A letter to my son

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January 29, 2012

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My darling son Ben,

I am sorry, sorry for so many things. It is so easy for me to get caught up in my day, in the hustle and bustle of my job, of the seemingly never-ending list of things I need to do around the house or for you and your brother or for Nicole or for friends or for family. I need to get dinner ready. I need to do the dishwasher. I want to play on my phone. I want to have downtime and sit on the couch and watch some mindless tv. I get frustrated when you can’t come home and simply want to do the same. I expect you to be more aware and understanding of my mood, of what’s “expected” of you, to not raise your voice or express your frustration or exhaustion or aggravation at the end of your day, a day that is so much longer, more involved, more difficult and more draining than any of us could even begin to comprehend.

So you raise your voice. You hit your hand on the table in frustration. You squeeze your brother too hard when goofing around. You say the phrases you know will trigger an outburst in me: “stop it” or “get out” (your own personal F-word). You tell Nicole you don’t want to answer her questions anymore and you “want to talk to Daddy” and then listen as I tell you you made her sad and it’s not okay. And then you feel bad and ask, repeatedly, “Nicole happy? Nicole happy?” because you know you said something that upset us, because I always make a point of telling you that you did. And then you get sad. And you apologize. And you withdraw into yourself and, at the lowest points, tears well up in those big beautiful eyes and you look at me, with the anguish in your heart painted on your face, squint your eyes as tears roll down your cheeks and do your absolutely silent cry, mouth open so wide, which absolutely tears my heart to shreds.

And then, THEN I realize I was too hard on you, too quick to tell you what you shouldn’t do or did do your need to do. I was selfishly focused on my own personal pity party and how Daddy just wants some quiet relaxing time at the end of his oh-so-difficult hard day and has little patience when it comes time to welcome his beautiful, amazing, caring, sensitive son home. My focus is on myself, or on everyone else and how I feel you should be treating them, instead of putting you first, looking at the world, our home and each situation through your eyes, and not taking the extra second to contemplate the simple fact that you saying “I want Daddy” is not you being mean to Nicole or shutting her out, but instead is your way of letting us know that you want to talk to Daddy. Nothing more, nothing pointed, nothing mean. You don’t have the vocabulary that we do, and while your words may be limited, as your father I should know and take them time to realize that simple fact. You wear your heart on your sleeve and, of all people, your own father should be the one you can expect to understand, empathize and be able to accept how you express yourself and what it is you’re trying to express.

Ben, I am sorry. I am sorry for so many things. I’m sorry that I go through waves of diving into every single web site that talks about amazing treatments or approaches for “dealing with” Autism and get all hot-to-trot on what we should could maybe look at trying for you. On my computer or on my phone. While I leave you to watch Netflix on your iPad, right beside me. Instead of playing with you, engaging with you, taking the time to listen to you describe in minute detail the way the toilet flushes in the airport you went to months ago. You have your passions, you have the things that excite and make you happy, and while I feel I’ve come a long way in recent months in turning a corner from trying to force you to not focus on the things you’re passionate about to instead embracing them as what the are: things you’re passionate about, things that make you happy, things that comfort you, things that are of such burning interest in you that you DO reach out and want to share and communicate about them to others. And I promise you I will do more to be more understanding, and also genuinely interested. I want to engage with you more and, dammit, if talking about the function and sounds and colors and details of toilets is the topic that helps to build and strengthen the bridge between your world and mine, then I am all in, whole-heartedly. I want to know everything about toilets – tell me, talk to me, share with me your excitement.

This is not a pity party. I am not wallowing or letting myself get mired in apologies and promises to be a better daddy. I don’t doubt for a second that I am a good father to you. I know my love for you is as endless as the pride I take in every single thing you do. You are an amazing kid, so incredibly smart and gifted and insightful and amazing. I regret the fact that it’s all too easy for me to forget all of that in the day-to-day grind and instead only realize during the painful moments of loneliness I feel when the house is empty, when you go to your mom’s house for her half of the week with you… It’s only then that I seem to be able to sit back, with a calm head, and feel the hurt of loneliness because I miss you so much and pangs of regret over moments I lost my cool, didn’t see the world from your vantage point and instead tried to force the conventions of the “typical world” onto you. When it should be the other way around – you should be able to expect your father to focus instead on adjusting his expectations and his world to you.

You have the biggest heart of anyone I know. You feel more deeply, more passionately and with more purity than anyone I have ever met. Even in those moments when you’re expressing your anger or frustration or whatever negative emotion you may be feeling, I need to do all I can to realize what’s going on and reach out to you with an empathetic heart instead of slapping down your “grouchiness” and tell you that you’re not being a good boy or your making someone sad. And when you’re happy – when you’re so blissfully giddy with overflowing happiness – I should make sure you know how much I love to see you that way, to share even more in your glee….so that when you find that amazing singing & dancing Elmo doll on the shelves at Target, or you’ve flushed the same toilet in that public restroom for the 10th time and your eyes light up and your smile fills the room like a kid who just opened the most amazing gift on Christmas morning, you should be able to look at your Daddy and see a mirrored reflection of the same elation, the same boundless happiness, so you know that your bliss is shared. That I understand and want you to share your happiness and passions with me.

