Next week is your birthday. You are turning thirteen.
Whenever I think about your birthday, my stomach kind of drops like I’ve been riding on a really big roller coaster.
Don’t get me wrong. I love you. I love the day you were born. I am so glad you are my son. It’s just that sometimes your birthday makes me feel a little bad.
In the beginning I think it was because every candle on your cake was a bright, sparkly reminder of the things you didn’t do yet but maybe you should do, like point your finger or say words or play with other kids or sleep past 5:00 or figure out how many apples Anne has if she grew four of them but gave one away.
Whenever I flip back through old pictures or baby books, I don’t really think about how cute or chubby or sweet you were, the way I do with brothers and your sister. Instead, a little voice in my head whispers to me and it won’t be quiet no matter how many times I tell it I’m not listening.
Here’s Jack at a year old, he barely looked at us when we sang to him.
I think he’s six in this picture, that was when he asked for toilet bowl cleaner for Christmas.
Here he is the year he stopped sleeping and he rubbed soap all over the walls.
You’re going to be thirteen. I can’t believe it. You are doing well.
You’re cooking a lot, and you can finally pay attention long enough to read the recipe, measure out the ingredients, and get whatever it is you’re making into the oven.
Every Saturday morning, you gather up all the towels in the house and put them in the washer. After an hour, you switch them into the dryer.
And the other day, out of nowhere, you told a joke during dinner.
I can’t exactly say you’ve exceeded my wildest dreams, but then again, my dreams were pretty wild when it came to you and your autism.
I dreamed it was finite; that there was an ending to the diagnosis, like the period you put at the end sentence, or maybe even an exclamation point.
Oh, yes he had autism for a while but not anymore! He’s all done with that!
I dreamed I could cure you, all by my lonesome self.
I dreamed if I just told you enough social stories about how we whisper when we go to the library and made appointments for speech therapy and found the perfect combination of medicine to help you get through the day without flushing the toilet nine thousand two-hundred times, then your autism would vanish like a ghost in the night.
It didn’t vanish.
It is still here.
It lives and breathes within you and sometimes, if I listen hard enough, I swear I can hear it laughing.
My stomach still drops when I think about your birthday, but now it’s mostly because of the party.
You know, the big party you plan for yourself every year? You write out a menu, and print recipes, and make a list of kids to invite. You plan games, and movies, and the exact perfect right time to start the grill and cook the burgers and have everyone sit down to eat. You even ask people to list their allergies when they RSVP.
This party is perhaps the most stressful, painful, heartbreaking time of the year for me.
It’s not because kids refuse to come or they are mean to you when they get here or they ignore you or giggle behind your back. No, in fact every year a perfectly pleasant group of boys and girls show up with gift cards and presents and smiles.
It’s that you can’t handle it. After thirteen years and a diagnosis and anxiety and pills every single day, you still cannot handle having too many people around or when there’s a lot of talking or if your rigid, self-imposed schedule gets disrupted
My heart aches when I see you start setting up about three hours before it starts, like the way you bring out plates, and organize the silverware, and you take out all the little glass bowls and you carefully squirts ketchup in one and mustard in another and fill the biggest one with dill pickles.
My stomach turns over on itself when, like a little old woman, you fuss with the throw pillows on the couch until they are just right, and you arrange the plates a bunch of times and remind all of us what time people will arrive.
It is for. At six o’clock!
When the doorbell starts to ring and parents drop the kids off, you’re okay for a little while, until things get slightly off—maybe someone needed to use the bathroom and you couldn’t start the movie on time or they wanted to play outside instead of with the matchbox cars you lined up in a careful row. You begin to unravel. Like a storm brewing on the horizon, I can sense your impending distress from a room away.
Now! The movie is to start. Now.
I always try to catch you before the storm descends. This is because I want to save you from being embarrassed, but I never seem to get there soon enough.
After a few minutes, you stomp up to our room after shrieking some awful swear word and all the kids look at each other nervously and we can’t get you out for the rest of the night.
This happens every single time.
I can handle the unraveling. In fact, that doesn’t bother me one single bit. No, what bothers me is watching you, year after year, try so hard to be a normal regular birthday boy and not be able to do it.
We’ve tried to distract you, and come up with different ideas. Maybe a trip to Boston, or a family dinner at The Melting Pot remember Jack you loved the chocolate fondue and all that cheese and the special bread I bet they’ll sing to you la la la.
You are never fooled.
No. The party. For me. We will need. The pickles.
I hate this day but I love you so much and for me, this is the most confusing thing of all.
Jack, when I think of you and your birthday and your autism, I think of seasons.
You were born on a new spring morning, amidst budding green leaves and fresh, dewy grass.
You were diagnosed with autism in the cold, harsh gray of a late fall.
You learned to walk on wobbly legs underneath a yellow summer sun, and you said your first word as white, frosty snowflakes swirled around the house like a halo.
I think you’re cute.
I think you’re sweet.
You’re not chubby anymore. Now you are tall and skinny and your legs are really, really long.
You are turning thirteen. And this year, we will have another party.
Because last year, after you shrieked the big awful swear word and you stomped up to your room and we couldn’t get you out, you waited. You waited until all the moms and dads came to pick up their kids and then you tiptoed down the stairs and you said something I cannot forget.
I have to try. Again next year.
Happy birthday, my bright sparkly roller coaster Jack-a-boo.