May 18, 2011
Even at the tender age of eight, my son Justin has somehow managed to acquire several paramours during his short stint on earth. First, there’s the love of his life who lives around the corner, a girl for whom he would do anything. This dedication includes shoving me out of the room whenever she arrives to play with him (in a painful, bruise-in-the-small-of-the-back-kind-of-way, it’s a proud moment every single time). On a local beachside playground there was a lovely teenaged girl we continually encountered on summer afternoons, a love interest with whom Justin shared his toys, and his kisses. There have been mild flirtations along the way with the few girls in his classes (that 4:1 boys to girls ratio for autism has not been in his favor), including a young blond thing in pre-school for whom he tried to escape his classroom whenever he caught sight of her. Let’s just say, his one-on-one aide was in great shape that year.
And then, there was Kerry.
I’ve written about Someone Special Needs You (SSNY) several times since I’ve begun this blog, not because I’ve run out of things to talk about (trust me, with autism, you never run out of things to talk about), but because it’s carved out such a unique place within Justin’s lexicon of activities, and within my heart. It’s a group which convenes eight times a year in a church in Colts Neck, NJ (nope, it’s not religious in its origins), and includes neurotypical teen-age peers and children with a range of disabilities as well. Sometimes there’s a theme, such as Christmas/Chanukah or St. Patrick’s Day. On occasion the group’s founder, Vince Scanelli, hosts a full-fledge carnival, or a graveyard Easter Egg hunt. There’s always a craft and an abundance of snacks, which Justin usually consumes as if he’s eating for three. For the most part my eldest only deigns to share his company with the group for about half an hour, but I know on some level, he enjoys his participation.
But the best part for him, hands down, has been his buddies.
Justin has never been a patron of the arts-and-crafts, and I’m pretty certain even the allure of unlimited potato chips wouldn’t convince him to get out of the car at 6:30 at night, at the end of a long week at school. No, the single most motivating factor to inspire Justin to do something other than handle toys that light up and spin, has always been women. This is a trait he seems to have inherited from both sides of his family, with the sponsors being his father and maternal great-grandfather, respectively. My son loves being fawned over (as on occasion, have said father and great-grandfather), and for at least a limited time, will do absolutely anything for a pretty, smart, kind girl who’s been his friend for four consecutive years (that includes painting a damn leprechaun).
And since he was four years old, for most of the time he’s participated in this group, Kerry has played the role of primary reinforcer.
Justin’s fabulous buddy is a senior in high school, and although I’ve had almost half a decade to prepare for her departure (come on girl, what about online learning, it’s the wave of the future), I was still unaware that our April get-together would probably be the last event my son would be able to spend time with her. I thought we had one more gig in May, during which I would have actually remembered to bring my camera and at least presented Kerry with some photos to remember Justin by, but I was informed early in the event that our sojourn to the gymnasium that evening would be our last until September.
Once I saw that Kerry had made it, and that Justin would get to say goodbye to her, I rallied (never let it be said I’m not a rock of a woman). I left the two of them to their own devices, and helped my husband keep Zachary alive, which given the height of some of the equipment and my youngest son’s refusal to fear anything, was no easy task. I admit, I was easily able to put Kerry’s imminent departure out of my mind in an effort to ascertain exactly how many exits Zach could escape from in each bouncy unit (generally, there were no less than three, Jeff and I were outnumbered).
Eventually, after an hour of gut-queasy bouncing and multiple room changes, the evening concluded. I asked our soon-to-be-former buddy to escort Justin to the car so he, and I, could say a proper farewell to her. Jeff and I successfully strapped two hyper, over-tired young children into our SUV, I counted the twelve bags that comprise our entourage wherever we go, shoved them in the trunk, and asked Kerry to lean in and hug Justin. She did as asked, extending a full-body embrace and a kiss on the head to my boy, then she turned back to me to say goodbye and hug me too.
I opened my arms, got out “thank you for everything”, and totally lost it on the shoulders of an eighteen-year-old girl.
In my defense, just prior to completing that circle of love, Kerry shared with me that she would be studying to be a speech therapist in part because of Justin, and frankly, I’m not certain how I could have contained myself after that declaration. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve managed lately to relegate most weeping episodes to television and film, the finale of Lost and my husband’s cruel sharing of the end of Toy Story Three coming to mind. I just don’t find crying all that cathartic anymore, what with the raccoon eyes that follow with the accompanying migraine chaser from hell, so I’ve channeled my desire for release into other outlets.
No, not drugs. Reality television and the blog, people, the blog.
I immediately apologized for sobbing all over her pretty Gap t-shirt, and managed to state without a full-fledged gulp accompaniment how much her participation in the program had meant to Justin, and to me. I thanked her for her commitment to him, how she showed up during flu season and finals, in inclement weather and sunny skies. I informed her she would be an inspirational speech therapist, and that I was proud my son had influenced her decision, even if only in some small way.
