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  • Writer's pictureJerri Lynn Sparks

And Then You Found Me

A song for another time... Every week I have what I’ve begun thinking of as Philosophical Sundays with my son Jared. He’s a very intelligent and inquisitive child who is deeply thoughtful about life’s conundrums, though he tends to keep these thoughts to himself until we buckle our seat belts and drive a while. Jared has autism and it can be challenging to get him to come out of his shell for deep conversations but something about being enclosed in a car shuts out all the distractions from the world and he engages me more deeply on these Sunday drives. I’ve come to really cherish this time, which makes the hour-long drive something I look forward to each week. It’s like Jared 101. We talk nightly on the phone but it’s usually a series of light-hearted questions he asks me, such as “Why does Thor *do* that!?” from a movie he’s watched or “Guess what I did in school today?” Then he’ll request that I read him a Disney story and then he goes to bed. But on the Sunday drives his mind more closely approximates his chronological age of twenty-one years old. Right about the time we get to this church in town the questions begin flowing out of him like a dam that’s been held back and someone has lifted the locks. “Mom, I’ve decided that once you get a boyfriend I’m going to go live with Cousin Sharon,” he suddenly blurts out. I keep my eyes on the curvy road ahead of me, fending off tailgaters who have heightened speed-glee since the temperature broke into the 40s after a week of brutal cold that hampered free movement, so I can’t get a glimpse into my son’s beautiful and innocent face as he matter-of-factly states this decision. “Well, why do you want to just replace me, Jared?” I ask, kind of dreading and yet also eagerly awaiting the answer because it gives rare insight into his increasingly complex mind. “Oh…I was just messin’ with ya,” he says and surprises me by reaching out to hold my right hand as it rests on the gear shift in the center console. I glance down at his flawless, silky hand, the innocence of his entire existence evident in his unmarked skin. There are no scars from childhood tree climbing because he’s never liked heights and was terrified of the curved half arch ladders at the park in Los Angeles from when he was a toddler, a fear he never overcame during his entire childhood. He’d get halfway up the curved ladder, peer down through the rungs to the soft sand below and act as if the world was wobbling and then stop climbing and look over to me to come rescue him, which I always did. No amount of encouraging him, modeling for him how to climb over the arch or climbing side by side with him worked. I’d lie under the ladder to show him I’d catch him if he fell but his fear of falling through the ladder rungs never left my son. He trusts his instincts. We kept driving and I retreated into my mind, doing a memory tally, recalling that he loves saying in a light, reassuring voice this “Oh…I was just messin’ with ya” whenever he senses he has breached a social barrier, evidence that his mind has begun maturing and he doesn’t want to hurt others. His sense of empathy is so deep it often makes me tear up. He also needs for the mood at any given moment to be light and jovial, peaceful and predictable. Change is not something Jared relishes and any deviation from an expected activity is his biggest trigger for behavioral outbursts. I decided to gently push into his thinking a little bit, still focusing my eyes on the road ahead of me, which was unusually busy with Super Bowl Sunday traffic where apparently everyone on the west side was driving to a party on the east side. I glance at passing drivers and wonder if they realize they are driving past Philosophy 101 every Sunday. “Jared, I love you so much! You are not replaceable to me, do you know that?” I ask while still focusing on the busy road. “Yes, I know that,” he says calmly and somewhat robotically, sounding a little more like an annoyed teenager than a young man of twenty-one. “I grew you in my belly,” I suddenly blurted out, surprising even myself. “I felt your little feet pushing on my tummy to get out. I lost a baby once and I can tell you that people are not replaceable, Jared,” still trying to teach him the meaning that people have in our lives and that they are not just place holders to fill some need. I know my oldest son loves me but sometimes when he says things like just inserting someone else in my place it stings. I’m glad he knows there will be others to step up and take care of him, I’ve made sure he knows this, and I’ve introduced these people to him, but the degree that he just accepted it without any obvious emotion over my departure from his life admittedly hurts me. I realize he’s just logically problem-solving because he needs to feel secure and for things to remain stable and unchanged in his life in order to feel calm and reassured, but I’ve always tried to stretch my son’s empathy capacity so that he grows emotionally along with his incredibly logical brain. Modeling and teaching empathy for others is something everyone in society needs. It’s how we become a better world. I refuse to accept that my son is incapable of true empathy and over the years I have found that he has an amazing capacity for empathy, it just had to be nurtured and brought out of this shell he has around him at times. So I try to use examples that he can understand to probe deeper into his psyche to not only reach him and discover what kinds of emotions lie there but to provide strong examples that will resonate with him. My son needs intensity to express his innermost feelings sometimes. The most poignant things he’s ever said to me have occurred after heightened emotional experiences, such as the first time he was hospitalized for behavioral outbursts at school or after the first time (of dozens) that he ran away. After those episodes, I learned how much he loves me because he’d never really said it before.

