He Hugged Me Back
He Hugged Me Back, by Kyle Jetsel
The following story is published with permission from Kyle Jetsel (Dallas TX) from Autism: Thrive in Chaos.
I needed that. SERIOUSLY!
Today is my son, Erik’s birthday.
Erik is on the autism spectrum. On the more severe end of the spectrum… and he’s not a big fan of mine.
His (what feels like to me) constant disdain for me can sometimes get to where it “beats me down.” Other times... frankly... It hurts me deeply.
Even though I’ve learned to cope with it well and manage my expectations of how I expect to be treated, sometimes (I’m ashamed to say it) but sometimes, I just don’t like his grumpy butt.
There I said it. Don’t judge me.
Sometimes I’d rather NOT be around him when he’s just crappy to me.
Take this past weekend as a “for instance.”
We took him to all the places he likes to go, did all the things he likes to do, even ate where he likes to eat (yep, McDonald's) and still, towards the end of the day, in front of Target, he got annoyed and “took a shot” at me and reaggravated some nerve damage that I struggle to manage.
And yep, “took a shot” means what you think it means.
I patiently responded, de-escalated the situation (like I ALWAYS do), and restored some sanity before we all got back in the car to go home happy.
But… my disgust for the way he has been treating me was growing deeper and deeper… and I found myself… (again, I’m ashamed to say it) but I caught myself… resenting him.
As I put him to bed last night (with his birthday coming up today) and he frowned unhappily at me, I again felt resentment, and immediately I KNEW it was not a good idea to continue along that thought path.
But what could I do? He was beating me down. (Kinda literally.)
Then I remembered a book I had read called, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.
You may have heard the story of Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who lived in Austria during the time when Hitler came to power. When he was captured, he was stripped of everything – and he was thrown into one of the death camps.
With everyone’s identities stripped, their humanity challenged, and put in the most horrid of circumstances, Frankel was able to make some unique observations.
What Frankl saw was prisoners face unimaginable terror, abuse, mental and physical torture, and death.
What Frankl saw was some turn bitter, angry, unkind, and… resentful. Frankl even suggested some turned into animals. The survival instinct took complete hold of some and they became what their captors were trying to force them to be – almost non-human.
What Frankl ALSO saw was just the opposite.
Frankl also saw captors risking their own lives taking care of each other, bolstering each other’s spirits, and sharing food with many when there was not even enough for one. He saw the very best in people in the most terrible of situations.
He also made the claim that some – amid unimaginable horror – achieved saint-like attributes.
That's when I realized… the path I needed to take was very clear to me.
I get to choose. I get to choose frustration, anger, or bitterness… even resentment.
Or… I get to choose something entirely different.
So, I hatched a plan.
I decided I would put myself to sleep by reliving and “re-experiencing” in my mind the most wonderful moments I’d experienced with Erik.
So… as I closed my eyes to go to sleep I re-experienced (in vivid detail) the day I taught Erik how to say, “I Love You” to his Mom for the first time. He was eight. He smiled from ear to ear as if he’d just created world peace. My wife and I cried tears of joy.
I re-experienced (in vivid detail) the day he finally learned how to use the bathroom all by himself - wiping and everything. Sorry. Maybe TMI? He was nine. The joy my wife and I experienced (and we flooded all over Erik) was overwhelming.
I re-experienced (in vivid detail) the day he rode his bike for the first time with no training wheels. He was eleven. The smile that was plastered on his face could be seen from space.
Over and over, I re-experienced overwhelmingly happy moments I had with Erik… until... I fell asleep.
Erik was two years old again. I walked in the door after work and he turned and saw me. He ran towards me with his arms wide open and jumped into my arms and kissed me all over my face. Then he sat in my lap and sucked his thumb while he rubbed the tip of my nose with his fingers.
Just like he’d done so many years ago when he was two years old.
Almost immediately I woke up.
And was overwhelmed with a feeling of pure love.
“Dangit!” I thought. That was great. I need to go back to sleep and feel that again. More, please!
I wanted SO badly to fall right back into that dream that I started thinking more and more about that feeling… and I fell asleep again.
Then… I dreamed again.
But this time it was a different dream.
I dreamed we were now in the afterlife. And Erik… a fully grown man now… saw me from afar. He smiled a huge smile and turned and started running towards me with his arms wide open.
Then… he wrapped his arms around me tight...
And with ZERO mental challenges and a full and complete understanding and no limitations and no disability at all… he very clearly and boldly and without hesitation whispered in my ear…
“Thank you, Dad. For raising me and loving me and struggling with me and teaching me. I love you.”
Almost immediately I woke up again. The feelings of overwhelming love swept over me like a wave. It was exhilarating. It was magnificent. I was speechless and thoughtless and just laid there soaking up that feeling.
That’s when I realized what I needed to do.
My job is simple. I need to make Erik FEEL loved and accepted and appreciated and understood. My job is to love him UNCONDITIONALLY. No matter what.
Because THAT’S what I felt in both those dreams. I felt Erik’s, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.
VERY VIVIDLY. And VERY CLEARLY… I was overwhelmed by the feelings of love.
And those are the feelings he’ll now receive from ME.
I will choose... every day… to love unconditionally.
This morning as I was sitting on the stairs popping on my socks, Erik burst loudly out of his bedroom door. As I looked up... I saw that old familiar scowl.
But instead of resentment, I popped up, smiled real big, and as I wrapped my arms around his skinny little frame, I whispered in his ear very clearly and boldly and without hesitation…
Happy Birthday, Erik. I love you.
He hugged me back.