23 June, 2011

Love and a Dustpan

I haven't swept the floor all week. Not once. It is unimaginable that my kitchen floor could go six hours without needing to be swept, and it has been nearly five days. I am giddy that my feet are free of crumbs, pebbles and warm black dirt from our backyard. 

Sweeping is one of those things that I do not put into the category of "things that make our family different from other families." "Carries wheelchair in vehicle at all times" and "must have a straw or sippy cup available for my 10 year old" are in that category, but sweeping? How many times each day does a family with a ten year old boy sweep the kitchen floor? At our house the number is nearly uncountable.

Jake has been at camp this week. He's likely living it up right now at a dance or talent show, followed by some happy snuggling into his bunk. He's spent days surrounded by singing and crafts and pool noodles and fun. When he comes home, he'll grubby and covered in sunscreen and his laundry will need to go through both pre-wash and second rinse. And by this time tomorrow, these bare tiles will only be a memory.

Because Jake spills cereal, fruit and crackers. He drops his sippy-cup onto the floor creating little speckles of milk that spray across the hardwood, inviting dirt he has tracked in, to cling and accumulate. He takes at least a pinch of soil out of the kitchen garden planter on the porch, and brings it inside with him every time he enters the back door, and he dribbles pebbles and tan bark from his hands, his shoes and his pockets. He has fine layers of grit on him because he sifts rocks from dirt with the patience and endurance of an archaeologist on the verge of a great find. He gets dirty every day.

So as much as I love the feel of treading across cool ceramic tile, it also reminds me that Jake isn't home. And as much as I know he loves camp, I will be thrilled to kiss the top of his little puppy-in-the-rain smelling head. 

And while the reprieve from sweeping has been lovely, it will be wonderful to have myBoy and his sand-filled shoes home.

15 June, 2011

Not Running Away, Just Running

My back hurts. A lot. And my makeup is smeared and my ankle hurts, and my wrist is a little twisted. I am sort of a wreck, but I would chop off a toe with a dull blade if that was also necessary to keep my son safe; a little injury is worth it.. it's always worth it. I will feel better in a few hours, after the adrenaline surge dies down and the kink in my back is ironed out with an anti-inflammatory.

Jake ran away from me in a busy parking lot 20 minutes ago and despite that diagnosis of cerebral palsy ataxia, he moved so quickly that the only way to get him back was to leap and tackle him.. on the asphalt, in the middle of a moving car line at the pick-up where his sister had camp today.

I got a hold of him, straightened myself up and walked on the  campus, my hand firmly around his forearm, no longer bothering with his hand at all. A very kind counselor who could not possibly have been more that 18 noticed me, and must have known that something was up by my demeanor. When she asked if I had a question, I broke into tears and said "My son just escaped my grasp in the parking lot and got away from me. He's fine, but I need to get it together before my daughter sees me." She graciously said, "Why don't I go get her for you and you can take a minute."

Jake and I sat there on the edge of the little playground, me firmly holding a twisted knot of the back of his shirt, his hands sifting through the tan bark. I wiped my tears, assessed my physical damage, pledged not to be angry with my son, and took a deep breath.

Lucy bounded out with the sweet counselor who brushed away any of my apologies as completely unnecessary, and as we left, Lucy said, "Mom, I want to play on the play structure." and headed two feet away from me. I reminded her that she was headed to a birthday party and she happily came next to me and we all got into the car.

Then I had this flash, not of how frustrated I am, or irritated, or disappointed that such a simple errand could not be completed without major incident.. but a flash of how my son must be having all of those feelings and more. When he "ran away," he probably just wanted to play in the tanbark at the edge of the parking lot. Sitting right near our car was a little slice of what my son must think is paradise. That big fresh pile of tanbark just waiting to be spread abut the flower beds at this beautiful elementary school campus, siren calling him, and he probably just wanted to put his little man-hands through every piece of it.

He wasn't necessarily running away, he could have just been running. And how could I possibly know  the difference?

Can you imagine having all of the desire to do something as simple as putting your hands in tan bark, and being unable to do it because you just couldn't tell anyone that's what you wanted to do? Lucy asked to play on the play structure, turned away from me, and I certainly didn't lunge after her.

But, of course, she came back to me. And I know that she would do the same thing in a parking lot, or an airport, or Disneyland. She comes back to me, and before she leaves, she looks both ways to make sure she will be safe. I can count on that. I taught her, and now she knows it, and that's the end of that, and anything other than that is her being naughty, but even at her naughtiest she is always safe.

I remember having a discussion with one of Jake's teachers when he was at his previous school where they had proudly put "I want to go to the bathroom." push-talkers near the door frames of both exits of the classroom, so the children could press the button on their way out the door. I thought it was a great idea, except for the part where Jake is not allowed to get up out of his seat during work time. How could he ever communicate a desire to go to the bathroom if the icon is across the room? How humiliating, how degrading.

Does he live his life with the hope that I will be there to intuit his needs? That his next caretaker during the day will be able to understand his subtle facial expressions and vocalizations. Here I was, so worried about Jake being injured this afternoon, but I'm not sure that it isn't perhaps more painful for him living every day, just hoping the people around him will take a moment longer try to understand what he wants, where he wants to be.

I am crushed to think of how many times I have been impatient with him, wishing he would just do one single thing I asked him to do, when he is probably wondering if today will be the one day that he gets to choose to play on the play structure, linger. But I can't let go of his arm; I just don't know that what we have tried to teach has stuck in there.

