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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Listen To The Mustn'ts

When my son was four, a little boy down the block invited him to his birthday party. The party was booked at a local sports center owned by another neighbor of ours and the place was state-of-the-art. There were batting cages, pitching machines, a professionally trained staff and all in all, it would have been loads of fun. Well, for most kids, anyway. I remember thinking that my kid would most likely spend the time rolling a ball back and forth on the ground, or running in circles. I might be able to get him to hold a bat, but odds were that he won't try it. I was going to take him myself, standing uncomfortably against a wall while all the other little boys and their Dads - and maybe a few Moms - pitched and hit and batted and laughed and ran and just behaved like regular kids.

I didn't immediately tell my then-husband about the party. I was going to magically 'remember' about an hour before the party, and head out the door in a flurry. I reasoned that if I told him, he'd insist on going, and I didn't want him there. I didn't want him watching all those little boys playing catch and swinging bats with their Dads while his little boy pushed a baseball bat along the floor making vacuum cleaner noises.

Not that he isn't proud of every little thing his son has accomplished, mind you. He is, and fiercely. I just knew him too well. After all those years together, I could read the longing in his eyes whenever the kid across the street pulled out his miniature goal and hockey sticks and the neighborhood kids came streaming out to join him. I watched him watching the kids at the playground, playing tag, riding bikes and trying to pop wheelies, their voices ringing out as they tried to verbally one-up each other as kids do. Well, as most kids do. It's times like that when we are vividly reminded that our son isn't like them. When he was younger, we had the luxury of turning a blind eye and remarking that "he's just not that kind of kid" or "he'll start doing that any day now". With each passing month and year, the gap between him and his peers widens, and the differences become glaringly obvious, even to other parents. And his difference has a name now. "He's not that kind of kid" because he's autistic. "He'll start doing that any day now" if we can just make the breakthrough he needs because he's autistic. Oh, no thanks, he won't need a turn in the batting cage. He doesn't really understand. Thanks anyway. No, we're fine. Thanks. Yes, he thinks everything is a vacuum cleaner. I've made the apologies hundreds of times, and they only sting a little now.

I have to admit that when the invitation came, I flirted with the idea of not accepting. We didn't have many playdates anymore. My son's friends had moved on to Power Rangers, Transformers, bikes without training wheels and swimming lessons. With typical child-like candor they'd screw their faces up and say "I don't understand him. What is he saying?" They'd become frustrated when they tried to get him to play along with their train sets, loading and pushing trains and inventing scenarios. My son would be the one turning the train over to watch the wheels spin and spin and spin. Still, he wanted to be near the others. He wanted - oh, so badly - to talk and to chase and to interact and to just plain be with them all, in whatever capacity he could. And he needed to be with them, needed the opportunity to crack open that window and breath the air on the other side, instead of just glancing curiously through a frosted pane.

My husband found the invitation on a Sunday, in a pile of old mail he was going through. I was out at the grocery store, and returned to a quiet house later that afternoon. Where was everybody? I looked out in the back yard and saw my husband, his arms around my son, positioned in front of my daughter's Tee Ball stand and trying to show his son how to hit a ball off the tee with a plastic bat. The boy was trying to grab the tee stand, and even started to make the vacuum cleaner noise. I stood behind the curtains in the kitchen and watched my husband again and again returning my son's attention to the bat, the ball, and the tee stand. Then suddenly, after several dozen attempts, the boy took a swing. I couldn't help it, I yelled at the same time my husband did, flinging the back door open and running into the yard.

"Did you see that?" My husband asked, panting and fairly radiating with excitement.

"Yes!! Oh my God, he tried to hit it!"

"I know! I know!"

We heard the vacuum noise and turned to see my son, tee in hand, pushing it around the yard, the bat and ball forgotten.

"Oh well," said my husband. "Back to the drawing board."

He crouched down, gently turning my son's face to force eye contact, as we were taught by his therapist to do.

"Hey, look at Daddy. Do you want to hit the ball? Hit ball?"

"Hit ball." He tried to look away.

"No, look at Daddy. Let's try to hit the ball, OK Bubby?"

"Hit ball." And with that, my son picked up the bat, clubbing the ball as it laid in the grass.

"Well, at least he's hitting it, right?" My husband took the ball, putting it on the tee, and my son moved into the circle of his arms, ready to try again. Ready to try what I probably wouldn't have pushed him to try.

This is exactly why he needs a father.

I watched my husband, who normally has the patience of a toddler denied a naptime and realized that this is exactly why he needed a boy like ours. He's not the son he asked for, not the boy with the scar on his chin from going over the handle bars on his bike after jumping over the big rock, not the boy who came home soaked from falling in the creek acting on a dare from a buddy, not the kid with the Transformers, or the net and the hockey sticks. Instead he's the boy who takes thirty tries to even pick up the bat, the one who jumped up and down for joy when he said "helicopter" for the first time and you acted surprised. He's a dozen little, tiny, incredibly important breakthroughs every day and a constant reminder that pushing yourself is the only way to make things happen.

I look at my son, and I'm reminded of the great words of Shel Silverstein:

Listen to the mustn'ts, child.
Listen to the don'ts.
Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts.
Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me...

Anything can happen, child.
Anything can be.

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