Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Family Reunion

We have been home from our big trip to the family reunion for over a week now, and I've not said a thing about it. I have wanted to. But it is just so big. There is so much. My heart is so full. I don't know how to tell you or where to start. Boo was amazing. Awesome. Incredible. But what I saw last weekend was that he comes from a deep and rich background of amazing, awesome, and incredible. The time we spent there was fabulous, partly because I know Boo, how far I can push him, and when to stop pushing. Partly because Boo knows me. He knows he can push himself, and that his mom will always be there to run back to if he goes too far or gets too uncomfortable. Partly because Mammo and Grams are phenomenal. They know how and when to support, and when to back up. They can step in and do the explaining while I step out and do the calming. But here's the real key. Here's what made that weekend go from successful to incredible. My entire family is loving, accepting, happy, and eager to understand and help. Some of them already have a pretty good grasp on what autism looks and feels like, and some just got their first introduction. But every single one of them without exception gave me the distinct sense that they wanted to get it. They wanted to try. They wanted to help, to encourage, to understand, to connect. They didn't get scared or intimidated. They didn't ignore us or leave us out. They were oh so gently inclusive. Encouraging Boo without overwhelming him. Loving him without smothering him. Graciously giving him space and time when he needed it.

I have long said that my family is the stuff that soap operas are made of. We jokingly say that we put the "fun" in dysfunctional, but it is achingly true. There isn't a drama, a crisis, a breakup, a makeup, a trial or a joy that some member of my family hasn't been through. We're messy, we're sticky, we're crazy, and we drive each other nuts. But let me tell you something about my family; when it comes to love, we have the market cornered. There isn't anything we can't love each other through. No one can mess up badly enough, be emotionally screwed up enough, or behave badly enough that we stop loving them and supporting them. As a family, we are not defined by our missteps and mishaps. We are re-shaped by them. But we are defined by our recoveries, our victories, and our triumphs. Sure we get irritated with one another, we get angry, some of us go long periods without talking. But we get past it. We move on. We realize that we aren't responsible for each other and we can't change each other, so we might as well just enjoy each other. So even though some of us drink too much, and some of us talk too much, and some of us laugh too loudly, and some of us roll our eyes too frequently, and some of us can never arrive on time...we can still all get together and sit in a huge circle on a big stone patio and sing Amazing Grace together. We accept each other. We value each other. We love each other. This isn't something new we've started. It's woven into the fabric of who we are as a family. It's not just what we do, it's who we are. So dealing with Boo, learning how to be with him, how to make him comfortable, how to include him...it was second nature. It was seamless. I shouldn't have been worried leading up to the trip, and I shouldn't have been surprised by how it turned out.

There are so many small stories encompassed in the larger one. So many special moments. Difficult moments that we navigated with the gentle loving help of the family, and amazingly victorious moments facilitated by the very nature of their love. They made my Boo feel comfortable in their midst, despite the fact that he was in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, and following nothing at all resembling his normal routine or schedule. He soared. And the palpable love and acceptance of everyone who was there helped give him the wings. I would like to tell you all the little things that happened. For now, to attempt that feels overwhelming. So I will try to put the small stories in subsequent posts for you. Today, I'm still just marveling at the joy of the entire experience. And I am praising God for giving me the phenomenal family He did. I am very blessed.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Independence Day Highs and Lows

Overall, we had a very happy fourth of July. We hope you did too. This morning we ran a few errands and hit the fireworks stand, where Boo picked out several likely looking explosives. We spent the afternoon playing and baking. Then in the early evening, we headed over to Grandpa's house for the weekly family barbecue. It just so happened that this fabulous holiday fell on our regular barbecue night, so my dad decided to go all out.
This is a half-scale replica of a civil war cannon, made by my grandfather

