Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Birthday Party

Yesterday we celebrated my nephews' birthdays together. One is turning two and one is turning three, and the date fell kind of square in the middle. Since my brother and sister-in-law have a newborn as well, I can totally understand them trying to do a two-for-one kind of party deal, particularly when toddlers really just don't care.

It's a funny thing about getting together with my sister-in-law's family. Maybe I should say a familiar thing. You see, like Nate and I, Christina also has a brother with autism. He's a teenager, and I will call him "A." I don't know A. very well, except that he can do college level math, used to greet people by asking what kind of car they drive, and he hates when people sing happy birthday. In fact, at the last birthday party, we all cheered for HIM as well as the guest of honor, because he was able to stay in the room and keep it together during the critical moment.

Yesterday did not go quite so well.

It was one of those muggy, breezy afternoons where you just want to grab hold of summer and not let go. The kids had been in the kiddie pool, racing around outside in the grass, throwing balls around. Everyone was a little dirty and sweaty and came piling into the house at once for the critical moment. Nate and Christina tried to wrangle the boys so we could gather around the Thomas cake. Only A. was not having any of it. Quiet disagreement about not singing soon turned into sobbing. "I hate this place!" he kept yelling. Deals and bargains, promises of YouTube videos and handheld computer games were met with deaf ears. He didn't want to be there but he didn't want to go. A., who is rather big for his age, sprawled out onto the floor in the middle of the dining room. He wouldn't budge.

"When are we doing Happy Birthday?" Ethan asked about 600 times. This was after I reassured him about 43 times that the candles were indeed NOT the sparkler candles from Anna's party and would not sound like fireworks.

"Soon Ethan, soon," I tried to answer soothingly. The birthday boys wrangled out of their parents' arms and ran away to play. Another cousin a bit older than Ethan was watching A. "Is he sad?" she kept asking her dad. My mom was on the other side of the room, talking to Anna, using the moment to quietly educate while four guys attempted to get A's arms and legs and hoist him out of the room. Someone helped me move the cake to avert disaster. And still A.'s parents tried to delicately cajole him to get past the moment.

As I sat there trying to wrap my head around why singing happy birthday would result in what I was seeing, I could only hear that old adage running through my head: There is no one autism. Here I was, with a son on the spectrum, with a brother on a different part of the spectrum, watching this boy who seemed to be somewhere in-between, at least at that moment, and I was stunned to realize that for all my first-hand experience, I still didn't get it. I didn't get this autism.

That being said, another part of me very much did get this. I got the frustration at a family occasion being disrupted and the stress of trying to avoid a meltdown. I got, I felt and my heart ached at, the embarrassment and stress and that feeling I know they had of just wanting to get past this and stop the stares and just have a regular get-together without these kinds of things happening.

With autism, even when the behaviors are different, there are so many common themes.

The longer I sat there, the more I felt my heart would burst. And while I felt sad for every moment of stress and confusion and A.'s real and actual terror and fear, there was a part of me that felt -- it feels weird to write it -- blessed. I was grateful that if they had to go through this, it was happening in front of us, people who really and truly understood. I was grateful I had had the experience that led to the understanding.

Yes, certain things growing up (and at times with Ethan) have been horrible and humiliating and depressing and draining. I don't wish for them. But sitting there I was again reminded that sometimes things happen not just to us, and not just for us, but for someone else as well. I have a compassion I never would have had. I can help someone else bear a moment so similar to other moments I've lived. Their knowledge of my experience reminds them they are so definitely not alone.

A. ended up staying for the rest of the party. The deal was, though, that no one would sing Happy Birthday. My nephews were too young to care, and my brother and his wife weren't crabbing at the thought of not having cute video of the critical birthday moment. We've all learned the things we thought were the most important really are not. Our "autisms" may be very different. But the lessons we've taken away from them are not at all.


Anonymous said...

wow, this is so good. eventhough i did not grow up with autism i feel like i can relate to this in so many ways. there have been times when i have felt awkward and unsure of myself around other kids (usually older) on the spectrum. i feel like i should know exactly what to do (but i don't). so thank you for your honesty - it's ok to say "i don't get this autism."

'sometimes things happen not just to us, and not just for us, but for someone else as well.' yes. i love when you share about moments and interactions you have with other moms or teachers. you, my friend, continue to let the Lord use your experiences to bless, help, and encourage others.

Deb said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Jeneil...I really needed it today! :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, well said. I love how you stay so positive. You probably do have more of a compassionate heart that HE has worked in you due to your journey as a mother. May HE always encourage you! Thanks for sharing.