Pin a medal on my chest and mold an action figure in my likeness. I faced my fear. Today I walked calmly into a sunlit chapel and sat without expectation: I attended my son’s class’ telling of the Nativity Story. If you remember– and I don’t expect you do– last year’s ‘production’ left me emotionally wounded.
My son Will– an exceptionally handsome, smart and kind 5-year old– happens to be autistic. He attends a wonderful pre-K program with a classroom full of ‘typically developing’ children. Each year, the kids gather in an upstairs chapel to hear the story of Jesus’ birth. Then they pick a ‘part’, throw on a costume, and nonchalantly walk through the scene that changed the world forever.
I don’t remember which role Will played last Christmas. I do remember heart breaking defeat. I remember holding back tears– and later sobs– as my child struggled to participate. I remember anger. Frustration. Jealousy.
It took a lot for me to go back this year. Well, it really only took Will. I imagined that if he looked into the pews, and didn’t see me smiling at him, he’d unlock my dirty little secret… that it was hard to be his mom. I feared that with one glance, he’d realize that his father and I spend countless hours talking about his development. That until recently we’ve been fighting/resenting/wanting to erase autism.
But if he saw me smiling– and yes, I practiced my fake smile so he might not see terrified tears– he’d know how much we love him. Perhaps he’d look back and understand that it took time, but his parents learned to embrace all of him.
With his one-on-one teacher’s help, Will took a role as a shepherd (quite fitting: watchful men, quiet loners… not valued for their intelligence like the Wise Men… but smart enough to end up at the same spot as the Wise Men… the crib of Baby Jesus). The classroom teachers helped the othre kids put on their simple costumes. No one had a ‘speaking role’, unless Terri told them what to say. But when Will made his entrance, he exclaimed something to the effect of “You take it off!”. He tugged gently at his shepherd gear. But kept it on. He tried handing off his stuffed sheep (probably a big offense if you’re a real shepherd– but it filled me with a great joy). A few more times my Will tried getting out of this ‘play’… while it was happening.
And for another year, Will made me hold back tears. But this time, tears of pure joy! He didn’t want to be in costume! And guess what? He was able to tell us!!! This ‘imaginary play’ didn’t make sense to him! And he was able to tell us!!! My five-year-old’s annoyance at being in a ‘Christmas play’ was the greatest gift from God. I’m sure others interpreted Will’s performance differently. But I saw a little boy being able to communicate his feelings. I understood that he had no idea why the rest of his class was wearing weird clothing and pretending to be enamored with a baby doll in a fake barn. I also understood that Will was able to follow directions long enough to keep on his costume and sit quietly.
Will’s reward came within minutes, when Terri broke out her harpsichord. His body relaxed. The words– appropriate words that finally matched his peers’ words– appeared. “Away in a manger…” floated gently over the pews.
If someday, Will, you should find my old writings, please consider this my Christmas card/ love letter to you. As you stood there today, annoyed and irritated, you made me love you even more than I thought possible.
Merry Christmas, Leslie