Every year I write each of my children a letter on their birthday. It describes the person they are at that particular age; their likes and dislikes, favorite activities, and overall temperament. This letter is to my son Jack, as he turns seventeen.
Today, you are seventeen.
My second child, my Sunday son, my rule-breaker, my game-changer.
A Mother’s Day surprise, arriving along with new green leaves and tender blades of grass.
Born a number, a statistic, a spot on the bell curve.
You don’t like: being late, lasagna, when the dog barks, rainstorms, and yellow shirts.
You love: marshmallows, routine, popcorn, water slides, campfires, cleaning your glasses, and your job.
Your job is an important part of your sense of self. For the first time, you wear a shirt with a logo. You belong to a group. You work with the team toward a common goal—doing your part to wash dishes, crush cardboard, and make fresh pasta.
More and more, I’m noticing this push-pull when it comes to autism. It almost resembles a dance, where we nudge you forward, only to draw you back again.
Connect with other people.
But don’t ask too many questions.
Enjoy the movie/song/show/conversation.
But don’t laugh/dance/sing/talk too much.
Learn to feel empathy.
But don’t ask about the battle scars.
Always tell the truth.
Unless the truth makes people feel uncomfortable. Then tell little lies.
The dance makes me question myself. It makes me stand in the uncomfortable spot of wondering who I am and wo I want be and what all of this means and who cares if you ask the librarian if she’s still married?
Should we step into the familiar pattern of cultural norms and patterned expectations?
Or should we follow your lead, and live a raw, authentic life?
Last week an angry customer came into the restaurant where you work. She yelled at your beloved manager.
As we pieced the story together on the drive home, you told us how you walked over to the counter, and told the angry customer to stop.
Daddy and I, we drew deep breaths. We thought important thoughts. We explained that, yes, it’s nice to stick up for people you care about, but it’s also important to let adults handle complicated situations and not interfere and keep making the pasta even if a customer is yelling.
I watched your face. I could tell you didn’t understand. You were confused.
And my heart squeezed, thinking that even big lovely ideas like courage and loyalty and determination are tempered by the autism dance.
You scowled, and right before you stomped upstairs I heard you mutter it was all stupid.
And you know what, Jack-a-boo? It is confusing. And a little stupid, too. But it is simply the way the world works.
Because of you, our family has pivoted from modern-day expectations, and landed on timeworn traditions.
How to help your neighbor, how to cheer someone up after a bad day, how to give an apology.
How to change a lightbulb, paint a chair, clean a sink.
Because of you and your autism, we are becoming our better selves.
Time and time again, you surprise me.
You surprise me with your tenacity, your determination, your courage.
Like a wave meeting the shore, again and again you return to try.
Many times, I didn’t know how to find my way out—I didn’t know how this would all look in the next ten, twenty, even thirty years.
I still don’t.
That is the beautiful/frustrating thing we call life.
For now, we breathe.
We do the very hard, ordinary work of one foot in front of the other—sliding the paintbrush along smooth wood, rinsing soap down the drain, changing darkness for light.
I do know one thing. You are here on purpose. You are here for a reason.
And I am rooting for you.
Happiest turn around the sun, my son.
Today, and every day, I celebrate you.
For it is wrong. To yell. And make someone feel bad.
I never once saw you in the numbers. I want you to know that.