The Blessing that Jack Is
Jack, a sweet faced boy of three, with long, blond wisps that fell into his blue eyes, ran, then hopped into my arms in 2005. I was the mother of three teens then. My teens knew that I was hopelessly smitten with every baby and toddler who entered my life and ready to share the maternal gifts that they now refused, those of hugging and reading, of snuggling and giggling, of mending invisible boo boos.
My daughter Nora brought Jack into our home and our lives. Her friend had watched Jack then got a new job and was no longer available.
“Could we watch him?” Nora’s friend had asked.
Everyone knows that I love children. Everyone knows that I love teaching. Everyone knows that I still collect children’s books as though I have gaggles of grandchildren.
“Well, of course,” I had said.
Our entire family, the five of us, sat on the porch anticipating Jack’s arrival. We were told that he didn’t talk. That he might get frustrated by our lack of communication. That he had Autism and was on a strict gluten-free diet. I embraced the chance to learn more about Autism. To reach a child who may be unreachable at times. To teach my children about the joys and challenges of being responsible for a tiny human being. I knew that this experience would be bigger than their previous sitting jobs. I knew that this experience would be life-changing. That God had once again brought someone to us, for us.
At the time that we met Jack, Nora was 14, Alina, 13 and Adam 12. They were typical teens who thought they had all of the answers. There were times when they didn’t need me or want me anymore. But they needed me to help them still with many things. They needed me to help them with Jack.
We had lots of questions.
What if Jack gets frustrated?
What if we don’t understand what Jack needs?
I was very excited about welcoming a new child into our home- about welcoming new chances to learn and grow as a family.
When Jack and his mom arrived, I felt immediately connected. They joined us on our front porch. To communicate, Jack only grunted and used sign language back then. We all watched in wonder. What is Autism? Why does is occur? How will we communicate with Jack? Will he talk one day? Will my maternal skills be effective enough for Jack’s world?
Jack’s mom carried an armful of Jack’s belongings. Toys. Diapers. Clothes. Gluten- Free food. She was the ultimate mom with a heart full of gold, devoted fully to Jack’s well-being. She was a single mom who didn’t miss a beat when it came to covering everything Jack might need.
“This is his Children’s Tylenol. This is his thermometer; here’s how it works. He drinks a lot of water. Here is his Sippy cup. Here is my number. Kisses Jack. Mommy loves you. Bye. This is his blanket. Ok. I gotta go. I’m gonna be late for work. Oh and this is his favorite book.”
As a mother, I knew what Jack’s mom was feeling. She hated to leave her baby. She was unsure if the night would go smoothly. She wanted to know everything that happened and all that she missed. She wanted to trust us fully and hoped she could.
She barely left in time for her second job of the week. In order to make ends meet, she was waitressing on weekends in addition to her full time job. Her commitment and compassion as a mother spoke louder than her exhaustion. Only a few years older than she was, I was exhausted just watching her. My children are becoming independent, I had thought. My life will get easier. Will there be a time when Jack will become independent?
I wasn’t sure how we would break the ice- how we would let Jack know that we welcomed him into our home. Then I thought of bubbles. There are no words needed for bubbles. Bubbles are a universal sign of joy which span across cultures and ages. I remember once when I was nannying and I played bubbles with a baby while sitting in a community park. A Chinese family joined us. They spoke no English but their laughs were no different than ours. They too tried to follow and pop the bubbles. It was a touching moment between two different, yet similar worlds.
Jack and I sat on the porch for one hour, blowing bubbles. We blew them into the wind. We blew them into the bushes. We blew them and then returned them onto the wand and watched how long they remained before popping. Jack giggled wildly with each popping bubble.
My teens, at first apprehensive, joined in the fun and forgot for the moment, that they were losing their childhoods and leaning towards adulthood. It was a chance to fall in love again with my teens. It was a chance to fall in love with Jack.
When Jack entered our home that day, his little hand touched the walls around him, he walked and caressed the wall, the counter, the table. This ritual seemed to comfort him. I followed behind him and did the same thing. He smiled.
When Jack came again, he had a talker- a small digital box with pictures of people, places and things. It had pictures of people displaying feelings too and when Jack wanted to communicate, he pressed the picture and a voice spoke, revealing the word.
Within weeks, Jack was an integral part of our family. We each took turns spending time with him. We knew every aspect of his visit and the rituals that he found comforting. His blanket. His books. His talker. His trains. His cars.
When we tried to change the routine, Jack eventually said, “No.”
Later it expanded to: “Not too sure.”
In honor of Jack, we have instated “Not to sure” into our family conversations. Jack says not too sure to be polite, when he really prefers not doing something.
“Time for a bath Jack, are you ready?”
“Not too sure.”
So if my daughters ask, “Mom, want to go to the mall today?”
“Not too sure,” is my polite answer! They know that the mall is the last place I want to go.
Six years have passed since we first met Jack and he is loved more than ever. Nora and Alina are now adults in college, but when they are home and if they are available, they watch Jack. My son Adam is now 6’1”. He is eighteen and not always verbal, a mumbler when it comes to communicating with his parents. But in Jack’s company, he’s loving and boyish. Setting up racetracks and video games. Offering piggy back rides and grappling in our back yard.
And in those six years, Jack has grown leaps and bounds. He is tall and nearly half my weight. He reads and works an IPAD like a fifteen year old. He is a kind and loving young boy.
Last week when we had Jack, I just so happened to have six books from the library. “Let’s read Jack!”
He wanted to lay in my bed, with me and my children, all snuggled together. We each took turns reading to Jack and he laughed and hid under the covers.
I smiled at the joy that he brings me. The joy he brings us. I wondered how long it will take him until he no longer wants to snuggle and read with me. Will he be different as a teen because of Autism? Then I rubbed his back and asked him about his day. When he finished the details of his day, he started getting cozy and in position. Head to the side, arms sprawled out and I knew he was fading. Then he whispered into the room, “I love you Jodi,” before falling asleep. Priceless.
I still don’t know the whys or hows of Autism, but I do know the following for sure:
That children with Autism are special.
That children with Autism are gifts from God and are perfect as He created them.
That children with Autism should have the same rights as all children.
That children with Autism can be great teachers if we pay attention.
That all children, especially those with special needs, need compassionate advocates like Jack’s mom.
To learn more about Autism, go to www.autismspeaks.org