle just long enough to save his life if necessary.
And while it also takes an entire planet to create a school of such caliber dedicated specifically to the advancement of those with autism, none of it would take place without the dedication of a brilliant, and highly motivated staff.
On a recent Friday night, after indulging happily in our two free drinks and cornering the market on the plentiful mini-quiches and pigs-in-a-blanket floating around the room, Jeff and I joined the other hundred-plus parents, educators, and sponsors who attended the gala at the English Manor in Wanamassa, in the large and beautifully furnished dining room where I was happy to be served a fine meal I neither had to cook nor clean up. We listened to a passionate and rousing speech by the school’s director, Kathy Solana, who almost made it to the end without crying. Jeff and I couldn’t help but revel in the rousing cheers, particularly from the teachers, for every single child featured in the moving slide show presentation (the one of our son seated next to Santa with a “why the hell am I doing this look” was particularly priceless).
The truth is, I could ramble on about the obvious commitment of the staff, some of whom have worked there for decades. I could describe the overwhelming compassion for not only the children, but for their parents as well, as evidenced in every conversation I had with Justin’s teacher, his aides, and his speech instructors that night. I could share with you that I wondered when these people ever sleep, that their sheer willingness to go above and beyond for their students on a day-to-day basis is what renders this school unique.
But the real reason this school is special is simply due to the staff’s palpable joy in working there.
I was an educator (well, will always be an educator), for thirteen years, starting as an aide at a school for emotionally challenged children in New Jersey, and eventually ending up at a magnet school in a public school district in northern Virginia. I’ve been fortunate during the span of my career to know phenomenal teachers, true visionaries in their fields. Some of them, to my never-ending gratitude, have worked with my children. Truly, I’m no stranger to amazing educators, whom we in the field often refer to as “lifers”.
I must admit however, that I have rarely encountered a school where every single faculty member I’ve met has resided in this exclusive club.
As Jeff and I eventually left the gala, total losers in the raffle and the 50/50 but happy to have gotten out of the house, the director took ten minutes of her time to escort us to the door and chat with us about Justin’s progress, and her vision for the school’s future. I admit I was a bit teary as we exited the premises (with my ramped-up crying these days I think Jeff’s worried I’ll be going through the “change” soon, and is concerned his prospects for a happy future are rapidly diminishing), but I pulled it together enough to convey to my husband how fortunate we were to have landed on this particular square, in the lifetime chess game of autism. The truth is, I may not ever be able to give my boy actual words, or the intimacy of a lifelong friend. I won’t dance with him at his wedding, or watch him drive off into the sunset with his lifetime love. He won’t make me insane with his incessant and unreasonable demands as a teenager (maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all).
But with a lot of hard work and the support of his incomparable grandma, his father and I were able to give him this school, this education, this pathway to progress, and that is no small thing. To the staff and supporters of Search Day School, and Justin’s home district who made it possible for him to attend, we would just like to say we are so deeply appreciative.
December 21, 2010
This past Sunday our local Elks Club held their annual holiday bash for children and adults with disabilities, and since I’d been told by my friends that it was worth schlepping to, this year I finally signed the kids up for it. The past few events I had avoided in part because they coincided with Zach’s naptime, and since my youngest is a phenomenal sleeper there is very little in the world that could get me to keep him out of the house at that point of the day (believe me, we’re talking good dark chocolate AND wine would be required). I’d also decided to forego taking Justin, because frankly the thought of killing two hours in between chicken nuggets and Santa seemed especially grueling. There are only so many videos one autistic child can watch over and over after all.
This year, however, Zach has begun (much to my dismay) to relinquish that gourgeous hour of naptime mid-day, and now I’m also armed with the timer that will hopefully continue to extend my oldest’s son’s willingness to stay a little longer than five seconds outside of our home. Being the crazy, spontaneous fun-loving gal that I am, I threw caution to the wind and signed them both up, figuring my husband and I would do shifts. I assumed I would take Justin first and that he’d last long enough to eat lunch there, and then perhaps I could cajole him to stay for a little while after that. I’d heard that practically the entire special needs community attends, that maybe he’d get to see a few of his classmates from last year, and mommy might also get to talk to adults for a little while. Since I’m not a big fan of the nugget, socialization could be my reward.
