For my children,
Remember the other day when we were driving to the pool, and Jack was playing all of those songs by the Beatles, one right after the other? And when the song Yellow Submarine came on I told you guys how I used to listen to that song when I drove in the car with my father?
Well, at that moment, something sort of big and profound and important and funny occurred to me.
This is your childhood.
I mean, like right now. Right this minute we are making memories and building character and creating tradition and shaping your future.
I know you don’t remember the day we brought you each home from the hospital; boy, boy, boy, girl, boy—five babies in less than six years. Between the diapers and the autism and the no sleeping and the tiny fingers and toes and mittens and spit-up, it was at once the worst of times and the best of times.
You believe things just because I tell you. You believe dinner will be ready in a half an hour and your teeth will fall out if you don’t brush before bed. You believe in God and the magic of Christmas and that smoking cigarettes is terrible for you, all because I say it.
I want you to remember everything you can. I want you remember the bubbles we blew and the arguments we had and lies you got away with and the ones you didn’t, and how there was a stray cat in our yard who we named Mississippi.
I want you to remember picking up dog poop from the grass and the way you argued in the back of the minivan about whether the guy in the band was named Ringo or Dingo.
This is childhood. It is simultaneously unique and ordinary.
I hope you remember that I let you believe things; that I didn’t argue when Charlie said he could walk on the ceiling or Henry thought there were little elves living in Hannaford’s who stay awake and shine all the apples in the middle of the night.
I want you to remember your first sunburn, the first time you felt the icy-cold stab of jealousy, your first kiss.
Your first sleepover, and the year you went trick-or-treating for the last time.
The time they closed McDonald’s Playland because your sister peed in the ball pit, and the time all five of you were carsick on the ride to New Jersey to visit Uncle Frank.
This is childhood.
I want you to remember how some days, autism was a struggle, and that we didn’t always have the answers to the riddles the spectrum disorder perpetually posed.
But autism never stopped us, and we never once let it stop him.
This is childhood. It is full of regrets and mistakes. It is precious and tender. Hold onto to it for as long as you can–hold it close and tight and dear, like a beautiful butterfly with fragile wings and a beating heart.
I hope you remember the nicknames we have for each of you; Jo-Jo, Buca di Peppo, Boochie, Buca.
Charlie-bear. Rose-a-pose. Henry-Benry, Squadoosh.
I hope one day you can understand why I had to put most of your school papers and worksheets and drawings into the recycling bin, because if I didn’t, we would have been buried alive under mountains of notebooks and poems and elephants you drew in art class.
But I saved the most specialist ones; the hearts for Valentines and the self-portraits. I saved the ones that made Daddy and I laugh.
While we are on the subject of school, I have a confession to make. Come closer, so I can tell you. Here, Henry, sit on my lap and the rest of you crowd around.
Okay, here’s the thing. I don’t care about accelerated math or special reading groups or a report card full of check marks next to the box that says exceeding expectations.
I get excited when I glance over the morning and watch Joey butter Henry’s toast, or see Charlie help Rose fix her headband. I get excited when Jack feeds the puppy and tenderly bends over to stroke Wolfie’s soft ears.
And after a particularly bad day, when Jack’s tantrums were loud and long and fierce and I didn’t know how to calm him down, I found a letter on his bed from Rose, reminding him that even in the midst of his wildest temper, he is loved.
Of course, I’m pleased when you bring home a spelling test with all the words spelled right, or when you master your multiplication tables or finish an especially hard book.
But honestly, with a tutor and after-school help and extra books from the library, nearly anyone can master algebra and calculus and science. It is the special person who can master empathy, courage, love, and devotion.
This is the ultimate gift of an unusual brother, and the gift of autism in our lives. Slowly, the way trees shed their colorful foliage after a long, cool autumn, I have let go of life’s traditional expectations. Now I know that the brilliant leaves were just whimsy and decoration; the tree’s real beauty comes from it’s strong, resilient branches.
Thank you, Jack. You have exceeded all of our expectations.
I want you to remember that yes, we fought. Sometimes, as a family, we shouted and stomped and slammed. But we always, always figured out a way to make up and move forward.
This is childhood. It is finding the right balm to soothe the rawest wounds.
I know, I have a lot of silly little phrases, like the way I exclaim, “It as hot as a tamale!” when we step outside on a humid summer day. Or, “Buckle up, buttercup,” to remind you to fasten your seatbelt.
Now, the five of you roll your collective eyes and giggle, but one day you may find yourself repeating these very words to your own first-grader, third-grader, tween.
That’s how childhood works. You spend years absorbing and listening and rejecting, only to eventually return.
I would give almost anything to do it all over with each of you; to visit again your former selves and sing the lullabies and read Goodnight Moon. I long to hold your tiny toes and hear your tiny sighs.
Yet, I love who you are right at this moment, my 12-year old and 11-year old and 9-year old and almost 8-year old and 6-year old. I love everything about the part of life you inhabit. If I could, I would freeze you here forever.
I still have so much I want to tell you that I hope you’ll believe; that God is real and drugs are bad and sex should be special.
I want to tell you to never, ever try heroin, and to call us no matter where you are or what time it is or if you’ve been drinking. We will always pick you up.
Try to remember to make your bed in the morning, because at the end of a long day, it always feels really nice to get into a bed with sheets that have been pulled tight.
Don’t honk your horn from the driveway or the curb. Get out of the car and ring the bell.
Please know that all the times you begged me for help and I made you do it yourself was because I knew you could. I knew you could open the yogurt and set up the soccer net and wash the paintbrushes. I knew you were strong and smart.
A lot of people think childhood ends when you graduate high school or you head off to college. Others think it’s when you get married, or have your first baby, or start working full-time so you can save for retirement.
I used to think all of those things, too, but now I know. It never really ends.
Because of you, my boy-boy-boy-girl-boy, my childhood is alive, like a perpetually blooming flower beneath a never-setting sun. I can taste it and hear it and smell it and remember it.
You can’t possibly know this yet, but motherhood and childhood are like mirror images. They are at times tedious and confusing and frustrating, and yet they are colorful and special and beautiful. They are both fleeting.
One day, you will find yourself on the other side of the glass, looking at your own boys and girls. And when you do, I hope you think of bright red peppers on a hot summer day, or a soft yellow flower as you reach for your seatbelt.
I hope you can still sing all the lyrics to Yellow Submarine at the top of your voice, and smile when you realize that his name really was Ringo.