Sunday afternoon, I stopped what I was doing to help a little boy get some water to build a sand castle.
I was at the park with Mr F and Mr Bunches, just messing around and wading in the water and the usual stuff and nonsense, and we walked by a woman who was posing her little baby to take pictures in the sand. Behind her was her other son, who was probably about 2 or 3, and he was trying to build a sand castle.
"Mom," he said, "The castle won't work," and to demonstrate he tried to pour a bucket of sand into a castle. As foretold, it did not work.
I and Mr Bunches and Mr F were at that point just wading into the water. The mom said to the son:
"That's 'cause you need some water. The sand has to be wet."
The boy considered that.
"Can you help me get some water?" he asked.
The kid, I mean, he was 2 or 3 but the lake there isn't actually a beach as such. It's more a rocky coast with some boat entries on it, which was why we were only wading. Plus it was pretty wavy and windy, a kind of forbidding lake entry. (The pictures on this post are from the trip to the beach, in part.)
"No," the mom told the kid. "We don't have time. I've got to get these pictures taken before the storm comes." And she gestured, a gesture that seemed to take in her baby and the storm and, possibly, time, and the lack of it.
I'm not judging.
I mean, I am, but not really. It's not my place to raise her kid, but I thought that kind of sucked, to be honest. Here's this little kid who just needs a bucket of water and he can build a sand castle, and it would take maybe 10 seconds to do that, and instead, he's stuck in dry sand while Mom photographs the baby.
That kind of sucked.
So I said to Mr Bunches and Mr F that we would help the kid. We went and asked if we could use his buckets. The kid stared at me, quizzically, probably because I am a total stranger with two hyper little boys, asking to use his buckets.
"To get some water," I explained, and I handed one to Mr Bunches and Mr F and I took another one. "We'll get the sand wet," I said, and I directed the boys to each get a pail of water and dump it on the sand near him.
The kid still seemed a little freaked out by it. Which, okay, a total stranger just walked up, took his buckets, and then dumped water on the sand. And not just a stranger. Three strangers. We were a gang, in a sense.
But then he realized what we'd done, and he said "Thanks," and we said "sure" and went to wade in the water.
Not once did Photo Mom say anything to me that I heard. It was windy and maybe I missed it, but I never heard her say "thanks" or "Quit bugging my kid" or anything like that. She watched us but didn't say anything at all. Then, when she was done with her photos, she took the two kids and stood by the water a bit but didn't do much else before she left, so far as I could see.
I think what bugged me about it, first, was that it was so easy to take care of the one kid's need. Just get him a bucket of water. Or tell him to get a bucket of water, and if you are uncertain of his ability to do so, help him. Carry the baby with you. Whatever. It's literally ten seconds. It took us that long and I had to cope with Mr F, who wanted to dump the water on his own head. Ten seconds and you've got Kid 1 happy and you can go back to taking your dramatic seaside photographs of Kid 2.
At that point in the weekend, I had spent nearly thirty-almost-consecutive hours bouncing from one activity to another, nonstop, really, except for when I slept and even then I was woken up a few times. Sweetie had a sore throat and was sick this weekend, so while she gamely pitched in I was trying to help her by keeping the boys occupied and out of her hair, sometimes literally. (Mr F loves her hair.)
My rule with the boys these days is kind of a simple one. I have tried over the course of their 6 3/4 years to interact with them on a variety of levels, and sometimes they want me around and sometimes they don't, but mostly they do, and when they do want me around, I want to be there for them, for a variety of reasons, ranging from
A. They are my kids to
B. I once worried that they would never be able to tell me they wanted to do something with me.
Here is a true story:
I was in a locker room at the health club one time. I was changing and getting ready to go running, or something. I don't remember what I was doing there. What I do remember is that there was a dad with his kid there, a dad with a kid who was telling the dad about a videogame. And this kid was going on and on and on, really working it.