The gig started at noon and we arrived fashionably late at 12:15, and as I searched with one eye for a place to sit and the other for anyone I knew, I hoped the food would be served relatively quickly. We actually found seats at the door, and Justin settled in with a juice and video he hadn’t seen in an eternity, making certain to slide every box of candy canes on the round metal table far out of his personal space. It didn’t look like lunch was being served any time soon, so I corralled one of the friendlier looking Elks and asked him to check on meal times in the kitchen for me. He came back with the grim news that they were a bit delayed and it would probably be another twenty minutes, and I thanked him and quickly counted out how many more Pixar movies I’d sequestered within the goody bag. So far, this wasn’t looking good.
I had a feeling that even with my trusty timer we weren’t long for this party, so if I wanted to get a feel for the event I’d better look around now, and I did. There were elves in full regalia throughout the place, and enough glittering décor to make this large barren room seem festive. A DJ was playing Christmas favorites to a variety of children and adults who were gleefully rocking out to Jingle Bells and other assorted tunes, and everyone seemed to fit the definition of merry. I looked back to the entrance in time to see my friend and her husband walk in with their two boys who are also on the autism spectrum, and I quickly motioned her over so she could claim the four seats I’d managed to save for her and her family.
Her sons threw off their coats and hats and made a beeline for the front of the room with her husband in hot pursuit, and I knew we only had a few moments together before she had to go grab a child. I looked down to see how Justin was doing, and heard the sucking sound of the last remnants of a juice box being consumed, and realized he was already watching the last (and twelfth) movie I’d brought with us. I returned to our semi-interrupted dialogue, then felt the tug on my sleeve coupled with the shove of the goody bag to my hand that always signifies it’s time to depart. Since I’d already shown him the red timer twice by now and its slight arm had since drifted into white territory, I knew the gig was up.
I looked at my friend and said “Tara, we’re not even going to make it to lunch”, and as I glanced around the room at all the other children reveling in the festivities, some clearly also on the spectrum like my son, I momentarily felt such a sense of defeat. There’s going to be food he likes, and a present. He’s in a Christmas outfit, it’s clean, and everything matches. Can’t he just suck it up for twenty more minutes?
Once again I felt that insistent pull on my sleeve, and so I turned to my oldest and told him somewhat impatiently to “wait”, then swiveled back to my friend. I looked at her and said “We’re leaving, I’ll be back with Zach”, and she returned my gaze, held it for a moment, and said “I’m sorry”. Just two simple words, and a look that said “I get it, we’re both in the same leaky boat”. The entire exchange, both verbal and visual, took mere seconds.
But for me, it was enough.
I smiled back at her and said “thanks”, and turned back to my clearly impatient child and told him we were about to go. With a “see you later!” trailing behind her my friend sprinted to the front of the room to claim a kid, and I swung cluttered purse and overstuffed, oversized goody bag onto my shoulder with one hand, and claimed my own child with the other. I felt my malaise disappear, in part because I’d have a shot at fun with my youngest later, and in part because we’ve made so much progress with Justin lately at other events. I had to remind myself to be realistic. He’s a boy. He’s seven. He’s autistic. And regardless of the latter situation, like any other kid, he’s just not going to like everything.
And we made our way out of the room on a mission to McDonald’s, past regretful elves who perked up when I told them the other kid would be back later, him gripping his cherished DVD tightly, his mother responding with a grip of her own to his free hand. We were moving on, much as we’d done in the past, much as despite our new arsenal of behavioral techniques I’d be certain we’d do in the future as well.
And this time, it truly was okay.
Today’s Gratitude Attitude is extended to our local Elks Club, who put on such a lovely party this past Sunday for children and adults with disabilities. The food was great, the dancing a hit, and of course, watching faces light up as Santa entered the room was the best part of all. Thank you so much for doing this for our community, and happy holidays!
December 19, 2010
Last week my husband came downstairs, grabbed a diet Dr. Pepper and some GF/CF Swedish fish that are supposed to be Zachary’s, and proclaimed that something momentous had just occurred. No, Bristol Palin didn’t win Dancing with the Stars the night before (NOBODY puts Baby in a corner). No, he hadn’t discovered his impending end-of-year bonus check would cover not only Christmas, but those insanely expensive “sexy boots” I’ve been eyeing online for weeks now. And no, Justin didn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing “Pants on the Ground” to him before he got on the bus this morning. The truth is, I’m referring to a far more modest miracle, one that has a direct impact on our family.
