July 19, 2010
Ride the Wave
We’ve finally made it, our caravan of three vehicles transporting two autistic children and four pairs of adult hands, the requisite number required to make certain both my boys can participate in Parents of Autistic Children’s (POAC) annual surf event at the Jersey shore. I am thankful we have indeed arrived, as we had previously endured a brief skirmish with Justin regarding the appropriateness of his wearing Tivas to the beach, and eventually, to my relief, I won. I simply refuse to take any of my progeny to the ocean clad in socks and sneakers. I am a Jersey girl myself, and I have my standards after all.
After navigating our way cautiously across the bustling thoroughfare of highway 35 we arrive safely with both children in tow, register, and settle in to dispense with the fifteen minutes we have left before my oldest son’s scheduled surf lesson. Justin unerringly finds the strategically placed food offerings that so entice him, and hunkers down at a picnic table to sample a small piece of submarine sandwich. I actually join him as I remember I have unwittingly forsworn lunch today, a minor tragedy I pledge never to repeat. Life is difficult enough without having to endure hunger pangs as well.
After compulsively checking my watch a dozen times to make certain we won’t miss our appointed hour, we clean up our residue and herd my sons down to the waiting shoreline, where I see the Brick lifeguards fully engaged in the job of ushering autistic children out to sea. There are makeshift lines in evidence for parents to stake their claim for the next surfing team, and I bark out orders to my family members to keep the kids alive while I wait to attract someone’s attention. Zachary has to be kept from wandering off, Justin needs peace and quiet to finish his sandwich, and of course, there are photo opportunities that cannot be missed. We are a well-oiled machine, primarily because I am bossy and have instructed everyone as to their job requirements prior to leaving the house. Each child has two adults assigned to him, as I am still wary after the recent near debacle of my not-so-great adventure with Justin. I am determined to leave today with both children alive, and at least one joyous photo of each recorded for posterity.
Clearly, I have ridiculously high standards for happiness.
Eventually I make eye contact with a strapping young man I would have deemed gorgeous twenty years ago (and still do), and ask him if he and his surfing lackeys can take my son out after they finish with their present charge. He smiles and responds we are indeed next in line, and I look back to gauge exactly how much sandwich remains on Justin’s styrofoam plate. It looks like enough to last the duration of the other child’s surf lesson, and I breathe a slight sigh of relief at that knowledge. Justin seems tired today, has in fact been conscious since long before dawn and has just completed his first day at his new school. I am confident he will not be in the mood to wait for anything. I am adamant that he at least try this sport, as he was fairly reluctant initially to mount a horse eight months ago, and obviously that has evolved into a beloved and preferred activity. I never know what will eventually click with him, and as his interests are limited, I want him exposed to as many things as possible. Besides, we reside ten minutes from the beach, and I practically grew up on one. It is impossible for me to believe he won’t eventually at least tolerate the roller coaster of sand and surf.
Eventually the little boy ahead of us relinquishes his viselike grip on the surfboard that has afforded him an unparalled ten minutes of fun, and he finally plants his feet on solid ground and disrobes from his life vest. The head lifeguard calls out to me that it’s Justin’s turn, and I wheel around to ascertain if enough of his Italian sub has been devoured for him to transition to a new activity. I eyeball the messy remains of the sandwich, and decide he has indeed ingested enough to pull him away from his secure spot and attempt the inherent treachery of the ocean. I am certain he will not be thrilled with my request.
He reluctantly but dutifully hands his plate to me as I knew he would, my son who always strives to be my good boy. I take his hand and walk him to the waiting cadre of surfers, and as we approach the individual holding the life vest I can see in his eyes he remembers this event from last year, and is not impressed. I’m wondering if we will be able to accomplish our goal after all.
But today has been a good day for Justin, and although he is not enthralled with the concept of what is about to transpire, he complies to my whim of ensconcing him in his jacket, and follows me, albeit reluctantly, down to the water’s edge. I instruct his new friends to simply take him in and do their best to encourage him to at least lie on the board, because often Justin responds to a situation much better after the preliminaries have been dispensed with completely. Two swarthy young men carry him in while the remaining guards transport the board, and they quickly attempt to situate him upon it through the roiling surf. They try several times, but my firstborn will have nothing to do with this alien, elongated piece of fiberglass, and instead clutches for dear life the closest human he can find. I am amused, that of course, it is the pretty girl. My son has his standards as well.
I shout to them to return him to me, and they quickly comply. Justin looks relieved, pulls my hands to help him shed his equipment, and unerringly picks his way among the crowds to his waiting snack. I thank the group profusely, and they murmur somewhat dejected apologies, which I quickly refuse. I tell them we’ll try again next year, and with the resilience of youth, they accept this promise, and move off to the next child who looks far more eager to attempt to master the waves. I turn back again, make certain Justin is still consuming his prize, then allow my gaze to wander a few feet forward to a small crowd encircling a stationary surfboard with a small child upon it, one who is responding to a cry to “hang ten” with a semi-crouch and airplane arms, and eyes making certain everyone concurs that he is the main attraction.
That child happens to be mine.
It appears that my three-year-old, the one I didn’t even bother to sign up for this event due to his fears that the ocean is “too loud”, has appropriated his own board and team to accompany it. I stride rapidly over to the scene to make certain someone in my family is capturing this on film, and arrive just in time to hear one of his newfound friends ask him if he’d like to go surfing in the ocean. He replies with a resounding “yes!”.
This is the child, who although light years milder in his autism affliction than his older brother, is still plagued far more seriously with sensory issues. He still regards the vacuum as a threatening ogre, reviles sand between his toes with the same vehemency as his father, and will permit only two different textures of food items to grace his palate. His issues have slowly begun to resolve themselves with time and maturity, but nowhere in my repertoire of “he must try this anyway” did I include a rendezvous with the sea. To date, he has refused to even immerse his toes in the receding surf, and recoils from its vastness even while cocooned in the safety of his mother’s embrace. His desire to attempt this on open water frankly stuns me.
And I could not be more thrilled.
Zachary is asked to stretch himself out on the board and grip the sides tightly, a command with which he willingly responds. He is still so light that his surfing cohort can whisk him into the sea by simply raising him to shoulder level and simultaneously battling the waves, all with my smallest son staring out to the horizon, impatient for the adventure to commence. I whip off my beach dress and rush out after them, not because I fear they’ll lose him to this monolith of salty brine, but from the desire to be in close proximity should he seriously regret this decision. I immerse myself for no reason. He doesn’t even notice me. He is simply enthralled with the ebb and flow of tide.
I am within earshot of hearing him politely decline to sit or stand on the board, and his refusal to comply is irrelevant to the joy and intense concentration evident in his countenance. He has conquered his fear of the ocean, and I have no doubt in the next year or the one following he will eventually be obeying the tide’s majesty, and gliding safely into surf’s edge. I watch him, toes scrabbling for purchase on the slick surface of the board, tiny fingers wrapped securely around its edges, face redolent in its awe. He is magnificent.
He does not realize what a gift he has given me today, how these instances sustain me through the terrible times, or even simply the sad moments, those instances most often accompanied by self-doubt that I am doing anything, everything, I can for these boys. I wish I could explain to him what this means to me, but he is three after all, and would simply reply “mommy is happy”.
And he would be correct. She is. And as I turn toward shore to watch my family rejoice at his bravery, I feel myself buoyed by a wave both of water and sheer contentedness, and for that moment, I am healed.