What happens to a dream deferred?
This couple used to attend the autism group with me, once a month. They were warm, rumpled, comfy, a bit quirky, approaching their fifties, and had a son about 18 with pretty severe autism.
They had stories. They told about his love of the Beatles and how they had to spend every drive, no matter how long, listening to Beatles music exclusively. They told of his obsession with apples, of locking up the pantry and the time he devoured an entire bag. They told of his affinity for escaping, back when he was younger, and their mortification at the bars they had to have on his windows for awhile, for his safety.
With their stories flowed humor, and grace. You have to laugh, they would say, again and again. You have to laugh sometimes.
"How can you be the way you are, with everything you've gone through?" someone once asked. It might have even been me, I don't remember.
"Time," the wife, the mother answered. "This isn't something that happens at once. Acceptance takes time."
I think one of the most difficult things about having a child with autism or other special needs, aside from the struggles the child must personally deal with, is the pain that comes with realizing you may have to put aside certain dreams for your child. Often, it's dreams you may not have mediated on every day, but just assumed. One blogger a few years ago deftly described the process this way:
My sons are 3 and 4 1/2 and at this stage of parenting I should still be able to, as my friends can, languish in that "My Boy's Gonna Be the President" dream where the possibilities of what they will become are wide open. The natural progression of parenting seems to be that as your child grows, and as the two of you get to know the person that they are (and are becoming), that field of possibilities narrows. It happens gradually as you as a parent mature gradually, (hopefully) becoming more trusting of your child's decisions and less needy of having your child be The President. Then, eventually, your child is 16 and you don't so much need him to be The President as much as you need him to remember to clean his room and bring home the car in one piece.
When you find out that your son has autism, you have to do 20 or so years of maturing in one day. You have to let go of all the expectations that you have for him, and for what you thought the rest of your life would be like. There is no "growing out of" the adolescent fantasies that you have carried around for years, the rose colored glasses are just ripped right off, and it is painful.
It is painful, but not necessarily a bad thing.
There is nothing wrong with having hopes for our children. There is nothing wrong with dreaming big. Why wouldn't any parent?
But our dreams say a lot about us, and our response when they are taken away says even more. They speak to our illusion of control, our priorities, our values and our concept of what makes a life on this earth worthwhile. Broken dreams can bring out a strength we didn't know we had, and the much-needed ability to let go of things that were never ours to begin with. Dreams deferred can birth a quiet joy and contentment, an undercurrent that flows below the surface of our lives, not dependent on the world and our circumstances.
I am not saying this is easy. I am not saying we don't need time and room to grieve. I am not saying there isn't a person out there who is maybe caring for a profoundly disabled person and thinking, "Be at peace with this? Be okay with this?" Like the poem, we sag with the weight. We grow sour. Maybe we even explode.
But what if...what if a dream deferred could maybe become a dream reborn, in a different way -- a dream broken but put back together into something entirely unexpected, but still beautiful in a way we have to maybe squint to see at first?
My friend and I were talking recently. Her son has autism as well. She spoke with the voice of someone who has traveled the path a bit longer than I have. She spoke with peace. She spoke with hope. Maybe her son would never live away from home, she told me. Maybe he would never go to college. But she and her husband had a thought. They had always loved carnivals and amusement parks. She could see them, at some point later on. She could see herself and her husband and son working at small-town fairs, running their own booth, their own stand. She could see her son helping in any way that he could, happy. She could see them traveling and seeing people and places.
And you know, as we walked through the woods and talked, I could see it. I could see the Ferris wheel at sunset and smell fried dough and hear the screams from the rides. I saw it all splayed out in front of me for a whisp of a moment, the French fries and laughter and the glow of lights on the midway at dusk.
I could see it: a dream restructured.
Who knows how it will all play out. Who knows if someday they will travel and live the life of "kind of carnies," among the popcorn and cotton candy.
Who knows? Really none of us know, when it comes to any of our children's lives, when it comes to our own futures. But it's okay to dream. It's okay to hurt. And then it's okay to dream again, however uncoventional or unexpected or unintended those new dreams may end up being.