Today’s Our Land was authored by my IRL BF Joanna, who I met through Tucker’s PAC (Preschool Autism Classroom). Her son Michael was officially diagnosed fairly early on, and, as many of you know, Tucker was not. I was lost. Confused. Alone and lonely and Joanna was the parent that I bonded with. At first, we bonded over our sons, and over the fact that they genuinely enjoy playing with one another. There have been countless mornings when Tucker hasn’t wanted to leave the house until he has heard Michael’s name. As we grew to know one another better, we bonded over life.
She’s amazing and wonderful and has been, in many ways, my salvation on this journey towards accepting autism into my home, my life, and in my son. She’s also the one that I talk to when it comes to The Other Life Things. The me things, the work things, and the whatever things. In other words, she’s plain old awesome and has shared her story with Our Land today, again. Her first story was published here. I’m very thankful for her for her friendship, for her awesome son being Tucker’s best friend, and for her words. Here are hers, today:
Our Land: Autism and a walk through a forest
Let’s go for a walk. We are going to check out this magical, yet mysterious forest. I have been this way before but there are always surprises- some good, some hard, and some scary. I can show you how beautiful it can be, and let you know when we have to be careful. But there is a point to our hike, there is a message of sorts, and I am hoping we can bring it to life, together. Sometimes, I think this is how my son finds his way through the world as well, always trying to figure out what is helpful and necessary versus what is just interesting.
As we explore the intricacies of these woods, I am going to tell you a story. The story, like the forest, might stir up some hard feelings at the outset, but please bear with me.
There was a particularly difficult day that actually began the night before. I got into a never-ending fight with my husband about needing more help, more sleep, and just more. And just before this fight, I was mean to my best friend, so neither my husband nor my friend were talking to me.
The next morning (the day in question), I woke up from a fitful night of sleep because Michael, my son, was struggling. His nightly solitary romp through the forest was more treacherous than normal. He vacillated from actually crying in his sleep to screaming “no!”
In an attempt to help, I snuggled up close to him, wishing that I could join him in whatever thicket he was trapped, and help to free him. It seemed that the comfort of my firm embrace was useful and that it allowed some temporary refuge. Unfortunately, his restless mind inevitably continued onward, determined to clear whatever obstacle it was encountering. I could not help but wonder if overhearing my fight with his dad unleashed some of the forest’s demons, requiring a full night’s battle to suppress.
That morning, both Michael and I woke with bags under our eyes. Have you ever seen bags under a 4 1/2 year olds eyes? It makes you want to keep him home and play all day long. But, I couldn’t do that. I was exhausted and started to fill up with tears at the thought of having to entertain a kid with limitless energy for the day. So, we trudged forward.
Michael desperately needed a bath, which was part of the fight the night before. He does not love his baths but, sometimes, if you introduce them in just the right way, he is reluctantly amenable. Once he is in the tub, I start to (prematurely) congratulate myself. I promise myself that half or at least one third of the battle has been won. Maybe we have come to peaceful clearing in the forest, as those places exist and are quite beautiful.
Except, I quickly realize that there was the issue of hair washing. In this particular set of circumstances, I would have normally skipped it, I did not have the patience, nor the desire, but since my hubby did the same thing for the last few days well … skipping was not an option.
The shampoo is medicated because, like everything else, things work a little differently for Michael, and we need to treat his dandruff or else we are dealing with big chunks of dried scalp glued to his hair. The problem with the shampoo is that it is not tear free, and it smells really badly. There is certain danger when someone tries to force external agents into the forest especially non-natural irritants, or challenging, unexpected demands. It immediately disrupts the beauty and calm. As a result, Michael moves from disgust during the application to vengeful rage when it is time to rinse.
This is just about where I lose it. I’m trying to get the soap out without him getting it in his eyes, because that will take the situation from a level 10 black diamond to something comparable to being carried off the slope in a spinal collar.
Somehow, in these split seconds, Michael seems to pick up on my distress, and, in an attempt to help, or regain some control, he dumps a cup of water over his head. Now, this could be seen as a good thing, movement towards independence, etc. but it seals our fate.
Of course- soap in the eyes.
Imagine not being able to see in the forest? Senses are so important, they enable information collection and processing and to be deprived or, even worse, injured via a sensory organ is close to natural disaster.
What ensues is a complete drowning of several clean towels in an attempt to save his eyes from the painful and relentless irritation. Michael starts to cry, and so do I.
Now, we are in the thick of it together – stuck in the scariest and probably most painful part of the forest with wildfire threatening.
Very soon after the tears start streaming down my face, Michael notices. He stops crying and starts to say “it’s ok mom?!” Not like a question, more like a plea. “Mommy … happy … mom! … No sad … happy, right?” Michael has these big brown eyes that I normally do not have the opportunity to stare into for as long as I would like, but this was different. Michael was begging me to feel better, using all of his tools to get his mommy to genuinely smile.
Of course, I want to cry more. This is my little one who is not supposed to notice that others are in pain or even care, for that matter. Perhaps this is another unique thing about Michael but according to my friends with kids on the spectrum it’s not unusual at all.
My tears keep coming, but I smile, and say “Yes, Mommy happy. Michael happy?” There is a desperate back and forth as each of us tries to alleviate the other’s suffering.
Michael cannot return to any of his play until he is convinced that mommy is “happy.” In my head, I know that I so desperately need to cry, but, at the same time, I can’t stand to see my little guy get so upset that I am upset. And in the midst of all this pain, there is something very precious.
Do you know what it is? Can you see it? Sometimes, the forest makes it hard to see some of these things because there are so many things to see. I will admit, I did not see it, but I felt it.
Michael and I were genuinely connected in that moment … interacting … and communicating in the moment, in a back and forth manner- expressing and feeling our LOVE for each other.
When Michael was first diagnosed with autism and we felt lost in the forest, I used to pray that he would be able to say “I love you.” I told myself if he could just do that, I could regain a sense of direction and essentially handle all the rest.
I know that there are so many amazing parents, families, and children who do not get to have this experience, and, of course my heart goes out to them and everyone else with a loved one on the spectrum, but at that time, I thought I needed that. I have learned a few things since I sent that prayer.
Love is felt, it is shared, and understood. It is not constrained by words. And neither are our kids.
Have you been here before or maybe in a similar forest? Probably most parents have but I’m guessing you definitely have if the love of your life is also on the spectrum.
I’m thinking Joanna is right. Here are our boys, playing together. Defying what we “knew” about autism. There IS love. Bonding. Friendship.