When you first have children, so much of what you do can seem like playacting. Asking an infant what they want for breakfast as you heat up a bottle or venting about your day to an oblivious newborn in a car-seat can feel like they’re being done more for our own benefit. Sure, you do it to introduce them to language, but also to preserve your own sanity as you push through another day of sitting up, spitting up, and making exaggerated faces at dirty diapers.
Over time, though, it changes. Soon, you’re getting answers. Your kid goes from tiny to tot in no time flat and then to a teen before you know it. Soon they’re responding with breakfast orders and you quickly learn that everything you’ve done or said mattered – even when it didn’t seem like it did.
A lot of that happened with my daughter Olivia. At nine, she’s able to remind me of all the lessons I’ve forgotten that I taught her through the years. From strange pieces of historical trivia to grammar tricks, she’ll shock me with a sideways glance and a, “You already told me that.”
That hasn’t happened with Lucas. As a six year old with Autism, he has yet to reach the point where he can verbally tell me memories of lessons learned. Sometimes I will show him something I feel is important, like a safety precaution, and then, while looking him in the eyes, attempt to verify, “You get it. Right, buddy? Don’t do that. OK? You understand, right?”
The truth is, in many cases, I’m not really sure if he understands. I like to hope he does and I will often get verification through his actions eventually. But without spoken words, I’m never given a definite, “I understand. Now leave me alone so I can watch Barefoot Books.”
That can be difficult to navigate on a few levels. As the parent of someone who might not communicate their feelings about all the things they do, it can sometimes feel like we’re still playacting as we did when they were infants. It’s as if some of our moments are being done to get them acquainted with interacting and hopefully pick up the habits they’ll need in life. But it can also feel as if it’s being done out of routine, with no real impact. It can seem like none of it matters.
Yet, deep down, I know the truth. I also know that many other parents in a similar situation to mine know it too.
All of it. All the time we spend with our children matters. They all build up and the major moments, the ones they’ll never forget, are sometimes moments we’ve already forgotten. You never know what will be their most important memories because it’s not your brain choosing them. For that reason, everything matters.
A few months ago, I wrote about Lucas taking the bus to school. I mentioned that every morning, I stood by as it pulled away even though he never really glanced back at me from the bus. Still, I remained by the side of the street so he could see that I was there in case he needed me.
That was then. Today, he looks back at me through the window. Nearly every time I put him on the bus, he’ll climb into his seat and stare back with a happy face. I’ll wave and jump around, so joyful that I didn’t give up all those months ago. Of course, the new bus matron just met me. She doesn’t know about how long I’ve waited for him to look back at me and our six second interaction as he gets on the bus in the morning isn’t enough time to explain it. So I’ll let her think I’m crazy as I bounce around with excitement. It’s not about her anyway. My kid’s looking back!
There are many moments that Lucas and I share which eventually lead to his understanding. There are also many that haven’t. It causes me to sometimes assume that he doesn’t notice or care about something. It’s always a happy moment when I see that I’m wrong.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that his walls were pretty bare. Despite a few photos and holdout decorations from the baby years, Lucas’s room had little in the way of personalized trimmings like his sister’s room. So I set out to find him a poster of Raffi – his favorite singer.
We’ve seen the videos of Raffi’s three concerts hundreds of times – literally. It could even be more. I not only know every word that Raffi sings in them, but also the random call-outs from the crowd, his ad-libs, and audience banter. Whenever he watches it, he comes to get me and laughs as I speak along. To this day, “Brush Your Teeth” is one of my son’s favorite songs and he does the hand motions for each verse. Raffi’s concerts have gotten through to him in ways that few other things have.
Since I was unable to find a genuine Raffi poster, I had one made through Shutterfly and eagerly waited for it to arrive as if it were Santa on Christmas Morning. Sure, it would go up in his room, but it was really more for me. When it came, I framed it and my wife put it on his wall while he was at school.
That night, I brought him up for bed and as he took a seat on the floor, I began chattering away about pajamas and teeth brushing. My words weren’t answered but, as I looked up, I saw that he wasn’t even looking at me. Instead, his head was turned and he was staring at the poster of his musical idol staring back.
Oh. Yeah. I made that for you. You like it?
He stood up right on the bed and looked at it with an expression of approval. He never asked for it. He never even showed a desire to have anything on his walls and probably wouldn’t have. I chose to do it and, even though I assumed I was doing it for myself, it mattered. It mattered to him and I never even realized until I did it.
Just because someone can’t express to you that they’re experiencing something doesn’t mean they aren’t. Every action we take and moment we share is important. Whether someone can respond in the traditional sense or not, it doesn’t affect the vital role that the people who love them play in their lives.
Everything I do matters because I matter to Lucas and he matters to me. That’s the truth and that’s why, even when it seems like he might not be noticing, I’ll always decorate his walls and never stop waiting for that bus to pull away.