One time after a particularly harrowing escape, complete with Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies and passersby assisting me, he sang “Moon River” to me through tears that was so touching the officers were brought to tears themselves. “Moon River” is the song I always sang to him to get him to sleep as a baby and young child so it was incredibly touching and surprising that he sang it to me to calm us both down after he was in crisis. It showed that he was paying keen attention all those years even though he never really showed it. He’d never done that before, sing to me, and it was the heightened emotion of the moment that broke through his layer of inexpression.

(Photo Credit: Jerri Lynn Sparks) He often thinks in very black and white, quite concrete terms, so nuance rarely works with him. It was true when he cut his father out of his life completely and he has remained steadfast in that decision. In his very logical and practical mind, once a person shows you who they are, he will always and forever believe them. Gray is not a color in Jared’s Crayola box. “What happened to that baby you lost, did you find him?” Jared asked suddenly, looking over at me in worried anticipation. Now worried that I shouldn’t have blurted this out while trying to demonstrate to my son how much I went through just to bring him into this world, I said “Yeah, I found him but he couldn’t stay. He had to go somewhere else,” I said as reassuringly as I could, still nervous I’d messed up big time – and while in the car with my son driving down a busy road! I began to panic a little. “Did he go to Heaven?” Jared asked with big, wide, anticipating eyes that needed me to say “Yes.” And so I said “Yes, Jared. I think he went to Heaven.” “Good!” he said, feeling satisfied. Oh, what relief! I could also see the look of relief spread across his dewy face, the innocence of him so evident it moved me to tears. He will always be my sweet and innocent child, even as he is now a legal adult and sports a full week’s facial hair every Sunday when he shows up for our weekly adventures. “And then you found me?” he asked so sweetly. I glanced over at him and his big blue eyes met mine, filled with eager anticipation. The world was whirring by as we drove, in fact parenting completely solo for close to a decade now, the world often seems to be whirring by me. People were on their way to Sunday lunch, church goers were buttoning up their colorful winter coats as their small children ran ahead of them. With Jared, I never knew that pleasure of just letting your child run freely without fear of them continuing to run off. I was always chasing after him and rescuing him from one near death experience or another. “There are so many ways to experience parenthood,” I thought as I considered all these passing people’s lives in contrast to mine. “Yes, Jared. And then I found you,” I said with a smile, remembering briefly the positive sign on the pregnancy test, the relatively easy pregnancy I had with him while taking classes at UCLA for my psychology degree, the day of his birth flashing in my mind like lightning, how quickly and easily he entered this world, the memory of his warm skin embracing mine for the first time, followed closely by sunny days at the park in Los Angeles, strolling him in the sun, biking with him in a baby trailer at the beach on Santa Monica pier… “I was growing in your belly?” he followed up, already knowing the answer but enjoying the asking of a question he knows the answer to anyway, looking right at my belly. “Yes, you were growing in my belly.” Jared glanced over at my belly again and smiled. Then he looked ahead at the road. “And then I was born!” he said happily. (He loves this story.) “Yes, honey. And then you were born,” I said as I reached out to hold his hand. Satisfied (oh thank the stars up in Heaven!), he then sat quietly thinking as we drove on. It was an unseasonably warm day for February and the sun was shining a bit through the clouds. People were strolling around their yards further down the road, looking like a scene in those New England puzzles you put together on Christmas break. We passed by the familiar Baby Jesus display at the intersection which had been left in disarray from the harsh Western New York winter and the Polar Vortex. The Christ Child was on its side with its back to the road, as if he was turning his back on the world, literally. Baby Jesus had fallen out of the manger while his mother, Mary, stared unaffectedly out at the road and zooming traffic. She looked pretty done and I kind of chuckled to myself, having on a few occasions, okay, okay…on a *lot* of occasions, felt that way myself as a solo parent. I decided to lighten the mood and point this Christly Chaos out to my son, who has a wicked sense of humor like I do: “Jared, look! Baby Jesus has fallen off his manger and the camels are trying to eat him!” I said as I began laughing. He glanced over to his right and burst into laughter. His smile lights up my heart like a beacon on a dark night. There’s just something so energizing and life-affirming when I see him smile so naturally and