We have exactly eight days left to sixth grade, including today. We are in the home stretch, the final mile, the last bite of the big enchilada.
I have to tell you, this year felt long and short all at the same time.
Long, because you feel apart midway through. You fell apart big.
Short, because it’s almost over and then you switch schools for seventh grade. In our town, we call this going up the hill, because your next school is attached to the high school, which sits on top of a hill.
I kind of want to forget all about this year, the way you forget the pain of childbirth or a bad dream in the morning.
I want to forget all the times I had to pick you up because you were screaming and jumping too much to ride the bus.
I want to forget you hit a teacher.
I want to forget you bit your aide.
I want to forget I had to sign a piece of paper from the superintendent’s office with words like incident and aggression and containment typed out in black and white letters.
I want to forget all the mistakes I made.
I need summer.
Daddy and I sat in a meeting a few months ago and a very kind man on the opposite side of the table gently asked us, “How do you see Jack finishing out high school?”
And me and your father, well, we just looked at each other and back at the man and down at our shoes and up at the ceiling.
Then this man said a lot of words like traditional academic curriculum and practical life skills and until he’s twenty-one.
When he mentioned that last part, the part about you maybe staying in high school until you are twenty-one, I thought about how Charlie would cross the stage in a cap and gown with a diploma in his hand before you did and we would have a big party back at the house like a barbecue and you would linger, awkward and uncertain, while friends and family congratulated your younger brother on his graduation and clapped him on the back and slipped him slim white envelopes.
All your life, I’ve watched your two younger brothers and one sister pass you by; sprinting around life’s track while you seem to stand still. Celebrating their progress while at the same time noticing your stillness, well, it never fails to make my heart squeeze.
See, Jack, within a family there is an order. There is a sequence. It is not meant to be a disorganized game of leap-frog, where younger children outpace their older, taller, blue-eyed brother when it comes to things like communication and social skills and high school.
Some days, I don’t know how we got here—how I wound up a big round table with a lot of nice people, tossing around your future like the two sides of a copper penny.
I mean, obviously I do know how I got here. I got here by way of wonky genetics and a bunch of appointments with specialists and eventually, a diagnosis on a form.
Then I stumbled through the years telling millions of social stories and asking you to look in my eyes and quiet your body and hold my hand and pack your snack and take your medicine.
Yet here I am, standing at the crossroad of a proverbial coin toss, trying to call out heads or tails before the penny drops to the floor.
I am tired.
About a week after our meeting at the big round table, I had a dream about you.
I dreamed you were standing at the counter in a pizza place, trying to buy a pizza. Even though you were the same size as your 12-year old self, with the same haircut and blue-framed glasses, I could tell you were older.
You were trying to count out the change on the counter. It was the kind of counter that has a thick sheet of plexiglass laid over old menus and advertisements. You kept mixing up the quarters and the nickels.
I watched you get frustrated, and angry.
Suddenly you took a credit card out of your pocket and handed it to the girl at the register. She handed you back a slip with a pen but you kept shaking your head. You didn’t know you had to write your signature on the bottom. You walked out with your pizza box clutched between your hands. Your eyes were wild.
As soon as you walked into the parking lot, two big men walked up to you very scary-like and fast. One put his hand on your shoulder while the other one snatched the pizza from your hands and laughed in your face. They turned and walked away.
When they were gone you screamed and cried. You banged your head with your fists.
You were so, so mad and confused. You were hungry. All you wanted was to take your pizza home and put the box on the counter and eat a piece off of a paper plate.
For the whole next day, I carried this dream around with me. It nagged like a toothache, except the ache was in my soul. It was a soul-ache.
Before I dreamed of you, I wanted the easy answer. I wanted you to learn history and algebra and graduate on time and basically follow a very traditional academic trajectory.
The dream made me think differently. It opened up my brain to consider other possibilities–other goals–some simple and concrete, others more abstract.
I want you to know how to make the right change and sign your name and defend yourself in a darkened parking lot.
I want you to have the things that are rightfully yours; whether that is a timely graduation, or a credit card of your own, or a slice of warm pizza on a white paper plate.
I want you to be the best person you can possibly be, and that is going to take a lot of time and energy and strength and willpower.
I want you to know you are worth it.
Right now, though, what I mostly want is summer. I want a sweet release from your tantrums, your tattered blue homework folder, your frustrations on the playground. I long for this new season the way a thirsty person longs for water.
I mean, I know that summer doesn’t mean a vacation from autism, because like a nocturnal animal in the dark of the night, the spectrum never sleeps. It is without season. It knows no clock.
It doesn’t mean the exquisite ache in my soul will ever fully subside, but it will quiet for a time underneath the warm July sun.
And in this quiet, I can turn the imaginary penny over and over in the palm of my hand, and consider the many ways we’ll help you up the hill.