There is unyielding sense of feeling overwhelmed in my journey as your father, as there are always so many things I worry about. Should we try this treatment or that one? Should we more seriously consider the prescription for (much heavier) prescriptions that your neurologist prescribed several months ago but has set collecting dust on the counter because of my preconceived notions of it being a sledgehammer approach? Is all the research I do online make me fall pretty far too easily to the “autism cult” of false hope in magic “cures” (such an ugly word) or ways to make you, my darling and amazing boy, more “typical?” What does the future hold for you? What happens when you turn 18? What happens to you when I die?

I can lose myself in those fearful questions for hours….and I often do. That’s not to say they’re not legitimate, or worth the time to think through and explore. But I can’t let them be all-consuming, and I sure as hell shouldn’t be thinking about those things or looking into those things or focusing on those things when you’re sitting right beside me, in the safe comfortable environment of Daddy’s house that you love so much, instead of talking with you, playing with you, engaging with you.

With your unbelievably crazy schedule, I’m lucky if I get 2-3 (waking) hours a day with you, and that includes getting you ready for school, eating dinner, bath time and tucking you into bed. That time is precious, especially when for half of most weeks I don’t get to see you at all. That special time we have together needs to be focused on you, engaging with you, being a good father and letting you be a happy and goofy and fun-spirited 8-year old. There’s all the time in the world in evenings and the days you’re not at my house to do my research and think about the bigger picture items that so often plague my brain, but never enough time to tickle or chase or play basketball or smash the tether ball together.

I miss you Ben, and I love you so, so much. I cannot wait to come home and have you back with me so I can start to do a better job of being there for you, seeing the world and your words and your behavior from YOUR point of view. So that when I give you that last (of several) good night hugs, or when you bound out the door to go to mommy’s house for a few days, I can send you off with a smile and know that during the time we had together I was a good father and not wrack myself with regret or guilt over what I should’ve done, or should’ve done differently.

That change starts now. No more regret or beating myself up if I, or you, have bad days. I love you, I know I’m a good father to you, and I want to make sure you know how loved you are and how you can always feel safe and secure and understood and happy when you’re with me. So come here, squeeze my cheeks and ask Daddy to talk like a pirate and say “Aaahhrrr, matey!” – let’s have some fun, together, every single day. Tell me about that toilet, what side the handle is on and if it’s loud or soft and how, after Target, if you’re a good boy, you get to flush the toilet one time. Tell me all about it. I want to know everything. My beautiful boy…

One Response to “A letter to my son”

  1. Nicole says:

    I don’t even know what to say…You are an amazing father and I could not have said any of that any better.

    So much of that describes how I feel about you Bennie, all the things I say or shouldn’t say, or do or don’t do. I know I get frustrated with you and I often play the “poor me” person when you chose daddy over me. But I shouldn’t. I am a grown adult and need to stop acting like a child. You are being honest, you aren’t trying to hurt my feelings. If you want Daddy to brush your teeth or help with homework, that is okay. I still get your hugs and squeezes, I still get to love you and take care of you. That doesn’t change. My response to you shouldn’t be “sad”. You shouldn’t feel bad about your choices. Ever! And I’m sorry for causing that big heart to feel that sorrow. I will work better at that Ben. I promise.

    Your obsessions are your passions and we are all going to work better at embracing them. Yesterday at the park, I had such a great conversation with you about the toilets at my office. What color they were, what floor they were on, the side of the toilet where the handle was, whether it was loud or soft. You engaged me and had a back and forth conversation. If that is all you want to talk about with me or any of us now, then guess what? That is 100% A-OK! It is enhancing your communication skills and it helps you engage with others. That is what is important. Not the subject matter. And you know what else? I admire your amazing attention to detail. How you remember ever little thing about every bathroom you have ever seen. What a great attribute to have.

    I have no doubt that as you grow older, your abilities are going to flourish and you are going to continuously make us proud. Whether it’s learning a new facial expression, new vocabulary words, questions to ask us, a new body movement, or a new way to show us how big your heart is, we are always going to be so proud of you. I will work better at showing how proud I am of you. I will be more attentive to you and share in your excitement and embrace those things that spark that beautiful brain of yours.

    You have taught me so many things about myself that I never knew. You are teaching me how to be patient, how to look at things differently and appreciate them through your eyes. I need to better show you how grateful I am for that. I will show you!

    I love you Ben. You are an amazing little boy and while sometimes it is hard for me to show it when I get frustrated or am tired from work and studying, always know that my love is unconditional and will forever exist.

    You already have two great parents and I am so fortunate you have included me in your family. Thank you for letting me be a part of your life.

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