One year ago, we spent that March 19th in shock and in tears, stunned and lost. I can picture every part of that small office and the way I kept gripping and releasing the arm rest of the faux leather couch. I can still see the doctor looking at us, eyes full of understanding, clipboard and notes in his lap. I still remember the calm and kindness in his voice, an even tone but direct and honest and spoken through a chorus of moanful sounds from the J-Man, though I remember few words other than ‘autism’.
My fingers still know how the fabric over Mary’s knee felt as I awkwardly patted her in an uncertain attempt to comfort both her and myself. She was bouncing him up and down trying to calm his overloaded, tired body as he whined, mentally and emotionally exhausted from the evaluation. I remember how I put my flat, left palm across his back – in those days big enough for me to span his entire back – pushing and rubbing in some gesture that lacked any clear purpose other than parental instinct.
I recall thinking, how many times has this doctor had to sit across from parents and tell them this same news? I don’t remember the exact first words out of my mouth after hearing the diagnosis, but I know the meaning behind my question – What do we do now? I wrote down everything he said as if my pen could save us, like maybe I could draw some road to a future we could no longer see.
I remember the plainness of the 70s-era office building and the trees hesitantly coming into bloom outside under a cloudy sky. I can re-feel the sting in my hand from banging my palm on the gear shifter in the car. I can see as much of the way home as the parking lot, but nothing about the drive itself. That road had disappeared too.
I wandered around for a while in our backyard, lost and angry and feeling sorry for myself, probably justifying my self-indulgence by saying over and over how unfair this was to him. I let dread and fear and despair and hopelessness crash through me like terrible waves. I could feel my arms flailing without purpose at everything and nothing, like a man desperately trying not to drown. I remember saying to myself that I was going to kick autism’s ass, not having any idea what that really meant; it was just the first thing that popped into my head.
Then at some point as the clouds yielded a little that afternoon, I could feel something -somewhere right under my sternum – harden like a fist. It didn’t feel like anger or hurt or some odd form of grace. I suppose it was pure, primal resolve. I remember the thought coming to me, He’s the same today as he was yesterday. He is our beloved son and we will do what it takes, even though I had no idea at all what that would mean either.
But on that day, that was enough for me. I went and held him and rocked him and kept saying, everything’s going to be OK, over and over again. It was a mantra at least as much for my benefit as for his, and I still say it often when it’s hard to find any other direction than down.
Things have changed a lot over this past year. My perspective has evolved and grown and in many ways been transformed. But I think I figured out what the point is of observing what I’ll call ‘Diagnosis Day’. We need to remember how we felt. All that hurt and sorrow and anger reminds us of where we started from and how far we’ve come. It helps us to see the same feelings in the eyes of other parents and know how to reach out and comfort them. This is what helps form the foundation of our compassion.
And then there’s remembering that on the morning after the diagnosis, the sun still came up and a new day began, as it has every day since. And he really was just as wonderful and beautiful and perfect as he was the day before, if not even more so, just as he continues to be every day. And the resolve at my core grows anew each day as grace slowly and continually seeps into each crack inside me, bringing with it the love and joy to fill and heal the places that were once raw with hurt and anger and grief.
This morning, I was frustrated and exhausted and stressed and frankly scared about all the challenges and changes that are to come. I’m slowly learning to be OK with this since it’s just part of who we are sometimes, but there are days like today where that’s not easy.
But as I look across the room at Mary smiling and rubbing her hand across her tummy over the new wonder growing inside her, and watching our son laugh and smile and spin and say with pride and conviction one of his newly-discovered words, they help me remember that everything really is going to be OK and that I truly am the luckiest man in the world.