This weekend, we went to a water park.
Nothing undoes me like a road trip with my family. It doesn’t help that five out of the seven of us get terribly carsick and need to clutch thin plastic bags pilfered from the Mobil Mart for the entire ride. I am one of the unlucky five.
And then there’s the questions, the constant chatter of voices and laughter and complaining we must endure for the duration of any trip.
At one point I promised my family—promised them—that if one more person asked me how many more minutes or if the water slides were big or small or how much loooonger or if we could stop for lunch even though it was only 10:00 am, I was going to open the car door, tuck my body, and roll right out. While I rolled down the highway I would pull my hair out by the roots.
I described this in detail to make sure they understood. Five-year old Henry was the first to react.
“You will look funny wif no hair!”
And then the rest chimed in with their two cents.
“Sixty-four percent of the population is bald you are too tall to tuck your body you should have worn sneakers for that not those sandals is it time for lunch yet.”
This was approximately eleven minutes into the ride. By twelve minutes, the chatter disintegrated into a discussion about whether or not it’s legal to drive without any clothes on. The general consensus from the back two rows of the minivan is that men can drive a car without clothes, but women can’t because their “tops” will show.
Fast forward forty-six minutes into the ride; eight-year old Charlie unbuckled his seat back and came flying up from the third row of the van like a bat out of hell, screaming and covering his ears.
Rose burst into tears and Jack started to flap his hands and chant you are going to die sit down die die die sit down. Joe and I started shrieking at Charlie to calm down, we couldn’t pull over, he needed to sit now.
And what was all the fuss about, you wonder? Why did this child have an all-out panic attack on the drive to a water park on a beautiful summer afternoon?
He thought he saw a dark cloud and it might rain.
Two hours later we trundled into the water park. Five kids exploded from the car, the chaos of imaginary thunderclouds forgotten for the time being. But Charlie was still watchful, tipping his head up to check on the clouds every so often.
We set up a central location by the wave pool and organized towels and life vests and trips to the bathroom, and while Joe ferried the three older boys back and forth between the water slides, I sat and watched my two youngest—Rose and Henry—float around in the wave pool. I was still feeling unnerved by the scene in the car.
Every week I sit at my desk and aim to tell you our story as honestly—as authentically—as possible, and the truth is my third son is stricken with anxiety. He has been for almost a year now.
Sometimes I think Jack’s autism is like a jar full of colorful jellybeans, brimming with colorful pieces of rigidity and anxiety and delayed cognitive functioning.
Charlie, it seems, has stolen a piece of candy out of autism’s jar for himself. Without even asking first, he went right ahead and borrowed his older brother’s anxiety. He worries ceaselessly about the weather and car accidents and Big Foot and spiders in his bed. He has trouble making decisions and staying asleep at night.
It is equal parts frustrating and heartbreaking, terrifying and—dare I say it?—annoying.
The truth is, between my two boys, it feels as though I am battling this snake of anxiety armed with little more than, say, silly string and cheese whiz, when what I really need is a snake charmer; someone who knows the intricate steps to the serpent’s wily dance.
Every single morning before I get out of bed I promise myself I will be better. Every single morning.
I promise myself I will not fall prey to the trap of what is the weather will it rain I am afraid of thunder.
I will not snap and yell stop it stop it stop it you are safe stop worrying all the time don’t you even trust me.
I will be a better mother, a better listener, a better source of comfort when the imaginary rain clouds appear on Charlie’s horizon.
And the truth is, every day I fail.
I fail to be patient.
I fail to grasp the realness of my dark-haired boy’s worry.
I fail to be better.
The truth is, I don’t know what I am doing. I am confused and scared and nervous. At times I cannot believe we’ve been struck twice–not with autism, but with the spectrum’s sneaky sidekick.
And [insert whiny voice here] anxiety is just so hard. It is hard to watch and not help and hard to understand and hard to live with. The way I see it, Jack’s giving us a good enough run with it, and I didn’t really need a second time to practice.
The water park just opened a new slide, and my water-slide-riding people explained that you stand with your arms crossed on a platform, and whoosh! The platform disappears from under your feet, and you slide down.
Yeah, no thank you. I don’t even suffer from anxiety and it made me nervous.
Joe took Joey and Jack up to try it, and after waiting on line and standing on the platform, Jack chickened out and walked back down the long staircase.
An hour later he asked Joe to bring him again, and for the second time Jack came back down the steps. But when he reached the bottom he clenched his fists at his sides and said, “I have to do it NOW. By myself.”
“Are you sure, Jack? It’s really no big deal,” Joe told him.
“Yes. Now. I have to go back. Myself.”
So we all stood at the bottom of the slide and watched Jack make his way up the flight of metal stairs one more time. After a few minutes I glanced nervously at Joe. “Where is he?”
“He’ll do it, he’ll come down,” Joe reassured me, shading his eyes with his hands and squinting up the long slide.
And after another long minute, I saw a familiar red and blue striped bathing suit come tumbling down the chute.
“Jack! You did it!”
I took a step back as three boys and one girl clustered around their special brother, patting him on the shoulder and clapping their hands. I noticed Rose’s wet hair curling on her cheek, Joey’s proud smile.
I noticed for the first time all day, Charlie wasn’t scanning the blue sky for clouds. He was looking at his brother.
And I overheard heard him ask, “How did you decide to do the slide?”
Jack answered in his monotone, “I don’t know. I tolded myself I could.”
Here is a boy who does not have the language for things like determination or courage, anxiety or frustration. He does not know the meaning of tenacity or perseverance or resolve. After three tries, he simply closed his eyes, felt the floor go out from underneath him, and slid feet first into a pool of water.
This boy, he gives me so much hope; for me, for himself, for dark-haired Charlie.
Hope that even if I never master the snake’s clandestine dance, I can still feel the rhythm and find the beat. I might even pick up a step or two and try to follow along.
All this time I’ve been filling my head with white noise, filling it with vows to be better and do better and think better and better better better.
Little did I know, better is right in front of me. It’s been here all this time.