Last week I had lunch with a woman named Charlene. On a cold, dreary Wednesday we sat in the darkened corner of the Common Man restaurant and talked about books, motherhood, and life in New Hampshire. She had read What Color Is Monday? and had a lot of questions about Jack and autism, and once our salads came she looked at me with her fork poised in the air and asked, “So what’s the happy ending here?”
I started to say, “Well, I hope there’s cake on the dessert menu!” but then I realized she was talking about a happy ending to my life, not our lunch.
I paused for a long moment and dug through my dish of greens, hunting for the feta cheese and ignoring the almonds, while I considered an answer. What is our happy ending?
“Well, I don’t know,” I stumbled. “I guess that everyone is, you know, happy. And healthy.”
She nodded in agreement, and we resumed our conversation about the best books for summer reading and where to swim in the lakes region. But her question remained in the back of my mind for the rest of lunch.
The truth is I never really look that far ahead into the future. Joe and I are not the kind of parents who hope and pray that our kids become doctors and lawyers and basketball players. I never cradled any of my newborns and thought oh this one is the next Mark Zuckerberg or considered that Henry’s ten pound birth weight might make him prime for the NFL. (Really, after delivering him I was just grateful to be alive.)
I did hope for normal, and you can see how well that turned out.
I don’t mean to suggest that I live mindfully in the moment they way all the magazines counsel us to do. I don’t watch, bewitched, as the first snowflakes of winter melt on Henry’s eyelashes or stand and admire the way Rose holds a paintbrush and delicately colors the canvas. I don’t bend close with an anticipatory smile when one of them says, “Guess what? I have something to tell you.”
No, I don’t do much of that. Instead, I’m caught up in the daily grind of our days together; who needs the orange shirt for field day and how much milk is left and when was the last time anyone actually washed their hair in the shower. And whether those blobs of pink paint falling off of Rose’s paintbrush are going to stain the carpet.
I might pass by Joey as he works with his Legos and Charlie as he shows Henry how to play chess and Rose as she demonstrates her favorite ballet moves, and briefly consider that maybe they’ll have a future in engineering or teaching or dance. But mostly, I just hope they’ll find something that pays enough for them to move out.
After lunch Charlene and I stood in the rainy parking lot saying our good-byes, and as I climbed into the car my mind wandered and I tried to think what I really want for my children, what a future of happiness would look like.
Obviously—cliché alert—I want them to be happy. I’d like to see them lead the life they each choose, whether that’s traditionally married or a single bohemian, a musician or an accountant or a stay-at-home parent. But to be honest, I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about getting Joey, Charlie, Rose, or Henry to a happy ending. I figure if we give them enough of a framework, a value system of family dinner each night and church on Sunday and time with homework, they’ll have the tools to navigate their way through things like heartbreak and disappointment, hard work and (hopefully), college.
But Jack. I supposed I’ve spent more time contemplating the future with my second son than I have with his three brothers and sister. Back when he was newly diagnosed with autism, I longed for a crystal ball—literally, I wished for a globe of glass where I could peer in like the magician in the black and white scenes of the Wizard of Oz and see five-year old Jack in kindergarten, then third grade, then high school. Because I thought if I could see that it all ended well, I could live through the days of tantrums and anxiety and speech delays. I could get by.
And now, here he is a skinny nine-year old boy who has his own hopes and dreams for a happy future. Not a week goes by when he doesn’t mention how he wants to drive a Sequoia like Daddy and have a lot of kids like our family does. When he doesn’t mention his plans to travel to Wyoming and California and Alaska. And if I can’t get him there, if I can’t bridge the wide chasm between his dreams and reality, I will have failed.
This makes me panic. Some days it makes me frantic. Because here I have this earnest, literal little boy who may never graduate high school or get married or drive a car. He might not travel so far as the grocery store independently, never mind cross the United States in a Winnebago on his own. Whether Jack knows it or not, this is reality.
But I will not give up just yet.
So on those days when it is so goddamn hard I cannot bear it another second, days when I can’t do one more flashcard or try to flex his rigid mind to understand that not everyone in the car wants to listen to Taylor Swift again, I look into that crystal ball in my mind’s eye. I look and I see a grown-up Jack, waving to me from the front seat of his black Toyota Sequoia as he pulls out of our driveway towards a home of his own, and I stand up a little straighter. I pledge to do more than just get by.
Because even the not-so-normal deserve a happy ending.
As I drove back through our town after lunch I decided that while I don’t have a clear picture of our family’s future, I have a clearer idea of how to try and reach one; through a combination of mindfully living in the moment and preparing for the future, of embracing the zigs and the zags, and trying to figure out why a blue-eyed boy so desperately wants pancakes for breakfast. A combination of family karate, Fourth of July parades, and a whole lot of hope.
I was a little later than I expected leaving the Common Man, and I pulled into the driveway in a rush to meet the kids after school. As I watched them descend the stairs of the loud yellow bus and burst onto our wet lawn, I felt a rush of relief, of gratitude. Here they are, my flesh and blood, my life and soul, home once again.
The rain had stopped by then, and we walked slowly up the driveway counting the dark brown worms who had wiggled out for a breath of fresh air. I tried to hold my brain from jumping to the demands of the afternoon and evening ahead, to backpacks and Fact Frenzy and peeling potatoes for dinner. Feeling Rose’s hand in mine, I counted those worms. And when we got back in the house I decided to bake a cake for dessert.
Because sometimes you have to make your own happy ending, even if it isn’t on the menu.