In Gennifer Choldenko’s novel Al Capone Does My Shirts, the mother of a 16-year-old daughter with autism celebrates that daughter’s birthday with a cake topped with ten candles as she has every year since the girl’s actual tenth birthday. Set in the 1930’s, the mother realizes that adulthood holds nothing for her daughter so the ten candled cake is her best effort at keeping her daughter forever in childhood. The girl’s 12 year-old brother of course sees this as complete insanity, but I can totally relate.
When our son was two and hardly talking I began to wish that time would stop advancing for everyone but him so he could catch up. When he was three we grieved the loss of his early intervention funds. His therapies were transferred to the school’s special education division and cut back – something about now that he was officially “preschool age” he was eligible for education-related services but not the other stuff. I remember thinking the other stuff should’ve happened by now; another milestone missed.
Holding our son back a year in kindergarten meant he was always a good 18 months older than his classmates. It was nice to have him in a younger grade till one of his classmates would ask how old he was and why he was in their grade. (Our son’s tall, they were onto us pretty quick.) Then I’d be transported back to the reality that Nate was too young for his age.
I will never get back the time I spent trying to will our wonderful son to hurry up and develop, to make that leap in his speech and reading that everyone kept reassuring us that he would. While other parents would celebrate their children’s final moments of babyhood, I was pushing Nate forward with everything I had. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved him fiercely and always will; and there were many many times I took pride in his accomplishments too; but my catch-up dance wasn’t helping anyone, least of all Nate.
It took a lot of divine and personal intervention to bring me to a place of acceptance. I’m not a person who gets ‘audibles’ but I remember having the distinct thought one day that was not my own – it just popped into my consciousness: “Are you willing to love him exactly as he is right now?” That question steadied me when the gaps grew wider and the friend-base grew smaller.
Some friends drifted off when our kids could no longer play together as they had in earlier years, some continued to ‘reassure’ us that Nate would be “just fine” (read typically developing when he woke up in the morning.) But others stopped weighing in with their opinions or offering encouragement; they just stuck around and reminded us that they thought Nate was awesome. Then one day we got a note in the mail from my mom addressed to Nate that read simply: “Dear Nate, you are just right. Love, Gramma.” How can anyone argue with that?
Recently Nate had a milestone birthday. 18. It was a real test of where I was on the ol’ acceptance-o-meter. And guess what? I passed. Yeah, it was weird going to court and having to justify to a judge that we should get to keep making decisions for Nate just like we always have and in many realms of his life, always will. And yeah, it’s scary to think about what he’s going to do when his same age peers (some even friends) go off to college or work, move out of their houses, and continue to hit milestones that Nate will hit much later or not at all. But just like he always has, Nate will continue to grow and develop at his own pace. And Nate will continue to bless us and others around him who are able to appreciate what he has to offer. And that’s O.K. Because Nate’s just right. Just ask his Gramma.