It was a beautiful fall Saturday. Amber was working and I decided to take Cailyn to the park before a full day of football. The park nearest our house has a huge play fort made of wood. The most fun parts of it are meant for children over three but we never paid attention to that. Although Cailyn was a bit too small to climb the stairs, I always held her hand and made sure no kids ran her over.
Once we made it to the top, she’d run around, smile, and squeal. That is, until she got to the bridge. Made of wood panels, held together by metal suspension cables, it is incredibly secure but designed to sag and sway when you run across. Cailyn would run up to it, look down as if to judge the risk, and run immediately in the opposite direction.
At first, I tried to be gentle and would walk with her up to the edge, encouraging her to take a step. She always cried and screamed, so I’d relent. After a few tries, I was tired of games. I knew that she’d be fine if she just tried it once. We watched other kids run over it a few times and I finally decided she was going to do it. I began to press up behind her and gave her no room to turn around. Finally, I gave her just a final little nudge. She went to step and was doing great, until her toe caught the edge of the platform. As she fell, she put her hands down to brace her fall and she pinched her finger in the bridge.
For two and a half years at work, I went to Subway and ordered the same sandwich for lunch. I would walk across the street each morning at 11:27 AM and would be spotted by the manager. My sub was ready by the time I walked through the door. Life mirrored my meal choices, as I avoided anything uncomfortable or uncharted.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted predictable, average, and safe. At a young age, I decided that my life’s dream was nothing more than a wife, two kids (hopefully a boy and girl), and a stable job to keep it all together. I recognized a career path that I thought suited me and I followed through, not because I was passionate about it, but because it seemed to maximize my potential for success. My senior year of high school, I had an assignment to write about what I would be doing in five years and it is unbelievable how closely it matched my eventual reality. Sometimes, I swear I was born for project management. When given the time, I’ll find and mitigate risk where others see smooth pavement. I’ll plan contingencies for my contingencies and find some way to control and deliver on exactly what I envisioned.
Except no one plans to have a child with Autism.
Cailyn laid on that bridge and bawled her eyes out. I’m sure some of it was the pain but the fear loomed larger. Being a father, I immediately scooped her up and held her to my chest. I insisted that she’d be fine and tried to soothe her, partially because I felt responsible in some way. As she started to calm down, I decided that there was no quitting. She had to move forward.
I don’t know the exact statistics but it sure seems like there are a lot of single parent homes impacted by Autism. The diagnosis comes with a degree of sacrifice, frustration, and fear unknown to those who haven’t dealt with it. Many times, it’s a life-long commitment. To be perfectly honest, I can’t even blame someone for being self-aware enough to know they can’t handle it. In my twenty-eighth year of life, it was the first thing to ever really and wholly “shake” me.
I remember lying in bed in the morning with my eyes closed. I’d concoct a scenario where some extent of my current existence was a dream. I’d begin to imagine that I was lying in the apartment and Amber would be beside me, still be pregnant with Cailyn. Sometimes, I’d wonder if I was still asleep on my old bachelor couch that sunk down to the floor. I’d talk myself into thinking that If I just counted to three and opened my eyes, that I could return to a different time and this dream as a way to mitigate the risk of my future…that I could hit the “reset” button. Instead, I’d see the recessed white ceiling of our bedroom.
Although Amber and I were both in the house, for a short period of time, I’d quit. My commitment and love for Amber and the kids kept me present, however I’d abandoned all hope of change. I accepted a life without progress and just decided to go through motions of normalcy, to trick myself into believing that I hadn’t colored so far out of the lines. I would spend all day playing with Cailyn and not pressing her to do anything that could result in her acting out, I would hug her when she was having good moments, walk away when she’d hurt herself, and throw on headphones when she screamed. Meanwhile Amber was doing therapy and dealing with the stress all alone.
After a few weeks of this, I remember one specific day where we had just returned from vacation and I wanted Cailyn to do some simple activities with me. With almost no notice, she flipped into a rage, started screaming, and hitting me. She went on to biting herself and even hit herself in the head. After a vacation week with almost no structure or progress, the emotions of the previous year hit the surface. I ran across the room and flipped our coffee table into the wall, breaking the table and putting a hole in the drywall. I let out a yell that went until my voice cracked, began beating my fists into our front door as hard as I could until I had no more energy, and I just sunk with my face in the corner sobbing. Amber was on the other side of the room doing the same. She wasn’t scared. I think she knew I was back; That I was willing to risk heartache to fight for my family.
I was invested, again.
The following try, Cailyn didn’t step straight onto the bridge. She sat down and scooted to the first plank. She trembled as she stood up and began to walk. Every few seconds, she’d stumble and stop immediately with her arms out to balance. Fear draped over her, but she kept moving. I watched at a distance, knowing if I were closer, my instinct would compel me to catch her. She needed to make this trip alone for her own good. With each step, she became more confident and eventually she reached the incline on the other side. Then, she slipped.
Through no virtue of my own, I’ve stumbled to the place I am, today; My footing as uncertain as the day I first read the word “Autism” on a computer screen. Doubts are frequent, frustration is plentiful, and hope sometimes fleeting but if there is anything I’ve discovered, it is that the human experience wasn’t intended to be sterile. Instead, I feel reborn into the fullness of the life God intended because of my trials, not in spite of them. It is a bridge I was too stubborn to walk of my own volition.
When we settle for a life less frightening, we deprive ourselves of the highs as well as the lows. We trade an existence of impact and meaning, for one of comfort and imprisonment. Through the gift of Cailyn, I’ve learned to appreciate every milestone, achievement, moment of clarity, and word my children speak. I’ve discovered a previously impossible well of strength in myself, a flood of admiration for my wife, and an unconditional love for my children. I no longer only exist, I now live more abundantly.
Even more importantly, I’ve discovered there are other people who need us. Individuals who, without Cailyn, would see us as too contrived and clean for credibility.
I fought my every impulse to run and grab Cailyn, as she again picked herself off the wood. She was a little shaken but didn’t cry. This time, a little girl walked over to her and started talking.
“It’s okay. Watch me!” The girl said, as she jumped down onto the bridge, wobbling quite a bit, herself. With the added excitement and motion, Cailyn suddenly decided that walking across the bridge wasn’t nearly as fun as bouncing on it. She began to laugh and scream with excitement. The little girl eventually said goodbye and walked away, smiling. As I watched her leave, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had one day fallen and pinched her fingers, as well.