“I feel like I’m shielding our son from having a Christmas,” I said to Sean.
“I know. Not very merry, is it?” he answered. He was untangling the lights that we were going to put on the tree.
“His counselor actually said that we should try to keep things normal.”
“Well, that’s fun,” Sean said. He yanked too hard at one of the knots, and two little bulbs popped out, extinguishing all the lights.
“Your sister is still coming next week?”
“Yeah,” Sean said.
“I’ll write the email,” I said.
Weeks in advance of company coming, I would “talk them down” before they even arrived.
“Let James do his own thing,” I wrote in an e-mail to them. “Go and talk to him, but if he wants to sit in another room, away from the noise, that’s okay.”
My sister-in-law called right away.
“All that’s fine!” she chirped. “The important thing is that we’ll be together!”
I tried not to panic. “I know that Becky will want to play with his Legoes, but James just built a new invention…”
She assured me that they would bring their own, that they would respect James’ privacy, and that they would not force him to do anything he didn’t want to do.
Siill, when they arrived, my sister-in-law “peeked in” on James, who was holed up in his room and convinced him to come downstairs. The rest of the day was a dance of trying to intervene between Becky and him..
Becky was ten, five years younger than James. She arrived in her typical fashion, loud and laughing. Right away, Becky demanded to know why James didn’t have to dress up like she did. At dinner, she wanted some of his mac-n-cheese. And afterward, when the children were sent off to play a game, she announced that her Legoes were “girl” Legoes. She wanted to play with James’ “boy” Legoes.
We left the table to settle the argument, and I quickly suggested that we open presents. I winced as she squealed and screamed, declaring that she got to pass out the presents. James hated loud noises, and he hated not being in charge even more.
Later on, we decided to play a game. It required that everyone write down words as fast as they could. James had a hard time with his handwriting, like many autistic children, so I offered to “scribe” for him. He shot me a “Don’t start” look.
When Becky broke a rule, James pounced. “It’s not fair!” he cried. “That’s not the way to play!”
“It’s okay, just this once,” I tried.
“Is it a rule or not?” he demanded.
There weren’t any one-time favors in James’ world. After all, life hadn’t given him any.
“I’ll just sit this game out,” Becky said. She was a good girl. She was trying, she really was.
“No!” James cried. “If you start something, you have to finish it.” Underneath the table, I saw him clenching his fists.
I tried to distract him by announcing that it was time for dessert.
“I want first and seconds all on one plate!” James cried.
“We have company, remember,” I whispered, ushering him into the living room. “We have to serve everyone for the first round, and then if there’s enough, we offer seconds.”
“Whatever,” James said in disgust, and he flopped into the recliner.
I started to tell him to sit on one of the folding chairs, that the “good” chairs were reserved for our guests, but I swallowed the words.
There were so many words stuck in me -- the cautions, the interruptions, the soothings, the explanations, the excuses… and I realized I hated Christmas. It had become a half-hearted attempt to play at what Christmas should be.
I went over to Sean and told him that I needed a little fresh air.
“A little too much to drink?” he asked.
“I have not even had one sip,” I whispered. “Unlike you.”
I sat down on the deck. The frigid air didn’t even bother me. My thoughts swirled in my head like the snow around me.
You can’t make a true Christmas while trying to soften its impact. You can’t have a special day while sticking to the routine. It’s not Christmas to bake special foods for your guests AND regular foods for your autistic child. It’s not Christmas to go to Church at midnight, and wonder if his meds have worn off. Or not go because yours have.
It’s not Christmas when you buy your son a toy, watching with anticipation as he unwraps it, only to have him explode in rage because you bought the AK 980 X model instead of the AK 980 Z.
Christmas used to feel special and pretty and full of surprises. I used to cram everything in, weeks spent with family, long visits with friends, day-long shopping marathons, rejoicing in the special moments that are special just because they don’t happen everyday. Now I distilled the experiences for James so they didn’t hit too hard, don’t disturb him, and don’t affect the equilibrium that it’s taken so long to establish.
He got overstimulated by too much commotion. Or noise. Or people. Or food. Or sugar. Or lights. Or. Or. Or.
My longing for hot chocolate, tons of cookies, twinkling lights, midnight mass, and warm embraces hadn’t gone away. I still longed for the excess, abandon, and excitement of Christmas.
I lifted my head and whispered, “I don’t have autism!”
The next day I made cookies. I pulled out the recipes for Peanut Blossoms, Chocolate Rum Chip, and Pepper Kokkers. Scouring the pantry for the dusty bottles of ingredients hardly used any other time of the year, I realized that I couldn’t find the expensive vanilla from the gourmet store. I looked and looked, but it was nowhere to be seen. Just when I was about to give up, I realized that it was right in front, face-down. I righted it and read, “A True Extract of Vanilla.”
I read the words again, “extract,” I slowly unscrewed the lid to take in the deep fragrance, potent and pure.
And it saved me.
I realized that I could save Christmas for me and James, by extracting the essentials. We could have the essence of Christmas in just a few preserved rituals and traditions that we both enjoyed.
Maybe I could give him “tastes” of the Christmas instead of a feast. I could give him moments, not endless vacations. I could give him one or two guests at a time, not the entire family. I could give him an hour of Christmas songs on the radio, not the entire months of November and December. If I was honest, I got sick of the music after a month too.
I could also allow myself certain presents. I could give myself white lights on the tree. I could savor one special meal on Christmas Eve instead of a smorgasbord of meals throughout the Season. I could buy him the gift that I know he wants, check the model numbers carefully, and I could sit back, confident, and relish his reaction. Might not be the surprise that I want, but it would be the reaction that I want.
On Christmas morning, James handed me a Target bag.
“I forgot to wrap it,” he said.
“That’s okay!” I cried.
Inside was a soft, blue sweater. I held it up in front of me.
“Will it fit?” he asked anxiously.
“Perfectly,” I answered.