When I was a child, my grandfather and my father belonged to a club which had as one of its activities, regular themed camp outs called rendezvous. At a rendezvous, you camped with only clothing and equipment that would have been available to early Americans before a specified date. (which date I am uncertain of, precisely) With the notable exception of coolers with food and ice, and cans of beer. LOL I remember these events with great fondness. My cousin and I were probably around ages 4 and 6, and our grandma sewed us special dresses and bonnets to wear. We called them our Little House on the Prairie dresses. There were interesting characters, all manor of tents, fascinating clothes, and horses. I remember what a treat it was to walk to a neighboring tent where a friend of my grandparents sold two lemon drops for a penny. I remember my grandpa, Dad, and my uncle looking so handsome in their outfits. I remember the tomahawk throwing competitions, black powder rifle contests, and the highlight, cannon shooting competitions. I am told that Grandpa never lost a competition in which he entered the cannon pictured above, which he built himself. I remember the thrill of the cannon being shot. The excitement, the reverberation of the shot vibrating in my chest, the smell of the gunpowder, the waft of smoke. My grandfather suffered a massive heart attack when I was quite young. By the grace of God he survived, but he was forced to give up a number of activities he loved, including the rendezvous. That cannon hasn't been shot since 1986...until today!

When Dad announced last week that he had decided to shoot the cannon for the fourth, my cousins and I were instantly transformed into a bunch of eight year olds. I have been looking forward to this day ever since. But in the back of my mind there lingered a touch of apprehension about how Boo would react. I arrived at Dad's house a bit early to see if I could be of any help. He got up on a ladder and pulled down a large plastic back from the storage area in the top of his shop. He passed it down to me, and I peeked inside.

I looked in and there were Grandpa's rendezvous hats. It took me by such surprise. Dad hadn't told me he was getting them out. It was a great joy, but tinged with the pang of sadness. My grandpa left this world six years, one month, and one day ago. I miss him so very much. Looking in that bag, it was like he was with us again in a way. My heart jumped and I had to choke back tears. Happy tears, grateful for the wonderful memories he left me, with which to remember him. Soon the rest of the family arrived, and my cousins and I each chose a hat, and wore it the rest of the evening, in the spirit of the day.

When our dinner was done, we all headed out to gather around the cannon. We listened as Dad reviewed the safety rules and procedures. He called for the "powder monkey" and my youngest cousin did the honors. The steps were explained. First, a long stick with some material on the end (what looked like maybe wool? I didn't ask.) was dunked in a bucket of water and passed down into the cannon barrel for a "wet swab." Next, another stick with a sort of iron spiral on the end, known as the "screw" was stuck into the barrel, to pull out any particles that may have remained there from the previous shot. Then another wet swab. Wearing large fireproof protective gloves, the powder money holds the shot (a measured amount of gunpowder wrapped in a cone of aluminum foil of specific diameter) at the end of the barrel, and the rifleman pushes it to the back of the barrel with another stick-like instrument. (These all probably have technical terms of which I am unaware) Then, the firing thing (which I did know the name of earlier tonight, but have forgotten) is inserted into a tiny hole at the top of the barrel. When the firing thing is struck it creates the spark which ignites the gunpowder. Grandpa used to have a mechanism devised for doing so with the pull of a cord. That mechanism has gone missing in the long years since we last fired the cannon, so there was a bit of improvisation. Firing the cannon by hitting the top of it with an aluminum baseball bat might not be the most authentic, but it's a heck of a lot of fun! So we were all set to blow the first shot. I called Boo to me and covered his ears, and we let him do the countdown so that he knew exactly when to expect the noise and could feel in control of it. BOOM! Boo's eyes lit up, he smiled ear to ear and shouted "Do that AGAIN!" I was totally floored, and absolutely thrilled. He remained for the next five shots, holding his ears and providing a countdown for each. My dad, my uncle, and each of us cousins took our turns "at bat." It was exhilarating, and I know my grandpa would be so proud of us for putting his cannon to use once again. And for instilling the love of it to the next generation.
My aunt caught this amazing shot of my turn to fire! How cool is that?

After that, it was back to more traditional forms of Independence Day fun. My cousin introduced Boo to her favorite kind of firework, snakes! He really enjoyed them. He laughed and said they look like poop. Leave it to a five year old. LOL
The best part of snakes, apparently, is crushing them to bits with a stick when they are done.

At one point, Boo asked me how to spell Grandpa. Later I found this written in the sand. It doesn't show well in the picture, but it was awesome!

