“Don’t let Mom see it!” Max’s teacher Kacey whispered as the two of them darted past me and up the stairs. I had a feeling Kacey was referring to the large shopping bag sticking out of Max’s backpack, of which he was making absolutely no effort to conceal. I love that about Max; he just can’t hide something. It falls into that swirling vortex of abstract thinking. Autism makes it hard for him to take another person’s perspective. Max is a literal guy, a concrete thinker, Joe Friday on the old TV show Dragnet. “Just the facts ma’am.”
A few moments later, I heard Max’s footsteps thumping back down the stairs. “Mom, I need a gift bag,” he said dutifully.
I handed him a bag, but a minute later he was back again. “Mom, I need some tissue.” Max’s familiar flat tone told me he was repeating exactly what Kacey had instructed him to say.
Max bounced up the stairs once more, tissue in hand. I waited in the living room, overwhelmed with gratitude for a teacher that takes Max shopping so he can buy me a Christmas gift. It’s not about the gift; what I cherish is that my son has chosen it for me.
After several minutes of whispering and the sound of crinkling paper, Max came down the stairs with that familiar red gift bag clasped in his hands, tissue peaking from the top. I thought my heart was going to explode. As he set it down under the Christmas tree, I used my most surprised voice, which is high-pitched enough to bring every dog in the neighborhood to our door. “Well, Max!” I gushed. “What…is…that?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “A hairdryer.”
Kacey and I locked eyes. If I’d had a mouth full of coffee, no doubt I would have spit it across the room. Gift giving in our home is a bit unconventional.
New Year’s Eve came, and even though my hair looked great and we actually had a party invitation, Max opted to stay home and “watch the ball drop” on TV. I think they’d been talking about it at his day program. Staying home also meant we could watch the never-ending string of chick flicks leading up to the final count down. The fact that my 28 year-old son enjoys these movies is evidence of the appreciable good that has come from being raised by a single mother. In a small way, I feel it is my contribution to the human race. We watched Sleepless in Seattle…twice. If you ask Max what the movie is about, he will tell you, “A microwave,” and “The Empire State Building,” two important and often overlooked themes of the film.
I never quite know what to do with myself on New Year’s Eve. Somewhere along the way I must have believed those romantic comedies of the 1990s, the ones that tell you that whatever you’re doing when the clock strikes midnight defines your entire existence, as long as your existence fits within a 90-minute film. But, real life isn’t that predictable. This past year has been hard. Very hard. The thought of a new year should have helped me lift the edge of the rug and sweep the past behind. But instead I felt myself wrestling with angst for what is to come, for the unknown and unseen.
We have made it 28 years on this autism journey. Nothing has been easy or tidy. If God had handed me this itinerary years ago, I’m sure I would have tried to hide it under the nearest rock. But that would have been a mistake. I would have missed everything that has made life so beautiful.
God has never left our side, even on the darkest of days. God is with me. God is with my son. And He is not asking us to step forward into the unknown—not without him.
With minutes left on the clock, we turned the channel to watch the excitement of Times Square in New York. People had been standing in the rain the entire day just to stake their territory on the crowded streets. And I needed to stake our territory too. I stretched a blanket over the two of us as we sat side-by-side in Max’s 1993 Audi seats, which are in the middle of our living room, of course. These seats belonged to the car my dad drove, and then we drove, and then my niece drove. Now, to his great delight, the driver’s seat and passenger seat belong to Max. They are an unusual family heirloom, and a tangible reminder that we are part of something so much bigger than this single moment in time.
I turned to Max who was bright-eyed and eager for the one-minute countdown to the new year. His skin glowed from the television, from ten thousand lights in Times Square coming into our living room. His beauty overwhelmed me.
“Max,” I said as I touched his arm. “Do you know what you have inside you?”
I cringed at myself for asking my son such an abstract question, and braced for his answer—body parts, he might tell me, or the dinner he just finished. Max’s mind only goes to what is literal, what is fact—the truth you can touch and see and hold in your hands.