And how will my son ever prove to me that he will come back if I can never trust him enough to let him leave?

This post was an editor's pick today at OpenSalon.com

01 June, 2011

He Handed Me a Tomato.

I struggled to make the story more compelling to the parent of one of my daughter’s friends. He’s a kind man with two typical children, who asked me about Jake without any pity in his voice. (I hear that voice quite often, and it’s something I have come to understand, but still find hard to get over.) His was more of a genuine query about a child who isn’t often the “plus-one sibling” at the 5 year old birthday jumpy house affairs.

“I handed him a piece of tomato, and asked him not to drop it on the ground. I told him that if he did not want the tomato he could just hand it back to me.” I continued, feeling again that warm sensation of pride in my son, “He stopped, pivoted slightly and handed me the tomato, crossing mid-line, uh, going across his body, to give it back to me." The man smiled, and nodded his head, and looked like he really wanted to understand the significance of what I was saying.

And of course he couldn’t really understand why I stood there in the kitchen with a tomato in my hand, and tears in my eyes. Such a simple task, I’m surprised he had the patience for me to finish telling the story at all. But I know the importance, because for what I think is the first time in my son’s 10.5 year-old life, he followed a direction, in the moment, and made a physical connection with me, purposefully, and he had nothing to gain from his actions. We’ve come close, with a sippy-cup dropped into my hand, or rolled down the counter near me when he wanted more to drink, but this time he really put something into my palm, and he had to make a choice to do it… I wasn’t on the way, and there was no reward, no benefit at all. That unwanted tomato could just as easily have been dropped to the ground. He was even headed towards the back door to play outside, a preferred activity for just about any child, but he stopped and gave me back the piece of tomato, calmly and politely.

It is amazing how much joy we have watching him continue to learn and make progress in these seemingly benign ways; these subtle acts that he keeps adding to his repertoire. It leads us to believe that he is processing information in new ways, able to parse the language and make all the “holes line up.” And if he can hear and process and act on what he sees or hears, that means there is more possibility for him to be able to communicate his needs to us. And better communication means a more connected boy, and a life with less challenges. Like most parents, watching our children succeed is a fantastic double whammy; we get to see our children be happy, and we get to know that the hard work of raising children is paying off.

What I didn’t tell the daddy in the park were the next things that went through my mind. Because even as I stood there in the kitchen, the glow of pure joy, excitement and pride washing over me, pressing me to call every grandparent, those next thoughts went something like, “Oh my God, we are totally screwed.” After I exhaled the joy, I was filled with a paralyzing fear that we are never going to catch up, and there is so much more work to do. He handed me a stupid tomato, it’s not like he got the top score in his math class, or figured out a better way to extract rare earth elements. Jake’s home-aide squeezed me and let me know how cool it was to witness the new skill, and all I could wonder is if he would ever have enough self-help skills to be anything close to independent. Is he destined to rely on other people for every part of his life? I mourned that we have missed the window of opportunity. The plasticity disappearing in his brain, those neural pathways becoming fixed, fearing that moments like these will be farther and farther apart, and there are so many things he still cannot do. As a ten-year old boy I should not be cheering on the simple act of handing me a tomato. He should be skateboarding, and climbing trees in his friend’s back yard. He should be testing the boundaries, and reading Harry Potter or breaking his right arm as he barrel-asses down the slopes on his new snowboard. He should be playing too much Wii, and reading after I’ve told him to go to sleep. He should be asking for a raise in his allowance, and trying to convince his grandparents that the iPad2 is a perfect gift to give a graduating fifth grader.He should be doing so many more things at this age, and there I am pathetically sniffling over a piece of juicy red tomato.

Which leads naturally to the third emotions that rang clearly through my brain. First, pride and joy, then fear and sadness, and finally, guilt and shame. I immediately chided myself for comparing my son to some sort of norm; he is incomparable in most respects, to most other children in both deficit and strength. He shouldn’t be doing anything more or less than what he’s doing, and the fact that I let all of those things run through my head meant that I was not present for the child that was standing in my kitchen. My son is not any other child than the one before me, and how he learns and grows and interacts with the world is going to be different than every other child on the planet, autism or not. It’s shameful to dwell on what I thought parenting would be like, what my home would look like, how my children would act, and what they would do to pass the time, and I thought we had long since stopped comparing him to other children his age; it doesn’t do anyone any good to compare. I do not to indulge in the rat hole of "why me?" and try not to get side-tracked by the accompanying envy of lives that look easier, simpler, or more carefree. When we keep longing for a life that didn’t happen, or that won’t happen, we lose all those moments of the life we actually have. And I have a great life.

I tried my best to move my mind back to joy as Jake ran out the back door and I put the tomato in a shallow bowl for him.

While I sometimes can’t help noting the typical-kid milestones we miss, I am, for the most part, less troubled than I used to be. These days I am more focused on how I can help Jake become the happiest, healthiest child he can be, in the most supportive environment. How can we engage him in the activities we have determined make up the core of our family's value system? How can we make him feel safe and heard when he doesn't have a "voice" as others have. And I’m trying to strike the balance between having expectations for my son, and being unrealistic.

So maybe it’s not an amazing story for anyone else, but I know this is part of the joy in my life; I get to witness these small victories. I get to help Jake learn and watch him gain the kind of skills that most people never even notice. I get to be thankful for things like pincer grasp. And I know I will never take for granted his health, his ability to walk, his sneaky smile, or the one time he handed me a tomato.

This post was an editor's pick today at OpenSalon.com
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