Three of my boys are in some version of middle school.
And three of my boys are in some version of puberty.
With a family of five kids and two adults, this means 42.8571429% of my household is beginning the long, jagged descent through adolescence. One of them—my 12-year old son, Jack—has autism, so as you can imagine, it is all sorts of fun.
They eat constantly. They will reach for anything that isn’t nailed down, including—but not limited to—day-old pancakes, the rinds of a lemon, chicken wings that haven’t been cooked, and leftovers from my favorite restaurant.
They slam things; the car door, the refrigerator, their dresser drawers. And when they aren’t slamming things shut, they leave everything open. There are milk containers on the counter, clothes spilling out onto the floor from the hamper, gaping backpacks with books sliding through the zipper they couldn’t be bothered to zip closed.
Oh, and all of a sudden, I’m disgusting. If they by chance barge into my room while I am in the middle of changing—because yes, they barge their way into every room and every conversation and every meal—they cover their eyes and shudder. Gross, they murmur.
This, coming from people who think Axe body spray camouflages two days of missed showers.
When they do manage to stumble into the shower, well, we had a drought over the summer and let me just say I know exactly where all of the water in the state of New Hampshire went.
Then there’s the tripping and falling all over the place, as if overnight, their feet and hands have been replaced by huge puppy paws and they have to relearn how to walk down stairs all over again. Honestly, it’s all they can do to stand upright sometimes, and it sounds like a herd of elephants when they come down the stairs in the morning.
They forget everything. Nothing stays in their distracted pubescent brains long enough to accomplish a task like walking the dog, or replacing the toilet paper, or remembering to put their cereal bowl into the sink.
And the questions! Lord-y, I never once in my whole entire life would have considered asking an adult the kinds of questions my kids ask me. I just hunkered down on the couch with my friend who was lucky enough to have HBO and parents who didn’t care a whole lot about supervision and watched Risky Business and Revenge of the Nerds.
In our house, dinner conversation may or may not start with a discussion of what a doctor does with the placenta once a woman has a baby, or what it means to be pansexual, or who likes a certain girl on the bus.
My husband Joe might not survive this puberty thing, seriously. Every time one of them starts a question with, “I was wondering…” he gets up and leaves the room. Fast.
Who are these people? I ask myself almost daily. I turn my head to look over my shoulder while I’m cooking dinner, and I come face-to-face with my oldest son, Joey, his lovely green eyes level with mine.
Splayed out in the kitchen, Jack’s bright blue sneakers are bigger than the ones I wear to the gym, and Charlie seems to eat his body weight in dinner every night.
I miss my swaddled babies, my stiff-legged toddlers, my uncertain preschoolers.
I miss the doorknob wave—you know, the way they wave with the palm of their hand open and it looks like they’re trying to open a door.
I miss overalls, and patty-cake, and plastic ducklings in the bathtub.
I miss my little boys.
These new people, well, they are moody and complicated and gangly. They make noise constantly and they fill up every room of the house and they never stop moving.
They are cleaving from me, one by one.
Remember when you were little? I ask them. You used to love to ride in the front of the cart at the grocery store.
They look at me like I’m crazy, because they have no memory of such a short time ago. The live only in the here and now, fully immersed in their present state of becoming someone else entirely.
Jack remembers, of course, but he recalls it differently than I want to—he remembers dates and times and places and things.
I had. For a hotdog. On July 4th, 2012.
But I don’t want to remember my life with my children in the context of practical details. I want to remember the sweet warmth of their cheeks when I picked them up out of their cribs, their cold fingers when I helped them out of wet mittens, and the way I could easily swoop them into my arms when they ran toward me on the driveway.
I want to feel them, and hold them, and smell them again—even if for just a moment.
It is my opinion that the phenomenon knows as Middle School Teachers deserves a ten million three hundred thousand dollar raise every year.
And if Middle School Teachers deserve all the money in the world, then Middle School Teachers Who Have Kids Diagnosed With Autism Spectrum Disorder in their class are shooting straight up to heaven. Let me tell you, they have reserved seating and I don’t begrudge them one single bit.
I mean, really. Jack. If you’ve ever wondered exactly what goes in onside of a 12-year old boy’s brain, just ask him. Or, better yet, check out the profile picture he tried to use for his school’s Google account:
Puberty is a cruel, cruel force of a nature for this boy.
He still holds my hand to cross the parking lot.
Every day after school he comes home and organizes and re-organizes all of his Disney movies into an order only he can understand.
He mixes up his words a lot and he hates to touch people and he is terrified of any changes to his body.
Yet he talks about sex, constantly. He asks about it and wonders about it and I can only guess how much he thinks about it. Against my better judgment, I explained the mechanics of it all to him about two months ago. We were alone on a long car ride, and he basically held me hostage the entire time.
“How. Does it for work.”
“How does what work? Wow! Is that a bear crossing the road?”
“The sex. For making the baby.”
“What baby? Look! A moose!”
“Tell me. For when I am. A dad.”
So, I told him. He absorbed it all quietly, seriously. Then he reached for the radio as soon as I was done. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “If I will ever be. For a dad.”
Puberty is cruel, not just for a 12-year old with autism, but for a mother’s constantly changing heart.
I miss them, those little boys of mine. These new people, though, are interesting and kind and funny and smart.
And I cannot wait to meet the men they become.