Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Evolution of the Rocket

The idea came at the worst of times, one of those moments in the hobby store when the life we thought we'd have flashed in front of us. There were model rockets everywhere, and Dan was reminiscing about childhood days spent meticulously building them with his dad, then setting them off.

That Saturday afternoon a few months ago Ethan decided to throw a tantrum in the store because I made him leave the marble toy. He cared nothing about the rockets. The look in Dan's eyes told me he was wondering if Ethan ever would.

I didn't get the rocket thing at first. This was not something we ever did when I was a kid, not something my dad and brother ever did together. But when I stepped back and envisioned my dad and Nate tossing a ball around and talking on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I got a better idea. Guys don't spill out their guts. They do stuff together. Jocks play ball. Some guys build rockets. It's not so much about the activity as the act of relating to each other, of sharing a moment.

That afternoon when we pulled Ethan out of the store screaming, tears were prickling in my eyes. I could only think of dreams dashed.

About two months later, something inspired Dan to head back to the hobby store after church. "I want to get a rocket," he told me pointedly. "Anna and I can work on it."

So that afternoon, Dan and Anna sat in the dining room and constructed a rocket. I could hear their hushed, focused conversation and saw Anna's pride when the project was complete. She couldn't wait to set it off.

Launch #1
Fast-forward a few days. We headed to a field, the widest wide-open space we could find, to set off the rocket. Little did we realize the field was more like a marsh with three-foot-tall grasses, ticks, and pricker bushes. We waded out into all of this like crazy people (Ethan almost lost his shoes at one point). Then we held our breaths, I pointed my camera to capture the launch, and all hell broke loose.

Anna hated the whoosh! of the rocket launching skyward. So did Ethan. She started screaming that the rocket was going to fall on us. Ethan started crying to go back to the car. Dan and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. We searched for ticks before piling sweatily back into the car.

Launch #2
While Anna was away with the grandparents, we decided to launch the rocket again in the field behind our house. Ethan was still quite opposed to the rocket idea. In fact, he began to panic as soon as he saw the rocket. The only way to get him through the experience was to sit about 50 feet away and hold my hands over his ears. "Is it done? Is it done?" he kept asking hopefully, as soon as the rocket came down. At the same time, I'd seen a gleam of excitement in his eyes as the rocket had lifted off toward the clouds.

Launch #3
One evening after Anna returned, we headed to a field a few towns away to try to rocket again. Sunset was approaching and for a moment I just lay with the kids in the grass, gazing up at the clouds, breathing in the bigness of the sky. This time I knew to position both kids far from the rocket. Ethan knew my hands would help buffer the sound. Anna knew the rocket wasn't going to fall and conk her on the head. "Wow!" both kids watched the lift-off with amazement. We soon realized we'd lost the rocket, and had fun driving around a neighborhood on a fruitless search for it. Anna wanted a new rocket, right away. The next morning, I heard Ethan in his room, shouting, "!" Suddenly he was interested in space shuttle launches on You Tube. And an astronaut book he'd never once glanced at.

Launch #4
Dan and Anna picked out a new rocket, the "girly" penguin rocket Anna wanted. A few days after they put it together we asked some friends if they wanted to get together some evening with their kids to help set it off.

That day I had some freelance work to do and ended up catching up with everyone just after the rocket had blasted off. The kids were chattering excitedly. Ethan even made a point to tell me about the "rocket going up." Apparently it had come back down in the middle of a field of kids playing soccer. As twilight approached and summer buzzed all around us, we walked back with our friends, chatting as the kids dawdled and ran ahead and jumped over tree stumps. We went to their house and had pizza and watermelon. And when we had to leave, our kids and their kids kept yelling goodbye over and over until we were in the car and down the street.

I've been thinking about our experiences with the rocket. And the more I do, I see the way it parallels our own response to life, or our reactions to life, with a child who has special needs.

- First, the feelings of hopelessness and unrealized dreams; the sense of loss
- Then, the resolve to not give up, attempts to salvage the situation, and major setbacks and letdowns that occur in the process
- There is the realization that adjusting expectations is an absolute necessity
- Somewhere along the way, there are moments of joy when you see that while some expectations may have to be adjusted, other things you thought would be impossible, are in fact, very much possible -- but they may just happen in a different way, at a different time
- And, most importantly (at least to me right now): there is the need to not live the experience in a bubble. To reach out, to still find relationships and people to go with us on the journey, people who will celebrate and people who understand.

I thought I didn't understand rockets. I thought they were boring. I didn't realize how much the rocket was teaching me about growth; how we are all growing in this autism thing. Thanks, Dan.

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