Most nights, when I climb the creaky ladder to the top bunk for evening prayers, I find Steven, my blonde-haired, blue-eyed larger-than-life eight-year-old, hiding under a mess of scattered paper airplanes, Junior Factoid books and origami. Or Iʼll find him thrashing about the upper bunk, skinny legs flailing all over the place as he squirms to avoid momʼs hugs and kisses. Thereʼs a mound of blankets and pillows without cases at the foot of Stevenʼs bed. His bright blue quilt, the one from Target with the primary-colored cars and trucks and navy border, itʼs somewhere beneath the rubble.
If Iʼm lucky, Steven will settle down long enough to demand for me to fill his volcano-red Hydro Flask thermos with fresh water.
“It doesnʼt taste right!” he petitions. Next, heʼll try to tickle me. Or heʼll slap my arm and yell “Tag! You’re it!” followed by “Tag dad!”
Before I leave the room to search for my husband, I lean over and remind our son, like I always do, that if I could choose one boy out of all the boys in the world, Iʼd choose him, every time.
Inside, however, Iʼm waving a white flag in surrender. I love my boy, of course I do. Steven is a bright child, full of life, full of love. But itʼs hard being his mom. The older he gets, the quirkier he gets, the more difficult it is to raise him. Then again, parenting Steven has always been a challenge.
We had a run-in with an elderly gentleman at the Fred Meyer pharmacy when Steven was a toddler. We were there for my annual flu shot. I was seated on a vinyl covered chair next to the man. Steven and his big sister, Emily, were parked across from me in an albatross of an orange double jogging stroller. Steven began to screech his high- pitched screech. Itʼs what he did when he was frustrated. There wasnʼt a toy or board book from the diaper bag that would calm my son when he started screeching, not even the Cheerios from the plastic container I carried with me at all times.
“Canʼt you make him stop?” the old man demanded.
“Iʼm so sorry, thereʼs nothing I can do.” I apologized.
“I have four children,” he continued the rant, “and my wife never allowed them to act like that.”
I longed to cover my head and bolt from the pharmacy. However, even if I could flee to the sanctuary of my Subaru Outback in the parking lot, experience taught that Stevenʼs screeching would start over again the next time we ventured out.
The pharmacy debacle was years ago. Minus the screeching, Stevenʼs behavior has improved little over time. Which brings me to a Saturday, not long ago, when we came to visit my mom and stepdad at their home. It was the week after Daylightʼs Savings and I had myself a little breakdown in the spare bedroom that doubles as momʼs craft room. Steven and his sisters were coloring and playing LEGO across the hall, mom was quilting. She was in a hurry to finish because her quilting group met on Monday. I sat on the antique bed, next to mom, unable to control the tears streaming down my cheeks, mostly out of exhaustion from the daily, sometimes hourly, meltdowns of the last eight years, and because I felt like a big fat failure for not knowing how to help my own child. Mom listened as I vented, and gently, between stitches, asked if Iʼd considered the possibility that Steven could be on the autism spectrum.
“I didnʼt want to say anything because youʼre so sensitive,” mom began. “But it concerns me that Steven didnʼt lock eyes when he was a baby.” She continued, “Even now, he refuses to hug me and has trouble sustaining eye contact for more than a few seconds.”
“Heʼs a unique boy,” I agreed. “Itʼs like heʼs a walking encyclopedia, constantly spilling out facts about oceanic zones or heʼs looping around the family room reciting multiplication tables.”
After a pause, I continued, “And itʼs like he truly believes Iʼm trying to torture him when I make him wear the Star Wars shirt from Gymboree, or when I forget to pre-wash a new shirt.”
I couldnʼt help but think of the way Steven scrunched up his face in disgust if he detected the faintest bit of apricot lotion on my hands when I handed him his glasses in the morning; and how he covered his ears and screamed during the fifteen-minute drive to my parentsʼ house because we forgot to turn off the rear speakers in the minivan.
Later that night, at home, while the kids slept and my husband streamed Gold Diggers on our television through Amazon Prime, I sat at the oak computer desk in our family room and googled autism.
Itʼs been a month since my breakdown in momʼs spare bedroom. Weʼre in the early stages of the autism evaluation process with Steven. Iʼm not sure if high-functioning autism is what weʼre dealing with. But we’re headed in the right direction, no matter what the outcome. We’re getting the help we need to learn more about our son and how his beautiful mind works, the reasons for his meltdowns. Weʼre learning that itʼs not his fault. Itʼs not our fault. Iʼm not a bad mom after all. Iʼve simply been using the wrong set of tools for the last eight years. Knowing this brings me peace and great hope.
Itʼs bedtime once again for Steven. We say our prayers. Steven asks God to help our dog love him more than she loves his sisters. Itʼs the only thing heʼs willing to pray for these days. Iʼm trying to give my son a good-night hug, but heʼs thrashing around under the blue car quilt, begging me to find him. I press on and try once again to gather my blue-eyed boy into my arms. He pushes away. I lean in once more because I have something important to say.
“Steven,” I tell him, “look at Momʼs nose. You donʼt have to look me in the eye, just look at my nose.”
When he does, I remind Steven, as I do every night, that if I could choose one boy out of all the boys in the world, Iʼd choose him.
“Out of all the boys? In the whole-wide world?” he asks.”
“Yes Steven,” I replied, “Iʼd choose you, every single time.”
Nicole Kristin Twedt is a writer, encourager, wife and coffee-drinking mama of three in the Pacific Northwest. Nicole’s funny last name is Norwegian and is pronounced “tweet,” which tickles her to death since she has a thing for birds. She writes about being brave and living in hope when life is hard. You can find her at nicolektwedt.com. (family photo by Lissa Whitlock)