easily. Whenever we take photos, most of the time he fashions a tight grin with his lower jaw frozen, staged and obscuring his lovely natural smile. His eyes though have remained natural and expressive, the same since he was born: big and bright and expecting the world. It’s actually how I’ve come to think of him in general – big and bright and expecting the world. But it wasn’t always a guarantee. I’d lost the baby before him only five or six weeks into my pregnancy. I’d been so elated to finally be a mother and then almost as suddenly as I had gotten excited about being pregnant I suddenly was not pregnant. Nearly a year passed before I got pregnant again, this time with Jared. And the rest is history, a long and interesting history… All these thoughts were swirling through my mind as I drove with my son along the beautiful winding roads between his family home and his group home. “Is he gonna be okay?” Jared asked, quickly turning from laughter to his inner need for everything to be alright. “Oh yes. Mary loves her baby, Jared. She’s just frozen in time right now but she’s going to save him, honey,” I say to him while trying not to burst into tears. He’s graduating from high school this June and that means he’s aging out of services he’s had in place for eighteen years, services that I fought for and carefully helped design, services that have kept him engaged and progressing ever since he was three years old. Services that have helped him grow into a wonderful young man who wants to contribute to the world around him. Gone will be his daily routine of school, which he loves and which he keeps saying he will miss with a sadness in his voice that breaks my heart. Gone will be his daily key interactions with similar-aged peers with similar abilities. Gone will be his beloved, caring teachers and staffers who know him so well, caregivers he’s grown so close to. Gone will be his daily math lessons which he loves so much that I have to buy him paper and note pads to keep him supplied on a weekly basis. Gone will be the thing that my son looks forward to each day. Everything that my son looks forward to and loves during the Monday through Friday carefully planned and meticulously followed schedule will be gone. It is that schedule that has kept my son stable all these years. It has left me trying to patch together a support quilt with very few squares of worthy fabric. He wants to go to college like his siblings but because he needs constant monitoring and because he has mild intellectual disabilities, there are no local programs that fit. He wants to get his own apartment but because of the years’ long waiting list and his need for constant supervision, that is almost an impossible wish to fulfill. He wants to drive but his tendency to get distracted and turn the go-kart steering wheel wherever he’s looking is a huge problem so I’ve never let him drive a real car. I’ve made inquiries to local places but so far there are no takers. He wants to get married and adopt a child. He wants me to help him find his one true love. (#ThanksDisney) He wants to get a job and earn his own money and contribute just like everyone else. All these things are my boy’s dreams, dreams I’ve wanted for him as well since he was first growing inside my belly – and I want to make them all come true and he asks me about them, expecting me to make his dreams become a reality because I’m his mother, the one who always saves him… It’s a lot of pressure and some nights I can’t sleep for thinking about it, trying to solve this impossible puzzle. “’Who’’s on first, ‘What’’s on second, ‘I Don’t Know’ is on third…” But I’m the batter at home plate and my son is in the dugout of life waiting for me to hit one over the fence for him. Jared is big and bright and he expects the world… “Is she gonna save him?” he suddenly asks. “Yes, honey,” I say and reach out my hand to caress the back of his head with his buzz-cut hair, a move that soothes him when he’s worried or upset. “Yes, she’s gonna save him. That’s what mothers do.” Satisfied, Jared reaches over and turns on the radio, switching stations until he finds a country song by Old Dominion. “A Song For Another Time” promises my boy he’ll find love like in his teenaged dreams, living in a pink house and driving down some old country road. I keep driving down this old New York road and Jared keeps dreaming about his future. We’ll do this again next Sunday and the Sunday after that and the Sunday after that until life thaws out a little and I can start making some moves to really reach my boy and give him what he needs in this next uncertain phase of life. Now that I’ve found him for the day, I have to give him the world he dreams of, glittery and safe and filled with hope and music. The song plays on and I convince myself I’ve found satisfaction for my boy for another week. I’ve connected with his mind which he often keeps from me and I decide that’s enough for right now, time to let this philosophy class wrap up for the day because the radio told me to. It’s a song for another time. #MoonRiver #ASongForAnotherTime #Autism

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