I shared with her that one of the most difficult things for me to accept about the nature of my son’s disorder was that in the truest sense of the word he doesn’t have friends, is bereft of the companionship that has sustained me through some of the most difficult periods of my life, as well as provided me with some of the most hilarious moments as well. I told her that in her own way she had been Justin’s companion for the better part of four years, and that filling this gaping niche in his life had played an instrumental part in his social growth, while simultaneously filling an aching need for myself as well.
Then I took a deep breath, sniffled one last time, and managed to let her go.
After making her promise to keep in touch I slid behind the wheel of my car, accepted the proffered tissue from my somewhat confused spouse, and carefully began backing out of my microscopic parking spot. Jeff asked me if I was okay, which unleashed a second wave of weeping, as I tried to explain to him what this girl had meant to our son and me, and failed miserably (it’s hard to talk when you’re hiccupping). Eventually I got a grip, engaged my GPS so I could find my way home and not rely on my husband’s incredulous instructions (the fact that we were simply retracing our previous steps means less than nothing to my direction-addled brain), and headed for home.
I glanced back at my boy, strapped carefully into his fortress of a car restraint, rocking out to Stevie Nicks and blissfully unaware that this hug heralded the end of an era. I sent a silent plea to the universe I wouldn’t have to witness him searching for her at SSNY in September, then eased into traffic on the main thoroughfare. I filled my lungs deeply one last time, searching for solace in the comfort of air, and in that moment, finding none.
And this time, I let that be okay.
March 11, 2011
Apparently this is a completely typical occurrence for the pre-school crowd, or perhaps he inherited the need from his mother. I’ve been told I was almost physically attached to my “blankie” for years as a young girl, to the point where the thing literally disintegrated to a stretch of fabric no longer than a ruler. Legend has it its tattered remains were left behind in an airport cab on a trip to California when I was three, after which I decided to vent my wrath to the universe on the entire plane ride back to Jersey (really, wasn’t that what my parents deserved, after all?).
My mom of course saved the day upon our return, when she thankfully recalled that a discarded patch no more than three inches square lie dormant in my bedroom’s trash can. With one of those white half-truths we all tell our children, she managed to convince me somehow that this was, indeed, my “real” lovey. Apparently I bought that, happily nestled it into my chest, curled up into an exhausted ball, and promptly went to sleep.
Lying to children is a beautiful thing.
I’m not certain how long this phase will last between Zachary and “Baby Jessie” from Toy Story Three, although he appears to have forged a somewhat strong commitment to her. Jessie sleeps with him in his room, although since she “talks” when pressed she’s been relegated to a bucket on the floor, often smothered by a carefully positioned blanket (which is why babies should not be having babies). Jessie is generally Zachy’s mealtime guest at the table, has been the catalyst for convincing my son to at least try the fruit. There’s nothing like telling your kid his baby won’t grow up healthy and strong unless he himself eats those damn bananas.
We’ve even begun a scrapbook chronicling the exploits of Zachy-daddy and his daughter (the photos of his pregnancy are particularly poignant- I’m hoping he’s outgrown her by the time he figures out boys can’t get pregnant). The entire affair, despite my mild disdain for small children, has truly been adorable.
That is, until Baby Jessie went AWOL.
My husband and I knew she hadn’t escaped the four walls of our home, as we’d seen her in late afternoon, happily riding the rails with Thomas on the Island of Sodor. I didn’t even know she was missing until Zach asked for his dinner companion, and after a cursory search was conducted I had to inform him it would not be a “table for two” that evening, and yelled up to Jeff to come look for her. I used the excuse that she was hiding since Zach had thrown her across the room in a fit of pique earlier that day, figuring I could hold off the impending hysterics long enough for him to eat dinner by guilting him (our future therapy bills are multiplying by the minute).
That reminder did indeed stave off tears as Jeff searched diligently throughout the house, but to no avail. After an hour of turning our first floor upside down (but finding such interesting items in our couches) I knew I had to get creative. I prayed to the Walmart gods that Baby Jessie had survived the Christmas rush, and that her twin would be waiting patiently on a shelf for my harried husband to claim her in the morning. I then told my youngest child that Jessie had gone on vacation, but she’d be back soon, and he shouldn’t worry.
Miraculously, although it was the lamest lie in creation, he bought it.
Fortunately, before my husband actually had to brave Walmart on a weekend morning, our sitter located Jessie perched precariously on a window sill where my spouse swears he looked three times, and where Zach adamantly refuses to admit he put her. I’m just happy she’s back, and the look on his face when she was placed in his arms in the morning, safe and sound, was so ridiculously precious I would have gagged if he wasn’t my own child.
He apologized for hurling her across the room, took her to the potty successfully, fed her pretend carrots of all things, and made her a bottle. They engaged in conversation the entire time (Jessie has a really deep voice for a girl), he showered her with affection, and for the next hour wouldn’t let her out of his sight. His actions were those I’d expected to see of my child as he grew; that need for connection, the urge to be protective, our universal desire to care for others. I know this is typical behavior, “normal” if there is such a thing, but it all seems magical to this mom.
My little boy has a lovey.