The soundtrack of my life is sung by Raffi. Since I was a child, I’ve been repeatedly watching the same 1984 concert that the children’s folk singer played in Canada. From VHS tapes to DVD rips to mp4 files, the “Young People’s Concert” has been a staple in all the homes of my life.
I watched it ad-nauseum in my own childhood, the childhood of friends’ younger siblings, and my daughter’s toddling years. No matter the time period, there seemed to be a steady stream of Raffi playing in the air. It wasn’t until Lucas, my seven-year-old child with Autism, came along, though, that Raffi went from singer to icon in our house.
Lucas is non-verbal so a lot of our communication is done through music, gestures, and common understanding. All three of these categories are checked off when it comes to Raffi’s “Singable Songs For The Very Young.” He watches it at least once a day. When “Shake Your Sillies Out” comes on, he comes to get me so I can join him in a jumping dance. When “Brush Your Teeth” starts to play, we both laugh and do all the mannerisms. When he gets upset, I start to quote various moments from the show and he calms down with a smile. I do the ad-libs, and audience call-outs. I can recite this concert in my sleep. It’s the one thing we bond over the most.
I’ve been dying to take Lucas to a Raffi concert for years but it never came together. A few years back, we were in DisneyWorld during one of his rare Big Apple appearances. It made me sad and my incredulous wife had to point out, “Are you seriously sad that we’re in DisneyWorld right now?” Truth be told – I was. A little bit.
So when I found out Raffi was coming to New York City on November 4, I jumped at the chance to get tickets. Finally, our moment had come. Ordering the seats for me, my wife, and kids was the easy part. It was the second-guessing, anticipation, and unknown that followed the purchase which was a bit harder.
For starters, there was a Raffi meet-and-greet and, as I pointed out, this kid loves Raffi. Conventional wisdom would say that getting those tickets would make me Father of the Year. However, knowing my son and how he responds to things like that, I held off. He doesn’t fawn all over celebrities or characters. For him, the major event would be the concert and, in order to make sure it didn’t leave him miserable, I wanted everything to be perfect. Whining in line for his iPad, all so he can take a picture with Raffi felt like, well, it would be more for me than him. There’s a good chance that it would leave him in a terrible mood before the show even started and the day would be ruined. I was proud of myself for recognizing that fact. A few years back, I might not have and then wondered why the day was ruined. Maybe next time. This is the first time. The first time should be a happy one.
I wanted to make everything perfect because, honestly, there was a huge chance he could hate it. That’s not even a statement about Autism as much as it’s a statement about little kids being weird. When my daughter went to her first Wiggles concert at two, she refused to look at the stage. Instead, she turned her body sideways towards my wife and me before shifting her eyes sideways like a cartoon spy. She watched most of the concert through her peripheral vision and we were worried that we had broken her brain somehow. The entire time, we kept asking if she was OK. It was very strange. Afterwards, she said she liked it. That was even stranger.
Keep in mind, I couldn’t tell Lucas about what was happening. I tried. In the days and weeks leading up to the concert, I’d point to the custom Raffi poster on his wall and say, “Look, buddy. We’re gonna see him soon. You want to see Raffi? In person? We will.”
I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand. While we can communicate things to each other like needing a snack or whether he’s tired, being the hype man for a children’s folk singer might be a lofty attempt on my part. His communication iPad has no buttons for “You’re seeing freakin’ Raffi soon! Yay!” This concert would be a surprise to him. Everything in my heart wanted it to be a pleasant one but a part of me could picture him crying through the live Raffi concert so he could watch the old Raffi concert on his iPad during it. It may be a funny thought but it also was a genuine concern. My stomach was in knots as we got in the car and began the drive from Long Island into New York City.
Things immediately started tanking when we got out of the car. Lucas had a meltdown until we shoved some food in his face. Then, before the concert even started, I had to pry his hands from the cookies being clutched by a preschooler next to us. That’s a story for another day. After an awkward apology, the lights went down and the show was about to start.
And then he fell asleep.
Yup. He was all snuggled up in the fetal position like a mattress commercial. There was no way I was letting that happen. Just as Raffi broke into a rendition of “Something In My Shoe”, one of my son’s favorite songs, I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done before.
I purposely woke him up.
Not only did I wake him up, I jammed my cell phone into his side like a prison hit. He jolted awake, sat straight up, and went eye to eye with me, giving a look of shock that said, “What the heck did you just do?!”
That’s when he heard Raffi singing. I pointed my finger into the air and he gave me a sideways smirk. From then on, things were pretty much great.
I add that “pretty much” part because, with any parenting whether Autism or otherwise, things are a roller coaster. There were parts of the show that felt like we were completely on the same page. We’d trade looks, smiles, or hand motions for the “wheels on the bus.” Then there were times when he tried to continue his nap or run down the aisle. There’s never any all or nothing with kids. There are degrees of good days. On a whole, this was a very good day. It’s a memory we will never forget.
It felt like a pilgrimage and, for my family, it was. Raffi is our most common bond and his music has helped our whole family, verbal and non-verbal, better communicate with each other. Graduations, promotions, and trophies are great, but nothing made me feel like a better parent than seeing the smile on my son’s face at the concert. We did it all for him. In a world where I often worry that he might be forgotten or overlooked, on this day, I knew he wasn’t.