In my little world, the last few months have brought an inordinate amount of death. A dear, dear friend named Jamie passed away after fighting cancer for nine long years and every time I think of her, I am haunted by her laugh and the smile that always lived in her sparkling, mischievous brown eyes. I think of her husband and two adult children who now have to carry on without the light that emanated from their wondrous wife and mom.
My friend Lisa, who lives with me in the trenches of special needs moms, lost her brother Dan after a long fight with cancer, even though he was in remission. Dan was so well-loved that at the celebration of his life after a private funeral, the venue was filled to capacity. The group chose to remember Dan by swapping funny stories and remembering the vibrant, kind and joyful man he was.
In our big world, you can’t turn on the news without hearing of innocents being slayed all around the world. It’s an angry time and an angry place with too much loss. I enjoy watching retrospective documentaries and I wonder what future documentarians will have to say about this volatile time.
At a birthday party the other night, I was talking with an acquaintance named Julia who quickly became a new friend. A few weeks ago, she had posted pictures on Facebook of a beautiful young woman, alongside some very sad words. So I asked Julia about her. She told me that that smiling girl was her darling daughter Amanda, who had been killed in a tragic car accident when she was 19 years old, on July 25, 1999. I’ve seen this woman socially several times and she always has a smile on her face that belies the horrific tragedy of what she went through 20 years ago. You would never know by looking of the weight of the burden she carries.
Before we spoke, I may have subconsciously set Julia into the nasty, embarrassing corner of my mind where I sweep people who look to me like they have lead perfect, happy lives with perpetually clean houses and new cars and no money worries and wonderful, fulfilling marriages and careers. That corner needs to be tented and fumigated as if it were housing the worst insects on the planet, because it is. There is no perfect anything. Everyone has a story and if we delude ourselves into thinking that they don’t, jealousy and anger will shrivel our hearts to raisins.
I’ve written before of the loss associated with raising a child with special needs. There is the loss of friendships you thought could withstand the new normal of medical visits, relentless hand sanitization and rules about who can touch what. There is the loss of family members you thought could withstand the rubber hammock of changing emotions and ABA- mandated lessons to follow. There is the loss of typical classrooms and sports or music or whatever hobby might have floated around the edges of your mind as part of the future for your child.
There is the loss of the feeling of pride of your newborn or toddler in public. The first time your child with autism completely loses it in a grocery store, or a football game, or anywhere where scrutiny hides like a demon in shadows. The love you feel for that young soul supersedes the stares, the whispers, the gossip. But it hurts. Oh, how it hurts. So you hold your head high, willing the tears to be quietly whisked away as if by windshield wipers. You hold the hand of that precious baby, sending all your love into the grip, while they twist and turn and contort to get away from you.
You can’t win. You won’t ever win. But that won’t stop you from trying.
You will try at school. You will try at your other children’s schools. You will try at block parties. And the mall. And the gas station. You will try at the community pool.
And you will always fail. Because it’s not about you.
It took years, eons to finally accept that Caleb was not meant for my world, nor me for his. That’s the cruelest reality about having a child with special needs. Neither of you fits. You love them fiercely, with a love that transcends time and space and the rude, glaring, invasive, probing stares of those who do not understand. But, alas, you two will never inhabit the same universe.
Perhaps the most painful is when that child, teenager and then adult, is in pain, and you try to offer comfort.
“Leave me alone,” or “I’m busy” is the refrain you will hear most often. Sometimes it will be a scream. Sometimes that scream will be accompanied by a flat hand to his own face.
So you step back, your weary heart wounded yet again. You try to will the tears to be sucked back into well-worn ducts, but somehow that doesn’t happen.
After these exchanges, I often find myself in the fetal position on my couch, wrapped in the denim blanket that once graced Caleb’s first big-boy bed. It has faded to the softest blue and it has several holes in it from so much use. It is my greatest comfort in the world.
Incomprehensively, I had to fight for this blanket in my divorce. I gave up something seemingly more valuable to keep that blanket. My ex-husband knew how much I need it, how when I wrap myself in it, I can go back in time, for a millisecond, and join the toddler who reached for me, who was comforted by my hugs. That little white-blonde-haired boy could trade tears for giggles in those days, when we pretended we were in a tent or when I tickled his belly. I had such high hopes for that chubby-cheeked little boy.
Now I wrap myself in that blanket when unbidden tears just start rolling out of my eyes as I wait to hear if a residential placement is available. I know we both need it but the thought of going through with it makes me feel like I’m trying to walk but I’ve accidentally nailed my shirt to the wall behind me. Even though Caleb is an adult now, when I look into his sea-glass green eyes I see that baby. I see all we have been through together. And I know with a gut-twisting thud how very difficult this will be.
I wish that Caleb could be graduating college right now. That he had a girlfriend and friends who would show up suddenly for dinner. I wish that Amanda had had these past 20 years to spend with her mom and become all that she ever wished to be. I wish that Jamie was with her family, making them laugh and loving them with the love she lavished so freely. I wish Dan was here to joke with Lisa and hold his wife’s hand.
Physical loss causes the deepest intake of breath. Julia told me that she didn’t think she would be able to breathe after Amanda passed away. She told me she is surprised that 20 years later, she is still breathing. Anyone who has ever lost someone will recognize her next statement: “Love never dies.”
No matter the loss, the love always remains. Sometimes it burns like a cigarette on a favorite pillow. Sometimes it aches, like the ache I feel when I want to hug Caleb and he says, “Hands to self.” Sometimes loss just lingers like a shadow that follows wherever you go.
Loss is loss is loss.
My loss with Caleb is called autism. Autism is like an alien who sucks out all of the connective tissues of relationships and leaves dried-out limestone where there should be living, pulsing blood and love and sweetness passing between two people. I will always, always love my son. And I will always, always curse the autism that takes him away from me.
My family helps me with Caleb and they all tell me exactly what I tell them all the time: “Being alone in the house with Caleb is lonelier than just being alone.” He’s there and not there at the same time. You naturally expect an interaction of which he is not capable. He cooperates with bathing, asks for meals and declares when he’s going to bed. Sometimes he will sit and color quietly next to me while my mom and I play a game, but mostly he stays on the top floor of our house, which is explicitly his.
So what will the loss be like when he eventually moves out? He was out last night with his father but I kept listening for his giant-like footsteps and kept putting my foot on the first stair to go check on him. How will the house feel? Will it be hollow like the physical loss of a loved one passing? Will it just be too quiet?
I can’t sit with these feelings for too long or I will risk losing a day to tears on the couch. Sometimes a day is okay, but sometimes the depression pulls and anchors me and it’s very hard to claw my way out.
Loss wears many faces. It comes for everyone in one form or another. The only way to diminish its soul-scarring effects is to talk with each other. Keep Jamie and Amanda and Dan alive by sharing stories and letting memories warm our hearts like gentle spring sunshine. For Caleb, I find other moms in my situation and we turn tears to laughter, which heals instead of drains.
Loss is a part of our existence, but the enemy of loss is love. Love makes loss retreat, so let’s love as hard as we can, as fully as we can, whenever we can.
Photo credit: Stocksy United
This blog is lovingly dedicated to Jamie Price Harkins, Amanda Williams and Dan True.
What a moving and well written article about loss, love and autism. Thank you for sharing!
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