You know and I know and we all know that that's kind of a boring talk, right?
So I kind of see where this guy was coming from.
Except he says to the kid, in a neutral but sharp tone:
"Does this story ever end?"
So I kind of see where this guy was coming from.
But then, consider what I had spent the night before that doing.
The night before that, I had sat in a hallway with Mr F, who was pretty young then. One of the books I had read on autism said that to get kids to start talking, you show them something they like -- a toy, or a treat, or something -- and get them to say the name of the thing, then give it to them. Then you take it from them and have them say the name again. Then you give it to them.
If that sounds mean, maybe it is. But it's more tough love, I think. It's like teaching a regular kid the names of the things he likes by showing them, but you have to do it over and over and over, until the kid, in this case, Mr F, makes the connection that a sound means a thing.
And so I had spent an hour -- an hour -- sitting in a hallway holding a little plastic horse that Mr F liked, and saying horse to him, and showing him the horse, and having him try to say it, and tapping his mouth lightly to show him where he should talk, and putting my mouth right up against his cheek so he could feel my lips move and the air come out, and making him face my lips so he could see me.
"Horse," I said, over and over and over and over.
For an hour.
In that entire time, Mr F never said anything. Not a sound. Sometimes, he didn't even seem to realize I was there. Other times, he regarded me with a curious look, as if he wondered why I was getting so into this horse. Mostly, he just looked at the horse.
So when that dad said "Does this story ever end?" I wanted to grab him and shake him by the shoulders and ask him how he'd feel if the story never began in the first place.
That mom on the beach, that dad in the locker room -- even me, before Mr F and Mr Bunches were born -- we all take for granted that kids talk and interact and ask for us to wet down their sand or tell us boring neverending stories about their videogames. I once spent an entire car ride with the older kids telling us all their favorite jokes from the television show "Smart Guy," with each sentence beginning "And then one time, on Smart Guy..." and I'm sure that in the past I've wished for a break, for the kid to stop talking, for a moment to just finish the paragraph or whatever.
But I don't really, anymore. Now, more often than not, I try as hard as I can to not do that. I'm not perfect -- I will still sometimes say "Let me just finish this" as I'm doing something like writing a story or watching a movie, but 99% of the time, when Mr F or Mr Bunches wants to do something with me, I hop to it and respond to them.
I don't always let them do it -- sometimes I have to say no, if only for economic reasons, like when Mr Bunches repeatedly suggests that we go to 'Toys For Us,' his aptly-malapropised version of the store's name. But I do respond to them, as quickly as I can, and as often as I can.
Which leads me to being in the midst of what eventually was nearly 48 hours of nonstop playing with the boys. From Saturday at 6:15, when Mr Bunches woke up and announced it was "good morning!" and asked me to "big tickle" him on the floor through the trip to my office, where they got to play with the tape, to the free golf course where we golfed four holes, more or less, to the airport and so on and so forth, each time the boys asked me to do something -- Mr Bunches by asking, Mr F by gesturing -- I tried to do it.
Because there had been a time, of course, when I worried that they never would. It was not so hard to remember hearing, not so many years ago, that they were autistic and wondering if they would ever talk, let alone request that we do things with them. I can clearly remember lying to their doctor about how many words they used, claiming that each boy used about 20 words at their 2-year checkup when it would have been a stretch to say they spoke 10 between them. And I can remember why I lied: because I wanted to hope that they would get those 20 words, and would use them to interact with us the way all our other kids had.
(Well, maybe not exactly the way our other kids had. It would be fine, for example, if they didn't borrow money or go through the surly part of the teen years. But, given where they came from, it would be fine if they did that stuff, too.)
They don't always want my input, and so what I do is I try to take breaks around them. If they are happy and doing their own thing and don't need me involved, I try to use that time to do whatever it is I want to do - -getting my free time during their free time, trying to do the chores when the playing is done, rather than the other way around. For years, for example, I've come home, eaten dinner, and then cleaned up, and then played with the boys.
