With autism in my life, I have had a lot of chances to grieve for things I thought should be mine, and his—a driver’s license, a job beyond counting widgets and sorting recycling, maybe a degree.
I am not saying this so you will feel sorry for me, I promise.
I am saying it because I see and hear each and every one of you, as we mourn the things lost to us at this time—graduation, and prom, and, and the chance to throw a birthday party for our kids.
I know that deep ache. I know what it’s like to wish things were different—as though some force beyond your control messed up your plans and stole your thunder, when all you want is to buy some balloons at the party store and order a cake.
At the same time, how can we possibly be so selfish and wish for something as silly and shallow as a cake? People are dying. The economy could collapse. Many people are risking their very lives to keep us safe.
Yet, we do. And this is okay—more than okay. It is normal.
We don’t choose our feelings, you see. They appear to us dark-night-angry or happy-orange-joy, and every single hue down the middle.
Like arrows shot from a pink-cheeked cherub, feelings are unpredictable. We don’t control them. We only control how we respond.
In between the cherub and our response, there is space and time to decide. In our autism house, we call this our choice bubble.
You have to fill your choice bubble with good ideas so when the darkness shows up instead of the happiness, you are ready. You are prepared.
The thing about grief is, it can be sly. It can ooze out of the cracks in our goodness and make a slow spread. Gently, it takes our hands and points to the people around us.
Because among other things, grief’s favorite armor is blame and anger.
I know this because I have done it.
I mean, of course Jack bit that little girl in preschool. The teacher wasn’t watching. And the girl was dressed in a red dress, like a strawberry. She looked, well, tasty.
It didn’t matter that Jack had never eaten a strawberry in his life, or that he covered his eyes when he saw them in the grocery store.
It doesn’t work, though.
Righteousness and blame do nothing to dull the ache.
I had to change the way I felt my feelings and really listen to people and not make it all about me, or my grief.
The thing is, autism is a listener’s language. You have to bend close, and hear all he isn’t saying with his words, but what he’s telling you with his heart.
I did not know this for many years. For longer than I care say, I waited for my son to tell me he wanted a cup of juice, or explain how birds scare him.
Over time, I realized I needed to learn a new way to listen.
When I did this, it was like meeting him for the first time. It was quite beautiful, the way a clear blue sky with fluffy white clouds is beautiful.
As an experiment, I started to listen to everyone the way I listened to my special son. Over time, my horizon grew wide, and big.
Change is hard work, I am sorry to say. It isn’t easy to peel off the armor and show our undressed selves. This makes me very, very bitter because, like most things in my life, I want a shortcut.
Change takes many minutes of stillness and reflection, and perhaps the very worst of all: self-awareness.
I mean, nothing is worse than the pompous, arrogant, sneer-off-the-tongue idea of self- awareness. Yet here we are. It is the only way.
Also, breathing. Lots and lots of breathing, the kind where, as a kid, you held a silky dandelion between your fingers, and blew the seeds all over the lawn.
Next time the cherub sends you a big feeling, don’t try to ignore it or bury it.
Look at it.
Put it down, and walk away.
Then clean something, plant something, pick something, mix something, paint something, write something, read something, cook something.
Remember the dandelion, and breathe.
Once you have plunged your hands into some soil or read the next chapter in a book, come back and pick your feeling right back up where you left it.
Hold it up to the light. Examine it from every angle. Smudge it with your grassy fingers.
Now comes the very hardest part. You have to look at your big feeling and see if your ego is trying to run the show.
You know, your ego—the thing that puts you at the center of the universe and makes everything about your very own self.
If it is, then you need start untangling the two. This is a lot like separating the lights before you decorate the Christmas tree. It’s messy. It’s frustrating. There are many, many tangles. But when you are done, you will see more clearly because of the brightness.
This a lot, I know.
But it is worth it.
Through the very hard, stupid work of breathing and listening and untangling, we become better people. Then our children become better people, and at the end of the long process, the world is maybe a little better too.
Let us unite in our gentleness and unease and grace and forgiveness.
Let us begin this journey of armor-removing and bubble-building as a thousand perfect strangers. Who knows, when we’re finished, perhaps we’ll be something closer to friends.
Because at the end of the day, I find when I give those around me the chance to show up as their best selves, I am rarely disappointed.
All we have is each other.