Do you remember a boy named Jack from sixth grade? The boy with autism?
He was tall. He had a crew cut. He wore glasses with blue and green frames.
He had a schedule printed out on his desk, and he left the classroom a lot to take something called sensory breaks where he would skip down the long, empty hallway to calm his body.
He talked a lot about Oreos, and he wore turtlenecks every day in the winter.
I know you remember the way he raged and hit and screamed and cried. You probably remember filing out of the classroom so he could sit on the floor and bang his head against the wall like there was a secret drumbeat in his mind that only he could hear.
I know you remember him because you told me. You told me when we saw one another in the grocery store, and the mall, and once, at the gas station on a very windy afternoon in late September.
I felt so bad for him. I sat next to him and I know he was trying so hard.
I hope he’s okay. Will you tell him I miss him?
I miss him.
I hope you aren’t mad, but I didn’t tell him these things right away. I didn’t relay your good wishes and your kind thoughts and your hopefulness because I was worried it would make it worse for him.
The thing is, he just wanted to belong.
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? As though everyone else in the world is funnier, or faster, or smarter, or friendlier than you are, and like a puzzle piece that is bent at one corner, you just don’t fit?
Jack wanted to belong. To you. With you. But he didn’t.
In the middle of August I told him he wasn’t going back to public school for seventh grade, and well, he almost had a breakdown. It was a very hard time in our house. He cried constantly. His Dad and I were afraid he might hurt himself, so big was the sadness and the madness that filled his heart.
For a time, his three brothers and one sister stepped gingerly around their special brother, as if the floor beneath their feet was made of eggshells.
They felt terrible because he was hurting so much, and confused about why they weren’t all going to the same school at the same time and riding the same bus with the same driver.
All I ever wanted was to treat all five of my kids the same. I worked very hard at this. I sang the same songs to each of them when they were babies and fed them all the same food for dinner and tucked them into bed at the same time. I even bought them the same kind of jackets.
The thing is, he is not the same. He is different. My son is different and maybe I took too long to understand this.
I think that way back in the corner of my mind, I thought if I could just treat him like everyone else then someday he would be like everyone else. I thought that a careful scoop of mashed potatoes on his plate could somehow erase the quirkiness, and the anxiety, and the sharp sting of developmental delays.
But it didn’t. This was my hardest lesson to learn.
It took this long.
Throughout the warm summer and the cool fall, I thought about this. When I ran on the treadmill, I thought about it. When I grilled chicken on the grill and picked up dirty socks from the floor and signed permission slips with my favorite blue pen, I thought about it.
And this is what I have decided: it is time to let my boy be his fiercely wildly beautiful self.
It took me this long to realize the very thing you have known all along.
He is always trying.
He will be okay, Mrs. Cariello. I know it.
He needs to go where he can be himself.
Jack started school on August 31st. That morning, he laid down on the front porch and he cried.
On the second day, he cried while he ate his waffles for breakfast. The tears dripped down his cheeks and onto his shirt like raindrops.
On the third day, he cried in the bathroom. I heard him over the water that was running because he was supposed to be brushing his teeth.
On the fourth day, he asked a question.
What if. I don’t do it right. In this school. Where then. For will I go.
Every day after school, he walked slowly up the long driveway. Then he went upstairs, and he laid down in his bed on top of the quilt with the blue and red stripes. He stared up at the ceiling, very quiet-like.
As the warm, humid summer gave way to a yellow fall, he lay there.
When the leaves began to drift off the trees into crisp, dry piles, he lay there.
The day winter’s first snowflakes dusted the cold ground, he lay there.
Sometimes, I went in and sat down on the floor, next to the bed. I listened to what he said softly to himself.
I am not supposed to be here. At this new place.
This for me. Is wrong.
I am wrong.
He missed you. He missed your games at recess even though he didn’t understand them and he missed the bustle in the cafeteria at lunchtime even though it was too loud and it made him crazy. He missed the person he expected to be. He was, in his own way, grieving.
This boy Jack, he’s still tall and he still talks about Oreos and he still wears glasses, except instead of blue and green frames his new frames are dark grey.
He’s still the same boy with autism. But he cries less and less. He doesn’t get mad as much. Slowly, as the first silvery snowflakes melted back into the cold, hard ground, he begun to let go of the boy he wanted and expected to be and grasp ahold of the boy he is.
It took this long.
Every once in a while, he will say something that is so brilliant and beautiful, it is like a bright, glowing star is shining right above his head and it lights him up from his head to his toes.
I am starting to find. The happiness.
The other day, I told him. I told him everything you asked and said and hoped. He smiled a big smile and his eyes looked the tiniest bit sad but also glad.