As I get older, the details of my memories seem to blur a bit. I always swore I would remember every detail of my kids’ childhood moments; but there are some moments my husband and I get confused. Was it this kid who said “bdozer” instead of bulldozer, or that one? Which kid puked in the middle of Dairy Queen? Which one potty trained early? I swear we can’t agree on any of them. I know this is a normal sign of aging as my brain cells are slowly sloughing off, but, some things I think I have tried to forget. There are some moments that are painful to remember so my brain has decided, “Screw that. Let’s not think about that anymore.” Thank you, brain, for trying to protect my heart.
But then something triggers that deeply buried memory. A word, a sound, a photo and out of nowhere, that memory is as crisp and clear as if time transported me right back to that moment, kicking and screaming all the way. No blurred lines whatsoever and the heartache that went with that moment takes your breath away.
My sister and best friend took their little loves to see the “real” Thomas the Tank Engine. Later that day, they both posted photos. And in the photo of my great nephew staring at Thomas, a 14-year-old memory came crashing through the recessed part of my brain to the forefront and there was no way to send it back. God I tried.
It was a different boy though. It was my Ryan, staring at Thomas as my sweet great nephew did. But this was not the “real” Thomas; this was a picture of Thomas on a T-shirt. We were in Ryan’s bedroom and I told him I had a surprise for him. I pulled the shirt out of the bag and he just stared at it. I gave myself a pat on the back for scoring this simple, blue t-shirt with a smiling Thomas on it because Ryan LOVED Thomas trains, videos and books. I assumed he would love a t-shirt too. I was wrong. So very, very wrong. The pat on the back I had given myself quickly turned into a punch in the gut.
Ryan stared at the shirt terrified, saying “no, no, no” over and over again. I thought he was being ridiculous, so I tried to put the shirt on him. It was as if that shirt had thorns all through it. As I tried to put the shirt on, yelling, “It’s just a shirt,” Ryan tried to pull the shirt off while screaming, “No Thomas! No Thomas!” There was so much more to this moment than a $16.00 Thomas shirt.
For Ryan, Thomas, or any character he loved on television or story books, did not belong on a t-shirt. His overly sensitive and logical brain didn’t understand how Thomas could make the leap from his television screen to his shirt to his body. For me, it was just one more sign that something was “wrong” and somewhere in my mind I believed if he wore that damn shirt everything would be right and my son would be OK. In the end, the shirt lay crumbled on the floor where I lay next to it in tears. Ryan happily ran away to watch Thomas on the television…where Thomas belonged.
Eventually the memory slowly slipped away to the abyss in my brain where I’ve kept these moments buried. But looking at those photos I allowed the guilt of the moment to wash over me. I have learned over the years that’s what I need to do to move past it. I need to ride those awful feelings of fear, loneliness and guilt from the past in order to transport me back to the present where I am more aware, more educated and more in tune with my son and his needs. After I arrive back, I take a moment and share my screw ups with Ryan and apologize for my ignorance. He is usually just annoyed that I’ve interrupted whatever game he was playing; but on this day, Ryan humors me and listens to my guilt-ridden apology and doesn’t let me forget that it’s OK because I “don’t do that anymore.” Then more guilt consumes me for being gifted a kid that most days I don’t think I deserve.
As parents, we all screw up. It’s sort of our rite of passage as we continue on this journey of parenthood. But when you have a child with autism or any other kind of disability, the screw ups seem magnified–in our heads, not in our kids.
So, keep messing up, keep remembering, keep apologizing, but mostly keep trying. That’s what our kids will always remember: that we never gave up on them or ourselves.
Kate Hooven is a Central PA mom to three children, Kyle, Ryan and Emma. Her middle child, Ryan, was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, an autism spectrum diagnosis) when he was 6; she stresses that anything she shares online, she does with Ryan’s permission. You can follow Kate here on her Keeping It Real blog; you can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and at her website, The AWEnesty of Autism.