Just days before Cailyn’s birthday and I’ve already been to the store multiple times. This trip was already nearing an hour and I’d seen every single individual toy in the building…twice. I circle back to an aisle so bright and pink that it makes me dizzy. I pick up items, one at a time and read the packages carefully, pressing each button and pulling every cord. I’ve excitedly grabbed and held about a dozen boxes for varying degrees of time, even making it the checkout line once, only to relent and painfully and carefully put it back in it’s place. On my way, I pass several people shopping for their own children. Sometimes, my face is so warm and my eyes so glossy, that I’m sure I’m completely transparent. One mother walks by with a jewelry creation set she just picked out with her little girl, barely older than Cailyn. I wonder if she realized she just passed the most empty person in the world.
Every holiday, birthday, and special occasion, I go through a similar ordeal. Each time, it’s a little longer…a little darker. Like many men, I work hard and sacrifice my time to make sure that my family is comfortable. Children don’t REALLY understand why their dad is gone for the majority of their waking hours. They don’t get mortgages, the price of utilities, or the fact that food isn’t free. The only tangible result of a man’s efforts, sure to make a kids eyes light up, is triumphantly throwing open the door and proudly exclaiming “I have a surprise!” Sometimes, after the hardest days of work, I’ll bring something small home for the sole purpose of being the hero of the evening.
I can walk into a room and instantly identify something that my son will love. We intentionally get him things to stimulate his growth, while still playing to his interests. Cailyn, is a different story. Our home is littered with unused toys that we’d purchased, in the hopes that it could spark a more typical interest and potentially move her along in development. At one year old, we got her a train for fine motor growth and she sat there all morning, looking at the bottom and spinning the wheels. Her second Christmas, we bought a kitchen set for pretend play. Instead, she found the button that triggered sounds, promptly ripped off the oven door and just pressed that. These were actually success stories, as most of her gifts just sit unused. She’ll open them up and promptly toss it aside.
I dream of Cailyn playing with dolls, brushing hair, making jewelry, or modeling a dress. I’d pay a fortune to walk into her room and catch her playing out a conversation between two of her animals. I’d die a happy man if she could someday bat her eyelashes at me, because she wanted an expensive outfit…which I’d then promptly purchase, against her mother’s wishes. Instead, Cailyn goes for light up and sound-making trinkets. She’ rather hold onto disassembled, colorful plastic pieces, than to play with them as part of the whole toy.During Christmas time, I’ve begun taking for the “giving tree” and intentionally picking items for girls her age. I buy things that I wish I could get for Cailyn and I often pretend like it’s FOR her. Each time, I drive home feeling as though I’ve done something deeply disturbing. I sit in the garage and wipe away the lines of tears on my face, until I’m convinced that I can pass Amber’s inspection, when I walk in.
That is when this birthday became different. Immersed in another reminder of my daughter’s difference, I gave in to another warring faction in my mind. As if it were an army bursting through the gates of a fortified city, my demeanor turned. I immediately ran for a plastic magnifying glass I’d seen, earlier. I then ran to the candy and found something we’d usually not let her have. These were small things that she would love, to go along with other non-typical gifts she’d be getting for her birthday. I got home and immediately walked through the garage and into the house. Amber saw right through me and we held each other for the next few minutes, crying. It was definitely sadness, it was perhaps even more shame. It was the most recent instance of me casting aside selfish denial, in the best interest of Cailyn. I was no longer forcing my 30+ years of social conditioning on her, instead acknowledging and embracing the things that made her unique.
Every time that I’m convinced I’ve come to grips with Autism, I’m simultaneously and unwittingly entrenched in another battle that will eventually shake me to my core. Each of these are only symptoms of the larger war. While Cailyn has most, if not all, of the basic needs of any person…she’s operating on a different plane. Like two opposing wheels of a car, Cailyn is perfectly different. She and I turn together but our realities are engineered to never meet. The only way for us to exist together is through the pain of one or of us both. While there is a time and a place for her to come into my world for the sake of her growth, it’s even more important for me to grow by sacrificing my own comfort to give her the gift she really craves…company.
A few weeks ago, I hugged my wife and said “we’re the only ones in the world that understands what the other has been through.” In that moment of relative loneliness, I was hit with the realization that Cailyn is the one living Autism…and NO ONE understands her. Cailyn lives in a world of her own making. She isn’t privy to the norms and constructs of our world. She can’t communicate to anyone and likely never completely understands the depths of her own feelings. Society tries to change her and her needs are unintentionally marginalized by the ones, who claim to love her most.
So my growth as a husband, father, and man must shift. Instead of trying to “fix” my unbroken daughter, I need her to know that I’m her place of safety. I can no longer gift from my heart, but demonstrate through gifts that I know HER heart. Instead of asking her about her day, I take the time to sing her favorite songs. Rather than having her mimic me, I’ve memorized and now repeat the language that she uses. Since the day she was born, Cailyn and I never had the same outlook on things like language, gifts, or fun. She says “I love you” because Amber and I say it, but she expresses her love in smiles and squeezes. So, when I get stuck in my world, hung up in the differences of Autism and how life hasn’t lined up with my superficial expectations, I am simply fulfilling my own prophesy of separation and depression. As I move throughout the house, obsessed with myself, I could be walking by her room without even realizing that I’ve just passed the most empty person in the world.
God, give me Your eyes, that I might see her as You intended; Perfectly different.