I roll over onto my right side and gaze at the clock. The bright orange numbers from the new Zen sunrise clock Jen bought me for Christmas flash at me - 2:24 am. It’s the middle of the night and I’ve gotten virtually no sleep.
When you have a child on the spectrum, sleep is the most precious of commodities. Typically, autistic children are terrible sleepers. My own son is actually quite good, except when his anxiety gets the best of him. If my son wakes up during the night, certain events from the prior day may trigger an anxiety episode - a questionable YouTube video he saw, the music in the background of a Wii game, a featured story on the news, which causes him to cry out theatrically- “DADDY!! Can you come in here? I’m scared!”
There’s no pattern to what triggers the anxiety. I’ve given up thinking that I could possibly figure out how the sounds effects on a Wii Game can be frightening enough to create this surge of adrenalin. Rather, I address it in a routine that is mechanical in its repeating pattern. Vaughn turns onto his right side facing the wall. I slide under the covers and full-body spoon him tightly. For some reason, the aggressive pressure from a tight spooning is what comforts him, and I wait until he falls asleep, I fall asleep, or both. As I drift into sleep, I recall my next-door neighbor telling me once that they bought their cocker spaniel a tightly-worn weighted vest the dog could wear on the 4th of July. Apparently, the pressure of the vest is comforting to the dog who is spooked with the incessant fireworks. It must be the same basic principle.
Tonight is different though. Vaughn is sleeping soundly. It is my own anxiety keeping me awake. Neurons firing on all cylinders, triggering all sorts of imaginary threats to my amygdala. It starts in a familiar fashion – thinking about next day’s work, deliverables, meetings, all the things I should get to, that I never get to. Things at home too that I’ve been procrastinating on – cleaning the gutters, filing the taxes, changing the spark plugs on the snow blower. My god – is there snow in the forecast this week?
Then, the inner monologue shifts dangerously to my son. All the future what-if scenarios. This is dangerous territory indeed. I don’t know why I tread down this path – it’s a self-created minefield. It works me up and I do it nonetheless, thinking of every terrible possibility for my son. My mind is startlingly creative in its dark madness to see all the worst case possibilities.
· He’s in 7th grade and doesn’t have any friends. He’s never had a real friend. What will happen when he goes to high school in 2 years?
· Will he be bullied? He’s such an easy target. An amiable kid who has his quirks and peccadillos that make him easy prey to bullies. Would he even tell me if he’s bullied?
· I should have gotten him into sports at an earlier age. His one year in soccer was a disaster, but maybe something more individual would be beneficial– like swimming or karate? God, I suck as a Dad. I should have moved faster on this one…..
· What about after high school? University? Will he be able to get a job? He’s only 3 ½ years away from driving? Will he be able to drive? With all his anxiety? God, will he be living with me the rest of my life? Why do I worry so much? Why do I worry about how much I worry? The clock is now 3:16 – how long have I been doing this?
What have I gained?.........what have I actually gained?
· This kid is amazing. His progress even in the past year is remarkable. No more full-fledged meltdowns when the New England Patriots lose. His impressive ability to engage with a waitress at Applebees. His ability to go to the rest rooms in a busy restaurant all by himself. He didn’t do these things just a year ago.
What else have I gained?
· A steadfast Sunday afternoon buddy during NFL season. A kid who wants nothing more than to spend all day Sunday with Dad watching Redzone - the 1:00 game, the 4:00 game, even some of the Sunday night game, all the while keeping me informed of every interesting stat from every game.
· A son who makes me laugh deeply, not a polite giggle so I make him feel good. But a true laugh that comes deep from my belly. Like when he intentionally sets the table wrong for dinner knowing it will get me going, plates and silverware in nonsensical arrangements. Or when he made a birthday card for me and drew a $1,000,000 bill with black and green marker, perching himself in the corner of the family room and clasping his hands with excitement when he thought that he may actually fool me with his counterfeit bill. On another birthday, his gift to me was a brand new game he invented– a combination of baseball, hockey and tennis, both creative and utterly confusing to me with his complex set of rules for scoring.
· A son who discovered a new algorithm for ascending patterns with square roots. He shared it with me once during a Saturday afternoon spooning session. I sat up in his bed and tested it all the way to 17, then went downstairs and we both sat at the dining table with pencil and paper to continue validating it. I gave up after it worked through 36. It works every time.
· A son who wants nothing more than to play wiffle ball in our driveway during the spring. The way he announces every pitch before he throws it -here comes a slider, here comes a fast ball. Best of all is when he nails a home run - the boundary marker is a large pine tree in our yard. He slings the bat towards the garage, and then trots the bases with the swagger of an MLB all-star. It makes me laugh every time.
What have I gained? An unmatched deep authentic love that is truly indescribable. A boy who has opened my eyes to every color of the world.
I will live every day in the now, not thinking about next year, high school, university, I will focus on what I have right now – at this very second, which is truly amazing. No more worrying because every day is a new color to discover, a new lesson in gratitude.