Mall Santa is in the house.
Due to the fact that my kids have special needs, they will each have approximately 5,000 opportunities to meet and greet with Santa this year. There’s the Challenger party, the Elks bash, and a wonderful little shindig near our local aquarium that includes not only his Jolly Lordship but FREE CANDY (you all SO know I’m going to that one). There will be multiple chances for Justin to look bored and fix me with his infamous “REALLY mom?” stare, and for Zach to let his eyes well up with tears in such dramatic fashion that any soap opera star would be proud. We’ll attend as many sightings as we can, but for me the big kahuna, the “REAL” Santa, will always be the portly dude smelling slightly of nicotine, situated somewhere between Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret, just like when I was a kid.
Hell, I gave birth. It’s my God-given right to use my children to relive some of my childhood, isn’t it?
After Jeff made his pronouncement we both ignored the fact that it was still November, that in Zachary’s terms we hadn’t even “put away” Thanksgiving yet, and whipped out our planners (yes, my husband’s is electronic, and I still use a slate and chalk). I remembered Jeff was taking the day before the holiday as a vacation day, and since both kids had half days then we figured we could get them off the bus, throw on their “pretty” clothes, and drag them to the car before they knew what had hit them.
I assumed Zach would be enthralled with the idea as Santa is all he talks about these days, and Justin would tolerate the trip as long as he got a bagel at Starbucks and a ride on the faux roller coaster our local mall houses. Since both of their parents would be there, we figured one of us could save Santa’s beard if Justin was not excited by our choice of outing (my eldest child is not a big fan of facial hair), and if we had to spirit him away Zach could still regale his idol with his Christmas list (and a long, long, list it is). We finalized our plans, I ripped the remainder of Zach’s treats out of my husband’s hungry hands, and began to anticipate how excited my little guy would be when we told him his Santa sighting would be tomorrow. I also reminded myself to have patience when he asked me 500 times if it was “tomorrow yet”.
The next day dawned, and Zach of course remembered our plans for the day, even trying to “reason” with me that Santa would rather see him first thing in the morning, so he should not go to school. I didn’t have the heart to tell him Santa was either asleep or on Stair Master at this hour, so I fibbed and told him Rudolph had a cold, he’d been delayed, and we’d have to wait a few hours.
It turns out lying to your kids is really fun.
After a few more years (hours) of bargaining I finally got both boys off to school, had a taste of a “life”, and packed the eight thousand items necessary for our field trip to shopping mecca. What seemed like five minutes later I heard the “beep,beep,beep” of the bus backing up as it overshot our driveway, and I rushed out with excitement, expecting to see an ecstatic boy launch himself into my arms and yell “it’s tomorrow Mom!” with glee. Instead, I watched as Zach’s exit required the assistance of the aide for the entire length of the bus, culminating in a stand-off at the top of the stairs as he refused to grip the safety handle. When I asked if he’d had a bad day he simply uttered a “HARRUMPH!” complete with crossed arms, proclaimed himself a “BAD BOY!!” without a hint of remorse, and reluctantly lowered himself onto the asphalt and trudged his way back to our home.
After five minutes of witnessing our youngest child engaged in a snit that made my worst PMS episodes look tame, Jeff and I contemplated canceling. I then broached the subject with Zach and was met with a cascade of tears that would have made Niagara Falls proud, and since we’d promised him, we sucked it up and said we’d go. I had a feeling we would deeply regret our decision.
I was right.
We placed both boys in the car, and Jeff quickly found some Christmas carols on Sirius. I relaxed a bit in the driver’s seat, somewhat secure in the knowledge that Zach loves any form of transportation, and whatever tirade he was immersed in would probably disappear within minutes of playing “Look for Christmas Crap” (yes, I leave out the last word when I refer the game to him). The Chipmunk song was just ending (thank God) and Taylor Swift was about to commence a lovely rendition of “Oh Holy Night” when I heard “HARRUMPH!” again from the back seat, and looked back in time to see the crossing of the arms that means that good times are to come.
Here are the transcripts from the next few minutes in our car. Nobody will be subpoenaing them any time soon:
Mom: “Zach, do you want to sing a Christmas song?”
Zach: “NO, NO CHRISTMAS SONGS, THEY’RE TOO SLOW!”
