Today is what we call Diagnosis Day, the day on which our J-Man was diagnosed with autism three years ago. We have in the past struggled with how one might observe Diagnosis Day or whether it’s necessary to really do so. In our “Diagnosis Day – 2nd Anniversary Edition” last year, we thought about it like the equivalent of renewing your wedding vows. Over time I’ve come to think of it as an opportunity to look back at how far we’ve come as a family in the past year, to give thanks for all those who have helped us, and to renew our commitment as parents and advocates to our children’s growth and to the rights of all children. But as we wrote about on that first Diagnosis Day, the vivid memories of that day always stay with you.
That day three years ago, I felt an entire range of emotions. I was angry, fired up, in despair, filled with resolve, weighed down with fear and every other emotion you could imagine, but most of all overflowing with love for my beloved son. The diagnosis brought a sense not of finality, as no future is ever completely written, but more that we were in this for the long haul now.
These therapies we’d been doing for much of his life weren’t a temporary detour from some other existence. We wouldn’t be taking any exits off this road any time soon. And the best thing we could do was make our peace with that, grieve whatever we needed to, and prepare ourselves for the journey ahead and all the adventures it would bring. The image that came to my mind repeatedly was that now we were running a marathon, and we needed to learn how to run that kind of race from here on.
People often see marathons as a dour battle against suffering and pain. Running is regularly thought of as painful, hard, and even unnatural. Many who ponder just the concept of trying to complete a marathon do so in terms of survival. This is unfortunate as I’ve learned that distance running is so unlike this. It is as much about the journey as completing a distance. It is about learning to put one foot in front of the other and piecing those small steps together into a far grander whole.
Running a marathon seems ludicrous to most of us, but taking that one next step doesn’t. We can be so overwhelmed by the enormity of things in our lives that we can’t even see past that let alone know all the steps we have to take to get where we hope to go. But give us a single, next step, and often we can do that much. And that’s exactly how a marathon is run. I tend to think that I’m not running these seemingly crazy distances; I’m just putting steps together, one after another, over and over again until I get there. This is how our lives can work.
Divide a challenge into its smallest parts, and in doing so we discover a way to overcome it. It is about realizing that what we perceive as our limits really aren’t, that we are so much stronger and more capable than we think we are. It is about going after what is possible rather than focusing on what seems impossible. It is about believing that you can come to the start line, answer the call to go, and somehow achieve something you’ve never done before.
I used to think I would never do something like run a marathon. Eight months ago, I was struggling just to get up off the couch. But in working these five-and-a-half years with this remarkable boy, I’ve learned that so much is possible if you just take one small step at a time and believe that somehow it’ll all add up to something amazing. I see how far I’ve come since I got up off that couch and decided to make big changes in my life, and I am astonished. I have a long way to go, but that’s OK. I will always believe that I wouldn’t have known how to come this far without our J-Man’s example to guide me.
Now our not-so-little-anymore wunderkind Dale Jr. is showing us to see life from yet more perspectives. He seems amazed at so much of his world, regardless of whether it’s something great or small. He just looks so in love with the world. His exuberance infects me and energizes me. He is our adventurous child, rarely afraid of diving into something. He explores and experiments, he creatively figures things out, and he is undeterred by anything. He soaks it all in and misses nothing.
Our two sons are developing differently, but in doing so they offer us a far richer understanding of the world than we would ever have otherwise. If the J-Man first taught me the path to achieving something great in my life, perhaps Dale Jr’s adventurous and exuberant spirit has taught me how to just believe, dive in, and go for it.
This year, and honestly quite by accident, I’m doing something completely different for Diagnosis Day. The marathon I’m running tomorrow just happened to fall on March 20th. They didn’t schedule it just for my benefit, of course, and besides I didn’t even connect the two until about a week ago. I don’t know why I didn’t before then. I had a whole set of reasons to take on this challenge, and the race falling on the same weekend as Diagnosis Day added the exclamation point on the end of the sentence.
So tomorrow I will celebrate everything I’ve learned from my kids and from my life. I will proclaim that even with all these challenges we face and all the effort they require, I am stronger than ever for it. I have come back from a difficult place in my life. When some people assume that parents of special needs children are doomed to an existence of unending struggle and despair, maybe now I can show them it is possible to be that parent and do some pretty kick-ass stuff. And tomorrow I’ll think a lot about my grandmother because I think that’s the kind of attitude she would appreciate and want me to follow in life.
Four or five hours after this weekend’s marathon begins, it will end. The marathon of our lives will continue on. But now I know how to run marathons. I know how to train for them. I know how to get up off the ground on the most difficult days and keep putting one step in front of another until my feet are solid under me again. And I know all this and more because of these courageous, adventurous, determined little boys who taught me to believe that what seems impossible never is.