I also introduced Boo to colored smoke balls and poppers, both of which were a big hit. At dusk we broke out the sparklers. As soon as Boo's was lit he threw it on the ground and ran screaming. Once we showed him how to work them he loved them, but refused to hold them. But my cousins and I acted like the big kids we are at heart and had great fun with them. Then the barbecue broke up and we headed home to shoot off our own fireworks. Boo became even more excited as we drove into town and he saw all the bright sparks in the air all around. He kept talking about how much he loved fireworks and how pretty they are. We got home, got out our bags of explosives, filled our emergency water bucket, and waited for my cousins to arrive. But as the fireworks all around town began to reach a crescendo, so did Boo's anxiety. With every report, every squeal, every crackle, he grew more tense and fearful. Covering his ears was no help. We managed to get through only one of our fireworks before he was completely overwhelmed and ran crying into the house. I went in and set him on a chair in front of the large picture window, where he would have a view of our fireworks without the intensity of the noise. This lasted a little while, but eventually he lost it completely. I had to take a break and come in with him. He was running through the house shrieking, not able to find any place where the sound of the explosions outside was completely muffled. After a great effort, we got him settled in his bed, under his weighted blanket, with his leap pad game to drown out the other noises. He was still agitated, but he could tolerate it. I went outside with my cousins and we finished blowing stuff up, and then said good night.

It took me a while to quiet Boo enough for sleep. He was antsy and agitated, and every little noise was like poking him with a needle. Finally exhaustion took over and his eyelids fluttered closed. I lay beside him watching his precious face. I felt elated at all he had accomplished in the day. I mean, the kid watched a cannon being shot. A freaking CANNON. Multiple times. And loved it! That's HUGE in our world. But the key was that it was one shot at a time, he knew when it was coming, and he was given some control over it. When it came to the fireworks, the sounds and sensations were coming from everywhere at once. There was no reprieve, no time between explosions to reset himself, no way to know when or from where the next shot would come. And the joy of sharing this wonderful day with my son was also pierced with frustration. Not because I was frustrated at him  or by him. Rather, I was frustrated that something that is typically such a simple pleasure of childhood would, for him, have to be a source of pain and anxiety. And I wondered if next year would be a little better. In the end, though, I can't escape the fact that this day was a tremendous success. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Mathmatician

Math is something that I have always loved. It always just came so naturally to me, like second nature. I still love doing math. Nothing thrills me more than for one of my younger cousins or my friends children to call me up and ask for help with their algebra. I love it because it is rational and concrete. There is no gray area, no room for personal interpretation. There is one correct answer and there is a way to find it. There is no analyzing, no conjecture, no supposition. Apparently, my son shares this love and natural ability with me.

By the time his preschool year was over, he was already doing basic addition. He picked up the concept easily, and was a pro at adding single digit numbers together. At some point, I had introduced him to the concept of subtraction, but didn't really push it too much. Then, in preparation for our recent family reunion trip, I bought him a new game for his leap pad. The Penguins of Madagascar, Operation Plushy Rescue. The packaging said that the game works on skills of animal facts, patterns, more than, less than, addition, and subtraction. The basic game play is similar to old school Nintendo. The game play is punctuated with puzzles to solve and questions to answer. He played the game incessantly for two days, never once asking for help with any of the challenges. In no time flat, he had mastered subtraction, addition and subtraction involving two digit numbers, and even basic algebraic equations! (like 9+?=10) I didn't even realize how well he was doing at first.

Last night at bedtime, he was quizzing me with math problems, which is one of his favorite things to do. I was quizzing him back also. I asked "what is fifteen minus two?" Without hesitation he answered "thirteen, because it takes away the fifteen and the fourteen." Wow. He doesn't use fingers, doesn't count in his head, he just answers. He knows it by rote, yes, but he also gets it. He understands the relationships between the numbers. There was more evidence of this today when we picked up his friend Little Britches. In the car on the way back to our house, he was showing his new game to his friend. LB got to a point in the game where he needed to answer a math problem. It was subtraction. The game asked what is six minus three. LB asked what does minus mean? Boo answered him, "it means taking away something." I further explained this way. "If you have six of something, and you take three of them away, how many would you have left?" Boo responded, "three, because three plus three equals six."

Not only am I stunned that he has attained this level of understanding before he even enters kindergarten, I am blown away that it all has just come easily and naturally to him. It's not something he's been purposefully taught. He just picked it up. Just the way he did letters, numbers, letter sounds, and reading. The kid is scary smart. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to keep up with him by the time he's in sixth grade!