Many, many years ago in elementary school, my teacher gave us the assignment of asking our parents whether they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated.
She made a little wager with us. “Anyone want to guess how many of your parents will remember?” Someone said something like, “My mom can’t even remember to pack my lunch,” which got laughs and summed up our opinion pretty well. I don’t think any of us believed our parents could possibly remember it in any real detail. My teacher simply responded, “All of them will.” We all thought she was crazy.
I remember all this because of the amazement I felt the next day – in a way I’d never remotely experienced before – when we discovered one by one in the class that she was right. I still haven’t forgotten the impact this had on me.
As elementary school children in an era still without momentous single events – though I do remember watching the first Space Shuttle go up on TV at school with quite a lot of detail – we lacked any context for understanding how someone could remember something in such perfect detail for so long.
I can narrate almost my entire day of Sept. 11, 2001 in enough detail to talk about it for the better part of an hour. Compared to many others, it’s not terribly interesting or compelling, but it’s how I carry my memories of that day; it’s how I have chosen to never forget.
I’m experiencing a very strange feeling today. I wonder whether the J-Man will ever have that assignment in school, to ask me someday what I remember of that unspeakably awful Tuesday. Will he too be amazed at all the details I will carry with me for the rest of my life?
Then another question popped into my head, Will he appreciate the emotions and gravity and tragedy of that day enough for its significance to register to him? Is that even a fair question? Is any of this any different for an autistic child vs. those who aren’t? Aren’t all children just like I was back in elementary school, unbelieving that our clueless parents could remember such a thing, especially because we’ve become the parents who regularly lose car keys and everything else?
For whatever reasons, remembering life-changing events and people and places and stories – and all the feelings around them, whether joyous or tragic – is an important part of who I am. I have a hard time understanding people who aren’t like this. Soaking in and processing the myriad emotions and interactions of others in most any situation is almost like a reflex to me. (Understanding my own is a far different story.) It seems likely that the J-Man will process events and defining experiences like these quite differently.
This is neither good nor bad, of course. Perhaps it’s that today I’m in touch with how much I don’t understand about how he sees and makes sense of the world. That may sound obvious, but the breadth and depth of my ignorance seems more palpable by the day. Last night I found myself desperate to figure out what’s most important to him. I know that’s a whole lot – and probably something impossible – to ask of a parent and a four-year-old.
Lately I’ve been doing something I very rarely do – thinking about what school will be like for him down the road, and more broadly, what the future holds for him. And just this second as I write this sentence, I figured out why.
I desperately want to be able to share experiences with him. I want to be able to share in something with him and us talk about it and each of us understand and appreciate what the other sees and feels about it. I want to be able to sit with him and say, “Do you remember that time we…” and have us both draw on common memories and laugh.
As he helps me remember all the essential parts of who I am and what matters in life, my hope is that I remember things that are important for him and help him do the same. Maybe this is how we build our story together and keep moving on, regardless of what has happened – or may yet happen – to us.
For today, we remember everyone whose lives were irrevocably changed on that terrible day. We give thanks for heroes and remember all who were lost and those who love them.