Monday, August 27, 2012

The Eternal Optimism of the Asperger Mind

I have written about my autistic son before. Despite grappling with the challenges brought on by Asperger's Syndrome, he remains a bottomless pool of good cheer.

Impressed as I am by his incredible kindness, courage and fortitude, I am heartened by the way in which his presence tends to bring out the best in those around him. It re-ignites my faith in all things good and right in this troubled world, not like a match - more like a blow torch.

A week after graduating from middle school, he joined his older brother and started training with the high school boys' cross-country team. A week after that, he had to go to practice on his own while his brother went off to scout camp and a mission trip. 

The thought of Christopher riding his bike alone, to and fro, conjured every negative scenario imaginable -  a forgotten water bottle, a stolen bike, stranger danger, taunting, getting lost on a remote trail. Leave it to me to think the worst and hope for the best. It's a wonder I ever let him leave the house.

The team, a great bunch of young men led by an amazing coach, graciously accepted him into their protective fold. By the time his brother resumed the practice schedule, Christopher was just one of the guys and the routine was just that. Routine. 

On a couple of balmy Sunday nights, he tagged along to a few sessions with our church's youth group and was happy to see some of his teammates there. My husband and I stepped back and watched as his social network began to take shape. 

Yet, as the new school year approached, panic began to bubble to the surface. 

What were we thinking, telling the high school he wouldn't need an aid? I must've been out of my mind to push for regular, not self-contained, classes. 

Call it denial, but I made a conscious decision to not worry about his future as a high school student. While that plan worked well during the day, my subconscious had other plans, making sure I was wide awake every night at 3am so I could toss and turn until my alarm went off two hours later.

When his schedule arrived in the mail, I wondered if sending him to a private school was a viable option. However, since I didn't want to deplete his college fund, I was left with no choice. I considered, if only for a fleeting moment, the impossible. Home schooling.

Thankfully, the moment passed.

The next thing I knew, we were dropping him off at his Freshman orientation - a two-hour session in which the new students would be welcomed by the administrators. They'd also get to "walk their schedules" so they could practice the route they'd have to take to get through their school day.

Considering that I still get lost on that sprawling campus - even after attending seven years' worth of curriculum nights, I was certain that I'd be picking up a frustrated, agitated child. 

I decided to practice my mantra while I waited in my idling car.

Everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine.

I spotted him as he approached, twirling the curl on his forehead, frowning. Uh-oh, I thought. Here we go.

He plopped in the front seat and I started to pull away from the curb. 

I was afraid to ask, but did anyway. "How'd it go?"

He started, as if I interrupted a deep thought. "Oh. Good." Then without providing any further detail, he continued, "Say, do you think I could go to the dance tonight?"

Dance?

"The school is having a welcome dance for Freshman only. First of its kind."

Wrestling my over-developed protective instinct to the mat, I smiled and said, "Sure. Absolutely."

As we drove home, I tried to imagine him fitting in. He's a tall, gangly boy with acne and braces who feels awkward around kids he doesn't know. Especially girls.

Then it hit me. He'll blend. For once in his life, he'll be just like everybody else.

On the first day of school, he bounded off with his brother. Looking like happy hermit crab carrying an overstuffed backpack, he had his schedule in one pocket and a map of the school in the other. And I knew, deep down, that everything was going to be just fine.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

And Then There Were Five

My household is shrinking. Once bursting with seven of us, we're now down to five. While I'm loving the new-found elbow room, ever-present car keys, and slightly lower grocery bills, I do miss my two college-bound boys.

Relatively close by, our oldest opted to stay at his university for the summer, taking classes and working. This week, we moved our second son into his dorm on a campus far, far away.

According to the welcome sign sticking up out of the shriveled up corn stalks on the side of the highway, Iowa is the "The Field of Opportunity".

As the parent of a college student, I must say I definitely prefer that sensible slogan over "The Field of Dreams" (one of my favorite movies, but still, it's a little foolhearty).

Yet, in hindsight, I'm thinking the Shoeless Joe Jackson character might have been right after all.

Iowa is teeming with angels.

When we arrived at our son's residence hall, we were greeted by cheerful students directing us every step of the way. We had him moved in and unpacked within the course of an hour. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we made our way to a welcome session hosted by the head of the "On Iowa" program who started her speech by stating the obvious - people in Iowa are some of the nicest folks on the planet. Hokey, yes, but we had no reason to think otherwise.

After learning more about the fun, informative sessions they had planned for all of the early arrivals, they gave us parents fifteen minutes to say our good-byes.

Trying to keep a positive spin on his day, I did my best to remain stoic. As I stood next to my freshman, I didn't sense a hint of anxiety. I gave him a big hug, kissed him on the cheek and moved out of the way so my husband could follow suit.

A stay-at-home dad since my son was three, my poor hubbie just couldn't let go. My dear son, sensitive to the emotion-heavy moment, gripped him back.

