Listen, I get it. He’s twelve. He’s almost as tall as I am and his sneakers are a whole size bigger than the ones I wear. He’s in the seventh grade.
His older-by-one-year brother knows. His younger-by-three-years sister is beginning to connect the dots. Quietly, when no one else is in the room, she asks about wrapping paper and elves that sit on shelves. She questions the logistics of a sleigh traveling millions of miles in a single night.
And when we went to the mall, fifth-grade Charlie smiled gamely and posed next to the white-bearded figure, but when he walked away I saw a little skepticism in his eyes.
Not him. Not my Jack-a-boo.
Please, don’t tell him.
When he was two years old and he barely said any words at all, we had this book called “How do Dinosaurs Clean Their Room?” There are a bunch of them, about dinosaurs going to school and having parties and making friends.
One morning right before Christmas, my husband Joe and I were sitting around the little round table in the kitchen, finishing breakfast. Jack looked over at the big purple book his big brother Joey was holding and said, “dino.” That was it, just dino.
It was enough.
I jumped in my car and drove to the bookstore to find more of those books. For the first time since we signed the paperwork that said “Autism Spectrum Disorder” next to my son’s name, I was happy. I was excited. I was hopeful.
I could just weep now for my dummy 30-something self racing all over town for those books. I could weep thinking about how desperate I was to recapture the glimmer of recognition in my little boy’s downcast eyes.
I went to three stores. And I bought every single one of them I could find. But when I got home, he was lining up his Thomas the Train engines and he didn’t even look at me.
See, I have spent the last twelve years waiting; waiting for him to look at my face and to say a word I could understand and then to string those words together into a sentence and to tell me he wants more juice instead of screaming and banging his fists on the floor.
Now, I wait for him to laugh. He doesn’t laugh a lot, maybe once every four or five days.
I wait for him to tell me why, for the love of all things holy, why the radio station in the car has to stay on 94.1 all the time.
I wait for the day I can breathe again because I know he’s going to be all right.
Twelve is pretty old to still believe, I know. You see, trapped inside this burgeoning middle-school body is the spirit of a much littler boy. He is naïve. He is young.
It’s easy to think he’s older, because he’s tall. And his silver-framed glasses lend him an air of maturity, like a snappy professor with a crew cut. Plus he looks so serious all the time, so somber and thoughtful, not like a kid but like a grown-up adult trying to figure out how to pay the light bill.
This year for Christmas he wants a new muffin tin, and a selfie stick, and the diamond edition of Disney’s Cinderella but only on Blu-Ray.
This last one gets me. Not because we don’t have a Blu-Ray player—which we don’t—or because I’m concerned he’s too into princesses. It’s because I watched him earnestly write it down in his letter and underline it with a red pen. Then he signed it “Love, Jack,” and sealed it into an envelope for me to mail.
Still, I don’t want to tell him.
It’s tempting, I know. It’s oh-so tempting to pull him aside and bend down close to his ear and say listen, buddy, it’s not what you think.
Here’s the thing. This boy of mine, he mostly sees the world in black and white. But this time of year, he finds vibrant splashes of color within a fantasy of velvety brown antlers, a soft white beard, and a plush red hat.
For him, this is color in the magic, some enchantment in the painted landscape of Christmas. He is delighted by it all—the cookies shaped like candy canes and the lights on the tree and the stockings. Who am I to take that from him?
I don’t know how to explain this other than to say he isn’t exactly the happiest person I’ve ever met. He is not very joyful. He’s more of a glass-half-empty kind of guy, if you know what I mean. So when I notice something that puts a jaunty little skip in his step, well, I grasp it with both hands and hold on to it tightly.
Life isn’t really easy for this tall boy of mine. Like a tender, bruised apple, he bumps along his unusual road, and every minute of every day he knows he is different and not like all the other apples, but he has no clue to make himself the coveted same.
I know that one day, he will figure it out. He’ll watch something on YouTube or he’ll overhear a joke and he’ll know that all this time, it wasn’t real.
He has very good hearing, my Jack-a-boo.
Maybe his heart will shatter. I don’t know. Maybe he’ll cry, and say it isn’t fair, and be very angry at me for letting him believe for so long. Hopefully, he will be able to see it for what it is; a small, colorful mercy.
For now, please don’t tell him. Let him have this.
Let me have this. Let me have the thing I have always wanted when it comes to my son and his autism. Let me suspend time, and stop the always-ticking clock so I can celebrate just one single moment without thinking about his handwriting or his eye contact or whether or not he’ll ever have his own apartment.
So if you see a tall boy wearing a grey and blue jacket in the grocery store piling pounds and pounds of butter into the cart and talking about making red and white cookies for a man who rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, I hope you’ll smile kindly, or even wave. Perhaps you’ll say a quick hello.
But please, don’t tell.
Let him keep the magic for as long as he needs it. For now it is his, to gently hold in the palm of his hand like a dazzling, splendid snowflake. All snowflakes eventually melt—some just take a little longer than others.
We still have all of those books about the dinosaurs. Every time I see them upstairs on the shelf in the playroom, I feel a combination of happy-excited-hopeful again.
When he laughs it sound like bells ringing across the cold night sky.