I figure I can beat him at this game. I’ve got forty-plus years of Christmas carols on the little bugger after all.
Mom: “How about Jingle Bells then?”
Zach: “NO, THAT’S TOO FAST!”
Of course it is. Stupid, stupid Mama.
Jeff, trying valiantly to change the subject, chimed in “Zach, are you excited to see Santa?” and was rewarded for his efforts with “NO, I DON’T WANT TO SEE SANTA, I’M A BAD BOY’, which at the moment, is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Because we’re already annoyed with ourselves for trying this trip anyway we decide to play with him a bit, see if we can cajole him out of this foul mood, and amuse ourselves in the process. Since I’m not sure we’re going to make it to Starbucks I realize this might be the highlight of my day.
“Zach, want to see Rudolph?”
“How about Donner, Blitzen and the rest of the reindeer posse?”
“How about Elmo?”
Pause, then “NOOOO!”
“Clooney?” (hint, that one was mine).
“NO,NO,NO!!!!!!!!!! (he may not be my son).
We eventually made it to our destination, and true to form Justin blithely ignored St. Nick and tried to abscond with most of the fake presents surrounding him, and Zach displayed almost as much desire to sit with Santa as he does when confronted with his potty seat. I won’t get my fabulous photos this year, but I’ll leave you with a far more festive group of pictures from “happy Christmas past”.
And to all of you going to see “Mall Santa” this year, please don’t forget to mention I, however, have been a very, very, very good girl.
November 11, 2010
Don’t get me wrong. I’m actually rather grateful to be here, even though this developmental phase includes the word “no” in every sentence, the declaration of fear before every trip to the potty that I’ve come to believe is completely bogus, and of course, the screaming every time Justin even looks in the direction of a toy with which Zach is playing. Just to be clear, I in no way think that these behaviors are simply a manifestation of my youngest son’s type of autism, as none of these shenanigans are new to me. I had my kids late, got to watch my friends’ children make their way into the world, and on a few occasions felt they were a better deterrent to childbearing than my birth control pill. Over the years I’ve frankly come to believe that any child under the age of six is inherently a writhing bundle of “me, me, me”, just waiting to be tamed by his or her parents.
And now, at long last, it’s my turn.
I’ve picked up a number of disciplinary techniques over the years, some from my classroom days, many from studying how my friends dealt with their progeny’s transgressions. Since they’ve all turned out beautifully so far, I feel emulating their moves is a safe bet. I’ve cheered them on in their usage of “time-out”, helped a few construct fairly creative behavioral plans, and supported them when all else failed in their attempts at simple good old-fashioned punishment. I admit over the years I’ve been envious of their usage of “if-then” as a bargaining tool, a device I’ve been unable to put into play with Justin as his thinking is simply too concrete. But as Zachary has aged I’ve wondered how consequences would come into play with him, and have recently discovered the most wonderful bribe AND deterrent to undesirable behavior ever conceived.
His name is Santa.
I know. I have to be careful not to invoke his high holiness on too many occasions, as the threat of him only leaving presents for Justin if employed too often will eventually render him irrelevant. My husband and I reminded each other this past weekend to show restraint, and only “use” him when we’re really at the end of our ropes, when our battery of behavioral techniques has simply worn out. I promise Santa, we will be gentle.
But I will say this. That jolly old soul who needs to lighten up on the carbs is a powerful tool, and I’m going to be missing him greatly come January. Santa prevented Zachary from running around our house for the HUNDREDTH time yesterday in order to escape the dreaded potty, that same receptacle in which he’s been successfully and proudly peeing in for several consecutive weeks. The bearded one reminded my youngest son that he could indeed share his toys with his older brother and live, particularly since they were originally Justin’s in the first place. Hell, Old Saint Nick even got his lordship to put a string bean up to his lips, and although it was ultimately rejected, it was a start. Santa’s given me hope that eventually all of my son’s fruits and vegetables won’t ultimately come from a plastic bottle of V8.
So in case you’re feeling a bit “humbugish” this season, what with the plight of our economy and the equally depressing realization that you are no longer justified in eating your child’s “rejected” Halloween candy, I simply want to leave you with this thought, and hope it renews your faith a tiny bit in this time of year, if even for a moment.
Santa, my friends, really is magic.
