When people find out that I have a non-verbal son with Autism, they tend to open up about their lives. You’d be surprised how many fathers see this as an opportunity to tell me all about the issues they have with their own children. Whether acquaintances, friends, and random people next to me on airplanes, they all follow the same basic format.
Hey. Listen. I love my son, but he’s never gonna be a football player like I was. I know. He likes these video games. This Fork-night. I don’t get it. I don’t get these video games. He likes them. I don’t know. I have to just accept it. He just won’t ever play football you know? It’s hard, though, you know, as his dad.
Yeah. I know.
I’m sure someone will read that and think that this fellow father is tone-deaf to my situation. I mean, after all, my seven-year-old isn’t going to be joining a football team anytime soon. In fact, we’re still applauding his emerging skills at playing a simple game of catch. It seems like this parent is almost rubbing my face in the fact that, while my child is struggling to reach some basic goals, his kid is a case of “almost perfect but not quite.”
The truth, though, is that I’m actually in a better place mentally than that father is. I learned an important lesson early on in Lucas’s life that many other parents don’t learn until the teen years and beyond. Some never learn it at all.
It’s a lesson of acceptance and expectations. It’s about coming to grips with unexpected outcomes from the start. I have learned to live with Lucas’s lack of speech up until now and as long as it will continue. I have seen firsthand that there are no failed goals that can make me anything less than happy to have him as my son. The things that he does push to achieve may be frustrating for him and me, at times, but they aren’t the top thing in my head and I certainly wouldn’t go on about it to a virtual stranger. This father, on the other hand, sees the lack of football skills as the end of the world.
Before you have a child, there are a lot of things you expect to happen. You envision a world where this mini-me will carry on your legacy with pride. Maybe you picture them becoming a sports star or a doctor. You have expectations and you have goals. You’ve basically designed the layout of their lives before they even started. Any deviation from that plan can often be seen as a disappointment.
I had similar thoughts before Lucas was born. I imagined a son who would watch wrestling with me or play baseball in the backyard. We’d go camping, tie bow ties, practice shaving, and all the things that dads expect to do with sons. There were a lot of preconceived ideas for this just-conceived person waiting to arrive. It was up to him to do them. I was waiting.
Life, though, doesn’t work that way. Rarely, if ever, can you predict the future and have it come true. Just wanting something doesn’t make it so.
I learned that almost immediately. I had to accept the fact that his speech, despite all of my negotiations with a higher power and arbitrary deadlines, might never come. Long before we ever got to football or doctoring, I was focusing on a simple “da da.” I waited and pleaded and begged and hoped. It tore me up and ate away at me with each passing day. I told myself that if he didn’t speak by four, my entire world would implode. As of today, at seven years old, he still hasn’t said a word.
Amazingly enough, the world is still currently spinning. It’s OK.
Now, if you could take me back to 2012 and say that, I wouldn’t believe it. How could that be OK? How could this missed milestone be alright? How could I allow this to happen? This is my boy. I had plans. We had plans. This was not the way it was supposed to go.
Yet, it did. What could I do about it? Try to teach him? I did. I still do. We play games and I attempt to get him to imitate a sound here or a word there, but it just hasn’t happened. I could either live my life every day in a state of panic or I can look at all his positive traits and embrace the boy I was given. I can love him for who he is and accept the things he’s not. I can be proud of him for simply being him, not the things I told myself he had to be.
The irony of all this is that Lucas, by seemingly failing to reach certain milestones, has given me a gift that stretches beyond our own relationship. He’s taught me to abandon rigid expectations about pretty much everything. I don’t freak out if a party isn’t going exactly as I planned or if my daughter doesn’t like the things that I do. My life, as a whole, doesn’t have to be anything other than what it is. When you truly accept anything as a possibility then everything is perfect.
Wherever my life takes me is where it is supposed to go. Whoever my children become is who they are meant to be. Whatever happens after today is what is supposed to happen after today. The only thing I can do is focus on right now and doing what’s right. As long as I do that, tomorrow will always be perfect.