October 23, 2011
Warriors, Tigers, and Dragons
It seems we’ve come to a place in our society where moms require labels to distinguish what kind of parenting we practice. Several years ago I read an article describing how Jenny McCarthy aptly coined the phrase “warrior moms”, a term dedicated to those of us fiercely advocating and fighting for our children with autism. This past year in Time Magazine the zeitgeist shifted to “tiger moms”, an appellation I grasp intellectually, but continue to reject solely on my belief that childhood should include choices, and at times actually be fun. Then last night, as I briefly skimmed through the daily Autism Speaks blog, I chanced upon a reference to a New York Times opinion piece called “Notes from a Dragon Mom”. Without reading the blurb I rolled my eyes and clicked on the link, ready to be regaled with yet another story of a superhuman mother which would surely leave me feeling vaguely guilty for all the things, despite my efforts, I somehow manage not to accomplish for my progeny.
Ten minutes and half a box of Kleenex later, I sent a silent plea to the universe to forgive me for that eye roll.
The piece, by author Emily Napp, describes in exquisite, precise prose how her eighteen-month-old son Ronan, a beautiful little boy with red hair kissed by fire, will not live to see his third birthday. I won’t give you the details here, because Ms. Napp does so brilliantly, with an elegant grace I cannot and should not attempt to reprise. I promise you however, this article is worth your time, and will perhaps alter your perspective on parenting irrevocably.
I know it did for me.
For years after both of my boys were deemed autistic, I was mostly immersed in the physicality of their diagnoses. My husband and I were completely caught up in dealing with sleepless nights, relentless rounds of diarrhea, eating aversions, and with my eldest, the feint and par of aggression. There wasn’t much time to consider the future, as the two of us at times were literally simply trying to make it through the hour. Quite frankly there was a safety to living in the moment, no matter how terrible it was. Having been a veteran educator myself I’d had access to several autistic students over the years, and had been privileged to know and follow their families over time. I had an extremely clear big picture view of what might transpire for my boys down the road, and the prospects were terrifying. I simply shelved those thoughts for the years immediately following what I like to call their “D Days”, and forced myself to focus on the now.
I believe making that shift saved my sanity.
There were times however, particularly during Justin’s pre-school years, that as our daily struggles lessoned, the weight of that possible future would insidiously slip its way back into my head, at times leaving me semi-paralyzed with fear. I realized ironically that as Justin’s challenging behavior lessoned, I would have to ramp up my own self-discipline, try to conquer my own fears, and stop living in my head. I’ve mentioned before in my blog that one of the most helpful tools I used to do so was Susan Senator’s book Making Peace with Autism. Her writing, despite our child’s moderate autism, afforded me both a blueprint for one day achieving a happy family, as well as a second important mental shift.
I clearly remember one fall morning in Barnes and Noble, snatching up this book from amongst a myriad of tomes that outlined the full recovery of the author’s child, and finding immediate comfort from the words within the cover. The solace came not from discovering a family who made every decision regarding their child’s care with consummate perfection. It came from reading about a family who learned to self-correct their errors, who made enough of the right choices despite their son’s severe autism to forge a path which would ultimately make possible what I consider the perfect endgame- a safe place to live, a social outlet, a job, and a happy life.
This remains my intended endgame for Justin as well.
Life continues to improve in our home, with my eldest making great strides in reading, communicating his needs, and finally being able to summon that peaceful child I knew existed, and worked so diligently to unearth, during all the dark years. Despite my second’s son’s identical diagnosis, Zachary’s life trajectory remains quite different than Justin’s, most likely including the more traditional fare of relationships, college, career, and independent living. Over time I’ve been able to reconcile the fact that Justin won’t have these options, mostly because he’s achieved the most important goal I’ve always had for both of my kids.
Both Justin and Zach love their lives.
As we’ve reached this point together as a family I’ve realized I won’t ever completely be at peace with the paths autism has altered for us, but the truth is I am completely at peace with that realization. There is one fear however that has lingered for me, the one that requires a serious “aha” moment, or one last emotional transition. I have yet to figure out how to deal with those decades I won’t be around to protect my boy, although if it were possible from beyond the grave, I surely would. Part of my problem is projection, or the very real fear of all that can go wrong when I’m gone.
Every year since Justin’s diagnosis I’ve come across a heartbreaking story of an adult with autism’s neglect, injury, or untimely death. These stories simply exacerbate my deepest fears, heighten the atmosphere of “what happened now”, in which my family dwelled for so long. The possibility of someone hurting the someday adult who will always remain my baby clouded the future, prevented me from seeing an alternative route. Yet the truth is, Justin may live safely for the forty years he’ll spend on earth without me. He may in fact acquire that job that suits him perfectly, enjoy authentic social opportunities, truly revel in his life. There’s every chance he may be just fine. The reality is, he’s lucky to have a future.
And last night, in devastating detail, Ms. Napp reminded me of that simple truth.
I admit, I feel somewhat guilty gleaning clarity from this piece, seeing how this author must surely dwell, despite the sweetness of living in the now, within the confines of constant, unremitting pain. Her words certainly have not completely eradicated my deepest worries concerning Justin’s existence post-parent, but they’ve given me a different way of contemplating the arc of his life. For that gift, I am eternally grateful.
I am confident I will never have the honor of meeting Ms. Napp to physically thank her for sharing her story. The most I can do is share the piece here. As the author states near the conclusion of the article, the truth for all of us raising the next generation is that “none of it is forever”. I thank Ms. Napp for altering my perspective. And I know, as I hug my boys who have already lived longer than her son probably ever will, I won’t forget this truth any time soon.