September 13, 2010
It’s Monday Madness here, the day where I generally try to make up for slacking off in the laundry department over the weekend and desperately attempt to rectify the situation with what seems like a dozen loads or so. I’m working on freeing Justin’s bedsheets at the moment, am ripping rounded edges mercilessly off his mattress as quickly as possible so my eldest won’t decide to disembark from the potty and bound into his brother’s room, waking him an hour earlier than necessary. I figure if we’re both up before 6:30, which sadly still seems an ungodly early hour to me even after seven years of sunrise awakenings, I might as well accomplish a few things as we wait for Justin’s welcome chariot to whisk him off to school. With a few more tugs I’m on my last and most difficult corner, when something small catches my eye. I reach down quickly, albeit a bit warily, and carefully scoop up the tiny artifact resting gently in the cavity of a crease, a gleaming white object deposited in what appears to be the center of Rainbow Fish’s eye.
It appears my son has lost his first tooth.
I handle it gingerly, cradle it in my palm, and for one moment am struck by how miraculous it is that I have found this. It would have been so easy for this attrition to have occurred at school, or on the bus, or somewhere else in the house where Justin would have unceremoniously disposed of it. He is unbalanced when things are out-of-place, would have relished the release of what must have been an uncomfortable feeling within the confines of his mouth. I am not surprised that he has excavated the offending body part, because it is clear he has assisted in its flight for freedom, as there remain the roots that once bound this fragile form to its neighbors. I know time is of the essence, so I rouse myself from my reverie, and remind myself I still have a toothless child waiting for me in the bathroom. I stride quickly to his bureau to wrap my precious find in tissue, where it will wait patiently for me to celebrate its unique properties by embedding it permanently in a silver teddy bear receptacle given to my son at birth for this exact purpose. I have time to reflect that I never thought I’d fill this with Justin’s tooth, that instead it would be one more object passed down to Zachary, pristine and inviolate. I smile at the thought I will have to purchase something similar for my youngest when the time comes, so he can complete the tradition as well.
I had thought when this momentous milestone occurred with Justin that I’d be sad, regretful that the rituals of my youth would have no meaning for him, would in fact perhaps cause him dismay. I can easily recall the excitement I felt at six when my rite of passage occurred, can remember the overwhelming anticipation of what would assuredly be a gift from the tooth fairy, a coveted quarter that I would probably put aside to put toward the purchase of an ice cream cone or bubble gum. There was a day years ago, not long after Justin’s diagnosis, where I felt such a sense of loss at all the imaginary events which he would miss, the sittings with Santa, the embrace of the Easter Bunny, the Herculean effort required to summon the patience to await the periodic arrival of my ethereal friend, that I felt compelled to write them all down, acknowledge the loss, then destroy the list. As it turned out, we are still able to celebrate all these milestones, just with a different interpretation, as I have learned to redirect the emphasis on aspects of these holidays and events so that they have meaning to my son. Over the years I’ve had to view everything through Justin’s eyes, immerse myself in his world in order to give him pleasure at these staples of childhood. So far, since I’ve been able to release myself from the rigid boundaries of my own memories, he’s enjoyed himself immensely.
I rush back to the bathroom, now perilously close to risking the awakening of a child still possessing a full array of baby teeth, and remind myself that this triumph can still be celebrated, still rewarded, but it will have to be Justin-style. I will not be sneaking into his room at night to stealthily ensconce a shining obelisk under his pillow, would never be foolish enough to either leave him alone with money he could ingest, nor risk liberating him from the hard-won constraints of slumber. No, I’ll have to conjure up another treat, perhaps something as simple as a walk on the boardwalk, or perhaps a new DVD. He will not make the connection between the loss of a body part and the prize, and the fact is, that connection is irrelevant. He will be pleased, and I will know why. That is all that matters.
I cross the cold tile to kneel down in front of my son on his throne. As I encourage him to dress himself he smiles, revealing the missing front tooth that I must have been blind or too wrapped in the fog of my morning fatigue to notice before. There it is, the rough-worn edges, the gap, the empty space waiting to be filled with permanence. I return his smile, for I know that once again I have won that ongoing battle in my head, reconjured my scenario of what should be and replaced it with what instead will transpire, what will turn out to be enough.
And as he reaches for my hand to ease the ache of loss, I can only acknowledge the gain for both of us.