October 5, 2011
In a beautiful ceremony marked by happy tears from both sides of the aisle, my aunt, my mom’s little sister, married her fiancé this past weekend. They’ve been together for many years, and are about as perfect a fit as one couple can find on this planet. There’s the added bonus that they’ve known each other since childhood, even took flying lessons together as kids. Finally, in case you weren’t certain about this union, their parents at one time were so close they considered each other family, even went so far as to have a sibling on either side unite in matrimony. Before my grandfather passed away a few years ago, my mother has said he pulled her aside, confirmed that the lovebirds were in fact dating, and asked his eldest daughter if he thought they’d eventually marry. She answered she thought they would, and remembers my grandpa’s satisfied smile at her response.
If by chance there is a heaven, he was whooping it up on Saturday night.
By any standards, my aunt’s a pretty remarkable person. She was a single mom when my cousin was still a pre-schooler, and she put most of her life on hold to raise him. Somehow she managed to be a fantastic mother while continuing to hold down a full-time job as a teacher, sometimes taking on part-time work just to help make ends meet. She always made time for her extended family as well, including the monumental job of taking care of her parents in their last years, one that she predominantly shared with my mother. Her other claim to fame is her formidable artistry in craftmaking, which my other aunt and I have tried at times to emulate, much to our downfall. Somewhere in a landfill, or hopefully a recycling center far, far, away, are the remnants of a New Year’s Eve creation we attempted a decade ago. This monstrosity included those annoying noise-makers that force you to spit on people, as well as large amounts of toilet paper rolls, a combination which resulted in a concoction so offensive it was blasphemy to call it “craft”.
Aunt Donna, you know what I’m talking about.
I’m writing about my aunt today in part because the wedding was an extremely important event in my family (not to mention I also got to dance with my husband, eat cake, and stay up past ten), and in part because I want to thank her, and I don’t think I’ve ever shared this particular reason for my gratitude out loud to her before. The catalyst for this appreciation is inspired in part by the fact that seven years ago this fall, the first of my two children was diagnosed as residing on the autism spectrum (I’ll share with you that the second time around was no picnic either), and as usual, my small but close family offered their help as best they could, with my aunt front and center in her support.
This may surprise some of you, but at that point in time it was difficult for me to articulate all of my thoughts about Justin’s “label”. I’d been an educator for a dozen years by the time I gave birth, and that experience turned out to be both a blessing and a curse when me and my husband were informed as to what was causing Justin’s atypical development. The good part of this experience was, since I’d taught students on the spectrum before and knew some of their families well, I immediately got the “big picture” of the long-term ramifications on all of our lives.
The bad part, due to my background, was that I immediately comprehended the long-term ramifications on all of our lives.
There really was no living just in the moment for me, and to this day, that aspect of autism remains my greatest challenge. I didn’t know how to convey to people that when my son was spinning out of control in the mall, I was simultaneously conjuring up a similar scenario when he might be duplicating this behavior at thirty-seven, and potentially still in my care. The immediate present was daunting enough for me. The weight of all the future decades was almost impossible to bear.
Without having to explain this, even years ago before autism awareness had truly exploded, my aunt just “got it”.
I don’t know if she’ll remember this, but I’ll share this anecdote with you, and with her, today. On one of my visits to Jersey from Washington many years ago, I said to my aunt in a passing conversation that the hardest part for me was this was forever, that Justin would be without my care one day, and there was nothing I could do to change that. I should explain to you that I am descended from extremely stubborn stock on both sides of my family tree, with my maternal lineage being excessively obstinate at times when it comes to acquiring what we want. It is very difficult for us to admit defeat. In this instance, and at this time, for me this knowledge was excruciating. When I finished speaking she just hugged me and whispered “I know”, and that was that. I remember feeling relieved, because frankly, there were people in my life in the early days of “autismland” who just didn’t “get it”.
Those few individuals who immediately comprehended my family’s potential lifetime arc were simply beyond solace for me.
My aunt’s wedding day is over now, but I know that for these two lovebirds, the celebration has truly just begun. Since it’s a Tuesday morning as I’m writing this, I’m just going to raise a symbolic glass to both of them in the form of my CVS water bottle as I wish you two well. To Candee and Ken, I wish you only the best of life, love, and happiness. Knowing you both as I do, I am certain you’ll settle for nothing less.
And for every person out there supporting our autism families who just “gets it”, here’s a toast for you too.