That's when I lost it.

Thoughts started racing through my head. What do you mean we won't see you until Thanksgiving? What happens if you get sick? What will I do if my computer malfunctions?

At the fifteen minute mark, we pulled away and released him from our clutches. Smiling, he bounded for his group and never looked back. Clearly, this was pay back for that first time we blithely dropped him off at daycare all those many years ago.

After filling up our tank with gas that was priced at a level we haven't seen since 1996, we hit the highway and were a tad alarmed to see our battery light flash on. Granted, our SUV is eight years old, but we just had it serviced for our road trip to Orlando last month. We trudged on, sure that there was nothing to worry about.

About an hour later, everything began shutting down. We pulled onto the shoulder and, while my husband called AAA, I hopped out to chat with Angel #1 who was stepping out of his Iowa State patrol car. After we informed him that a tow truck was on its way, he suggested a couple of repair places nearby and promised to check on us in an hour just to be sure we were taken care of.

Thirty minutes later, Angel #2 pulled in front of us. As he hoisted our idled vehicle onto his tow truck, he listened to the list of establishments Angel #1 gave us, then pointed out that since it was after 5pm, they were all closed.

Still three hours from home, we thought of our three younger sons alone at home and started to panic. Our AAA membership would cover the cost of a hotel room, but Angel #2 had a better idea.

"Let me call a buddy of mine. He owns a shop in Davenport. I'll bet anything, all you need is a new alternator."

With no other choice, we agreed.

Forty-five minutes later, we were introduced to Angel #3 who, after dropping his sons off at football practice, picked up a new alternator, met us at his shop, opened it up, and pulled our car in.

Two hours and all of the free soda from his vending machine that we wanted later, he closed the hood and handed us his business card so we could call him in case we had any more problems. It came as no surprise that his logo is a wrench with wings on it (which I promise to scan once my printer is repaired).

By the time we arrived our uncomfortably roomy home, it was well after midnight, and I had completely reversed my stance on Iowa's state logo - "Field of Dreams" is so much more appropriate...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Spirited Away: A Review of "Stay Tuned: Conversations with Dad from the Other Side"

As much as I love curling up with a good book, I rarely make the time for it. That being said, for me to not only read a book cover to cover, but give it a resounding endorsement is actually saying quite a lot.

A fan of author Jenniffer Weigel's Chicago Tribune column, I picked up a copy of her book Stay Tuned: Conversations with Dad from the Other Side (Hampton Roads, 2007) out of curiosity more than anything. 

And I am so glad I did.

This sincere, witty and heart-warming account of the spiritual journey on which she embarked before the passing of her father, beloved Chicago sportscaster Tim Weigel, is truly compelling and inspirational. 

After bucking her Dad's advice to go into teaching, she follows him into the world of broadcasting, much to his chagrin. Eager for some non-judgemental career guidance, Jenniffer accepts a pal's invitation to visit a psychic. 

Approaching the experience with the curiosity of an investigative reporter, she holds her cards close to her chest. When the psychic nails a few key details about her life, she's intrigued, but not yet convinced. Instead, she asks her Dad to join her for a follow-up visit in the hopes of connecting with her deceased paternal grandmother. 

What ensues not only intrigues the self-described "Emmy award-winning skeptic", it opens a up new medium (pun intended) for discerning her potential and identifying her dream job while enhancing her relationship with her Dad.

Like Jenniffer, my career choice was heavily influenced by my father. While I yearned to scratch out a living as a writer, he insisted that I major in business so I could earn a decent living and someday follow his footsteps into corporate infamy. Striking a compromise, I chose the field of technical writing and generated software user manuals instead of novels. 

After too many years of sitting in claustrophobic cubicles, I too found myself looking for direction and spiritual fulfillment. During my quest, I stumbled upon a few of the same experts mentioned in this book, but the only psychic I ever visited was a suburban housewife who, for forty dollars, told me I would have two boys (which I did, plus 3 more) and that I had issues with my Dad (really, who doesn't on some level?). Nonetheless, I was riveted by Jenniffer's encounters with the mediums she interviewed.

I especially liked the way she would practice changing her attitude from want to gratitude (ala author Neale Donald Walsch), nabbing perfect parking spaces and, later, plum jobs by stating, "Thank you in advance for the job that already makes me happy" and believing every word.

She also recounts interviews with renowned authors who help her gather the courage needed to pursue her dream. These particular passages, in which James Van Praagh describes exactly what happens when we die and Carolyn Myss shares her belief that we each must follow through with our sacred contracts, left me feeling comforted and validated. 

Is it any wonder I couldn't put this book down?

As I continue to carve a path that will transport me from technical writing to a syndicated column and bestseller list, I find myself drawing the same conclusion as Ms. Weigel - true happiness and fulfillment can only be found within. Easier said than done, I know, but here's hoping practice makes perfect.

Thank you in advance for the job that already makes me happy...