Twenty years ago today, the metal door to the waiting room scraped open and the trajectory of my life changed.
As the therapist walked toward me, my eyes landed on the autism pamphlet in her hand and the room began to swim.
“Don’t say autism to me!” I yelled across the room. She said, “Why, do you think he has autism?” Defiantly, I yelled back, “No!” But it was a lie. I knew in my gut Austin had autism. Why else would I have spent the past four hours watching him be cornered in a room full of toys with professionals holding clipboards assessing his every move?
I knew he had autism, but my brain told my mouth to yell, “No,” as if, somehow, I could make this moment stand still. I could hold on to that precious, unlabeled boy for one more moment and just stop—stop the wave of fear and anxiety and dread.
I want to go to her, this young mother whose head is spinning, whose insides are crumbling, whose heart is breaking. I ache to hold her in my arms. I want to stroke her hair as she pretends to be strong. I want to whisper in her ear, “Take a breath, and another breath, and another and another.”
I wish I could tell her about the laughter. This beautiful boy will not only learn to put words together, but he will learn to put sentences together. One day, his words will make her laugh uncontrollably from deep in her soul. This boy will bring laughter to her house with his pure and spot-on observations.
Every freaking day there will be laughter. His giggles will be contagious. He will be magic.
As she nods and smiles at the therapist, although the only thing she hears is the pounding of her own heart, I want to tell her she is fierce. She is formidable. When doors close, she will find another way. More than once, she will scream into this beautiful boy’s lifeless eyes, his body thrashing. She will watch helplessly as strangers save him. A piece of her heart will break away with each seizure, but life will go on and the laughter will continue.
I want her to know it is okay to pause and feel, to know in her bones that emotions don’t make her weak, to know there is wisdom in her senses, and that she doesn’t have to run from them or numb them. She can feel them and listen. She will not crumble. Life will be painful and beautiful all at once.
It will be magic.
When she goes home that day and picks up her newborn and her godsend of a neighbor says with a smile, “He’s just like Austin!” I want to press her to me and tell her it is okay that her mind screamed, “No!” at that moment. This newborn will become the sibling Austin needs. He will be patient and positive. He will understand his brother intuitively, teaching his parents along the way. This infant will become a little brother and big brother to Austin, all at once. He will share his love of movies and music and reading.
Theirs will be a gentle, easy friendship. It will be magic.
The next day, as she stops him from dropping his plastic balls over and over to listen to the sounds they make on the tile floor—his favorite game that now just screams autism—I want to tell her he becomes a teacher. At first, she is his only student. She will fail, she will yell, she will try to fix him, and control the world around him. For far too long, she will care far too much what others think about him, about her. She will wonder if she is a good mother. She will kill herself every day to help him, to find answers. Every night it will feel like not enough.
But he will teach her. His lessons will bring patience and presence and joy. She will learn life is a marathon and not a sprint. He will show her how to slow down, how to enjoy the simple things in life, how perfection is an illusion, how asking for help is strength. She will learn she is enough, her love is enough. And he will be loved—so loved—by so many people whose lives will be better because he touched them.
He will be magic.
As she sits in that first Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting, surrounded by well-meaning professionals who don’t see her armor and the self-doubt it hides, I want to show her this beautiful boy with a face full of whiskers and a broad smile. The path to those whiskers and that smile won’t be easy. Dreams will die and take on different shapes. Time, money, and her own dreams will be sacrificed along the way.
I want to tell her she will not be alone. She chose a gentle, strong, smart, compassionate, logical partner. Many men leave—he will stay. He will support her, challenge her, love her, make her laugh every freaking day. He will be the father Austin needed.
He will be like his sons—magic.
Twenty years ago, I needed myself. I needed to tell myself, “You got this!” At times, it will be hard and sad and frustrating and lonely. And yes, after 20 years you will still lie awake some nights worrying what will happen after you take your last breath.
I wish I could have known, at 22, that Austin would be one of the happiest people I know. That his life would be full. That he would have a part-time job he loves, and support to live in a home of his own. That he would far exceed what the test scores try to measure. That he would be fiercely loyal, advocating for himself and anyone he perceives is being treated unfairly.
I want to whisper to that young mother, “Take a deep breath and another and another.” I want to tell her she will be more than enough. I want her to know about the laughter.
I want her to know—it will be magic.