But I realized recently that the cleanup can wait (something that sort of drives Sweetie batty, but she agrees with me on the principle of the thing) and the boys can't. So if we're done with dinner and Mr F wants me to swing him
-- "Push," he said, clear as a bell the other day, and so I pushed him in his swing until he got bored --
then I leave the dishes on the counter and swing him.
Sometimes that means that two whole weekend days go by in a whirlwind and I don't get much of a break and I'm at work on Monday dazed and confused and tired but honestly, that's a better weekend than I could have imagined. Sometimes that means that they don't want much to do with me and I spend a lot of time reading or watching movies. It all balances out.
So I'm more sensitive, I think, to people -- including me, as I said, in the past, I'm sure I've done this -- ignoring their kids or putting them off when they shouldn't be put off. I'm not saying I have to drop work and go home at 3 when the boys get home. I'm saying that things that don't need to be done can wait, often, until the kids, who need things now, are taken care of. It's one thing to say "Hey, we've got to do this mortgage refinance, so give me a second here," as I did to the boys yesterday, but it's another, entirely, to put them off for something that's just entertainment.
I mean, Saturday afternoon, Mr Bunches asked me if I wanted to play with him, and at the time, I was reading Wonderella. I said "sure," and hopped up to play, because when you've spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars trying to get your son to be able to ask you to play a game with him, it'd be a darn shame to then have him actually ask and you don't respond the right way.
But this weekend, I think I was more attuned to responding the right way because someone else, entirely, responded the right-est way possible to Mr Bunches, who has yet to learn (and I hope he never does) that the world isn't his playground. I hope he never has to learn that, because thus far, the world magically opens up for Mr Bunches, who has learned (as Mr F is learning) that virtually anything can be his merely for the trying.
Recently, Mr Bunches looked up and saw a jet contrail that he mistook for a rocket. I let him think it was a rocket, because you can see a jet any old time, but how often do you see a rocket? We had this conversation:
Mr Bunches: It's a rocket.
Mr Bunches: It's going to Saturn.
Me: Is it?
Mr Bunches: Yes. It's going to Saturn. With astronauts.
Me: That's exciting.
Mr Bunches: Can I be an astronaut?
Me: Do you want to go on a rocket to Saturn?
Mr Bunches: *nods.*
Me: You have to go to school, and then you will be an astronaut after you go to school long enough.
When we got home, Mr Bunches told Sweetie that he was going to go to school to be an astronaut.
The message I want, and Sweetie wants, to send to Mr F and Mr Bunches is that the world is theirs and all they have to do is ask, and to facilitate that, we have to, as often as we can and as much as makes sense, make sure that when they do ask, they do get the world.
It's easy, because they ask for so little. They don't -- Mr Bunches' occasional shopping binges on dinosaurs aside -- ask for very much in the way of toys. They want us to play games with them (the latest is re-enacting the scene where the lawyer gets stung in the butt during Bee Movie) and they want us to tickle them and they want us to make them macaroni and cheese and they want us to let them ride on our shoulders, or they want to go throw rocks in the river or walk around the yard with a hose, and those are all easy enough things to do, if you remember that there was a time you thought they'd never ask to do those kinds of things, so you don't mind very much when they want to "help" you put in the air conditioner by carving a hole in the downstairs wall with a screwdriver.
(Don't tell Sweetie.)
They ask for so little in part because they don't know how, often, to ask for stuff, but they are getting better at it, as they come to realize that interacting with us, with people, is the way to get to do things they want to do, which brings us to the airport, and one of the nicest men I've ever met.
Mr Bunches loves airplanes, and on the way back from gofling and McDonald's on Saturday, he asked if we could go to the airport near Middleton and look at the planes.
