Saturday was my birthday. I’m 52. Or as my twelve-year-old son said to his younger cousin last night, “Do you understand how old she is?” A look of confusion lingered on his cousin’s face. Then, apparently tiring of her lack of response, Nic said in a grave tone, “She’s fifty-two.” There was a moment of silence and then to be sure he’d left no room for error he added, “Fifty two years old.” His cousin looked at me with raised eyebrows and what I imagined to be a new-found appreciation or maybe it was horror, it’s impossible to know what an eight year old, having been given this sort of news, might think.
I figure I’m at the halfway point, though my husband would say I’m being unrealistic as he fully intends to live… forever. Yeah, you read that right. As in eternity. I’m not as optimistic. However, I like the idea of having reached the halfway mark, forget that I felt I was at the halfway point last year and the year before and the year before that too… But let’s just say I’m right, that would mean I’ve got another 52 years ahead of me. And I don’t know about you, but I fully intend to make good use of them! Because the first 35 or so I kind of made a mess of. There’s good reason I have a 12-year-old and 10-year-old when many of my same age friends have children graduating from high school and college. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for my past, I’ve learned a great deal. I just wouldn’t want to do any of it over again. I really like being 52. I like being where I now find myself. But mostly I really like my life.
Birthdays are a time of celebration, but more than anything they’re a milestone of how far we’ve come. At least that’s how I like to think of them. I’ve come far in 52 years, but this last year has been more significant than any other year to date. It has been within the last year that I have completely changed how I see my daughter. And that change has unexpectedly altered my view of the world and my life. I don’t know that any other single thing has changed my thinking and views of life and the world as quickly, dramatically or completely. There have certainly been milestones – getting help for my eating disorder, stopping my bulimia and anorexia and getting sober are two examples of significant change. And while the actual stopping of an action happens in a single moment, real change occurs over many such moments, repeated over and over. The larger changes that take place as a result of those repeated actions or inactions can take years to recognize. It is, as they say, a slow recovery.
My introduction into the world Autistics inhabit and talk about, was swift, abrupt and in many ways, more life altering than anything I’ve ever experienced. I am still reeling from the force with which this knowledge has transformed my life and the lives of my immediate family. As a result, I have never been so happy. I have never felt so hopeful. I have never been so sure we are on the right path. I have never enjoyed my family as much as I do now. Most surprisingly, my happiness is not because Emma has become a “normal” child. On the contrary, my happiness is, in large part, because she is not. I view her with wonder, without judgement and an open mind. I have learned to see her as neurologically different, not wrong or broken or in need of fixing.
I no longer speak of Emma as though she cannot hear me or understand me. When she doesn’t answer or walks away when I’m talking to her I no longer assume she’s not interested in what I have to say. I have learned to examine all of my assumptions. I have learned to question everything, and I mean literally everything I think or think I know. At my friend Ib’s urging I’ve begun reading Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone by Douglas Biklen. This book, like so many that I’ve read in recent months, throws everything we neurotypicals think and say about autism and Autistics out the window. Judy Endow, just posted a terrific piece entitled, Seeing Beyond My Autism Diagnosis. She talks about the lens through which NTs view Autistics and writes: “Stereotypical views of autism are based on the neurotypical (NT) assignment of “truth” as they look at us.”
One of the greatest gifts I’ve received this past year is the joy that has come with questioning my “truth” when it comes to Emma. In questioning it I have found my sense of humor. It never entirely left me, more like it had been tamped down by stress and worry. To laugh, to really feel the absurdity of situations that used to cause me tremendous upset and concern, to feel the carefree pleasure of being with my family and enjoying them… this is the life I had always hoped for, but felt would never be mine.
Yeah. I turned fifty-two on Saturday and I’ve never been happier.
The vanilla cake with raspberry icing Em and I made. Nic and Emma decorated it by writing everyone’s name on it. And yes, it was delicious!
Beautiful Em wearing one of her pretty dresses