Simple Gifts

by Tim on August 31, 2009

This has been an eventful week here in the Flashlight House to say the least. Late last week we celebrated the anniversary of Mary’s 29th birthday! And tomorrow the J-Man turns 4. I can’t believe it; time goes by so fast.

We don’t do much in the way of birthday presents or parties around here really. We’re a pretty low-key bunch. About all Mary and I do for each other is the one not having the birthday goes and picks up takeout, we try to spend some unhurried time together, and we each get some additional me time that typically involves one of us getting a couple of hours out of the house sometime around our actual birthday.

The J-Man seems like he really couldn’t care less about birthdays. Actually, birthday parties routinely upset him. We’ve gone to his friends’ parties, and – understatement warning – rarely does he enjoy himself much. Strange places, crowds, noise, lots of running kids, etc. just don’t do for him, which I can understand. We go because we feel like he needs some practice at social events, but we know when he’s had enough and adjust accordingly. I can’t remember any of his birthday parties where he didn’t just burrow into somebody’s shoulder most of the time.

The concept of presents to unwrap doesn’t seem to click with him either. His general lack of attachment to things doesn’t lend itself to being excited about gifts on his birthday, Christmas, or whenever. And in what seems endemic to autistic kids, he absolutely hates the Happy Birthday song. He covers his ears and retreats into himself. Somebody really needs to do a research study on this phenomenon.

So, we decided to forgo a birthday party for him this year and celebrate it more in his style rather than in the way I think people (and for a long time us, too) expect it should be. We bought him a new swing for the swing set outside, one with a high back and built almost like a small, plastic recliner. He can’t use kid swings because when he gets excited and stims out, he lets go of the swing and flies off. (Thank God for mulch…) Obviously he’s too big for a toddler bucket swing. This new one is rated up to at least 100 lbs and has a five-point harness.

The weather is supposed to be absolutely beautiful tomorrow afternoon when he gets home from school. (70s in early September?!) What will be our birthday party then? Swinging outside – just us and my dad. Simple gifts. But the kind he loves most of all.

These past few days have gone like that too – one small but unspeakably wonderful gift after another shining through even in the midst of the craziness of everyday life.

By a series of fortunate events, there was a computer keyboard in the laundry basket on Friday evening. I had a spare one in the office and earlier in the day I had thrown it in the basket to keep the cats from sleeping in the clean laundry again. It had gotten buried in some sheets and carried downstairs along with everything to fold. While Mary was folding, the J-Man discovered the keyboard, pulled it out, and started playing with it.

He began typing. He’d press a letter with his pointer finger, look up at Mary, and tell her the letter! And he just kept going and going, smiling and laughing and making great eye contact and everything. Mary would sign the letters as he did them, which he then quickly came to expect us to do each time he pressed a new letter. Then, just to show off, he later typed J through R – in alphabetical order! – saying each one as he did. Unbelievable!

Even more awesome was that today when we sent the keyboard to school with him, they brought it out and he not only showed off what he could do for the teachers, he let the other kids join in with him and they played with the keyboard together! [Insert happy dance here.] Apparently one of the (ahem) keys we missed was to not have the keyboard plugged into anything!

He’s also been trying to talk more with his back-and-forth, one-syllable-at-a-time thing he does with us. We’ve figured all along that he knows about a thousand times more words than he can say. What’s been awesome this week is that he’s being a little more daring and adventurous with trying out some new words aloud. It’s like he’s giving himself permission to try more rather than just say what he already knows he can say. I love it! I know that has to be scary for him. To watch him assert himself a little more each day is such a beautiful gift. Every new word is like a song to us.

He’s been more interactive with his favorite TV shows, too. Normally he watches them very passively, but he’s been talking back to the TV more (trying to say words he hears and even like he’s responding to a few questions they’re asking). The other day he was watching Pinky Dinky Doo – one of his current favorites – and there was a little game at the end of that episode called “Eat it or wear it” where you’re supposed to say whether the object that appears on the screen is something you eat (“Eat it!”) or wear (“Wear it!”). The J-Man was watching and actually said “Eee-eee!” (J-man-ese for “Eat!”) and “wwwwwuuuuuhhhh!” (his approximation for ‘wear’) and usually at the appropriate times! [Insert even more happy dances here.]

We also had to finally break down and give him a haircut, or more accurately, the ‘pull out the clippers and buzz most of his hair off ‘ cut (aka, the autistic boy cut). His hatred of haircuts are legendary – not surprising for most of our kids – but the last one several weeks ago wasn’t so bad. This one was the easiest haircut ever! He wasn’t thrilled, but he just sat there until we were done. We couldn’t believe it.

Of course, there was the great IEP meeting last week, too. Read all about how wonderful that was!

Not to be left out, Dale Jr. decided to learn to roll over all the sudden. He kept doing it in his bed, and we still haven’t actually witnessed him rolling anywhere. But we know no one else is sneaking in there and rolling him over! He also had his pediatrician’s appointment last week and is as healthy as can be. He’s almost 16 1/2 pounds (not even four months!) and almost outside the limits of his car seat. His 12-MONTH CLOTHES are almost too small for him! And he smiles and laughs and is like the happiest baby on earth, except when he’s sleeping then he’s the sleepiest baby on earth!

But there was one last gift on Mary’s birthday that is true J-Man. This one seemed to come out of nowhere, but we’ve learned to know better than that by now. And it instantly turned both Mary and I into puddles of tears.

I’ve written before of our fairly elaborate verbal script we go through at bedtime – something that feels almost liturgical to me. But he went ‘off script’ at the end with these unforgettable words. (He talks in italics.)

Eee-eee! Eee-eee? I – I !  I. zzzzhhhhhlllllllll. (being off-script, I didn’t know what to respond with, so I waited) ulllllllllluh. luh? vvvvvvvvuh. Love?! yeee-uh. yuh! oooooo! you! Dee-dee. Daddy. eh-ah. and. Ma-ma. Mama!! I love you too, J-man!

(He usually says this whenever it’s in ‘the script’, but on occasion will do it more spontaneously like this. Either way, he stops here. But this time, he wasn’t at all done.)

sssssssssss. ssssssss? ooooooooh! so! muh-muh! muh! ch-ch. much!!

[cue puddle of tears - which is also what's happening to me right now as I write this]

Our almost-four-year-old pearl of great price.

Though perhaps his disinterest in most things isn’t always considered ‘functional’ or ‘appropriate’, he has taught me that the gifts of greatest value aren’t ever objects or things but rather the unspoken and unspeakable meaning of family and the beauty of presence and our time together. For his birthday, the gifts that are most meaningful to him seem to be just time with us, a great afternoon to be outside in his swing, and the life here that he already has.

Simple gifts that mean everything.

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