Middleton's airport is tiny, just one of those places that small planes can land and take off, hobbyists, mostly, I assume, private pilots with their own Cessnas or whatever. It's only about four miles from our house and lately we've taken to driving up there and getting out to look and see if any planes are nearby, if any take off or land. So I said, sure, we could go there, and when we got there, we were surprised to see that there were about 10 planes all near the spot where the public can watch. Mr Bunches was superexcited, and ran up to the fence while I got Mr F out of the car.
There were two men standing inside the fence, on the runways, near the planes, and Mr Bunches saw them talking.
"Hey! Hey guys! Hey guys!" he yelled at them, over and over.
I have seen Mr Bunches do this numerous times to people who catch his eye -- kids, other adults, the mailman, whoever. Mr Bunches is always up to talking to people who are doing (or are near) interesting things.
Mostly, those people ignore him, even other kids. We've been working with him on how to actually approach other kids to play with them, because he has a hard time doing that. He knows how to ask us to play with him, but hasn't translated that to other people yet.
So when he was yelling "Hey, hey guys!" at these two guys, I figured they'd just ignore him, too, but they turned to him and said hi.
"It's an airplane!" Mr Bunches said, pointing to the nearest plane excitedly.
"It sure is," said one man.
"I like airplanes," said Mr Bunches.
"Do you want to see it?" asked the man.
Mr Bunches practically osmosised himself through the fence, he was so excited. The man opened up the gate and let us in and Mr Bunches all but hugged the first plane he saw, as the man was showing him the tail and the wings, and then, the man said:
"Would you like to sit inside it?"
By then, Mr F and I were out by the plane, too, Mr F eyeing it nervously, and the guy introduced himself to me and said that he was there with the local EAA Chapter and they'd just had a "young eagles" morning to introduce kids to airplanes.
He also had helped Mr Bunches into the cockpit of the plane and was showing him the controls.
As he did that and as we talked, the man then said "If you'd like, I can take the three of you up for a flight. I've got a four-seater over there."
I'd have loved to have simply strapped us all into a small plane and gone flying, but there were logistical hurdles to that, the most important of which being that Mr F wouldn't go near the plane. Because Sweetie was at home, I couldn't leave Mr F on the ground and I couldn't let Mr Bunches go up alone. As excited as he was and as much as he loves airplanes, I couldn't be assured that he would like flying, and I worried that if he panicked up there, our pilot friend wouldn't be able to handle him and the airplane, especially as he didn't know Mr Bunches the way I did.
So I thanked him and over Mr Bunches' protests declined the flight that day.
And the man said:
"We'll come back then and go flying."
And he was as happy as a kid can be.
The man showed us around the other planes, explaining things about them to us and letting Mr Bunches see inside the planes, and generally being a nice guy who went out of his way to spend nearly an hour with three total strangers, for no reason whatsoever other than, I'm guessing, he was a nice guy.
So it was at the end of an exhausting weekend in which Mr F and Mr Bunches never really let up, at all -- on the go constantly, wanting to do stuff constantly, playing and jumping and hosefighting and spilling their cheese puffs and "helping" me get a copy of my office key made and otherwise running me ragged -- that I ended up at the shoreline of Lake Mendota, with two little boys of my own who had convinced me, as tired as I was, to take them to the park and the lake and let them wade into the water for a while.
I didn't take very much convincing, to be fair. Mr Bunches said "Want to go to the park?" and I put down my Kindle and said "Sure," with as little of a sigh as I could muster. I was really tired, and had spent the morning playing hose fight and then playing trains and then putting in the air conditioners and then going to the grocery store and then playing chase and then I was on my way to the park, where we walked along the river to the lake and I was holding Mr F's hand to keep him from slipping into the water too fast,
and through all of that, I heard the little boy ask if his mom would help him get some water to wet down the sand to make a sand castle.
A man had, the day before, promised to actually help Mr Bunches fly.
How could I not help that kid make a castle?
How can you not help every kid make a castle, as often as they want?