It was already too late. Chezky was oblivious to his inappropriate attire, joining the inner circle of dancing, before the eyes of one and all
Chezky’s bar mitzvah was right after Succos. Talk about swinging emotions. Yamim Noraim had me davening so hard, drenching the pages of my machzor as I pleaded for his future. Then we segued into Succos, and my tefillos became more practical. Please, Hashem, could we possibly get though Yom Tov in one piece — and maybe manage to pull off the bar mitzvah, too?
Simchas Torah I was standing during hakafos, eyes seeking, always seeking, to keep tabs on Chezky. My brain did this every second of the day. Now I hadn’t seen him for a few moments, so I was on alert. Then I saw him. And wished I hadn’t.
Obviously, something had happened to Chezky’s pants. Did he spill something on them? Had they ripped? Whatever it was, he’d managed to skip out of shul, and he’d run home to change… into his four-year-old brother’s pants. All without anyone noticing.
Well, they were noticing now. Chezky was still a very skinny teen, and the pants managed to almost make it to his waist. But several inches of skin showed between his socks and hems. Earth, please swallow me up!
I looked frantically to where my husband was, knowing that even if I found him quickly, I could hardly signal anything to him in the noise and hullabaloo unless he noticed Chezky himself. But it was already too late. Chezky was oblivious to his inappropriate attire, joining the inner circle of dancing, before the eyes of one and all.
So I took the only option left. I laughed. And laughed. And finally sat down on a chair to put my head down on the nearest table and laughed some more. My giggles may have been tinged with hysteria, but at least this time my heart stayed whole.
Life with an autistic child means living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. No two days are the same. No two behaviors consistent. It’s called a spectrum for a reason. Despite my efforts to maintain my equilibrium, I’d still go reeling from yet another wild and wacky incident or behavior that would hit me out of the clear blue.
So having a sense of humor was my saving grace. Because often the options were to either laugh or cry hysterically, and laughter was just so much more healing.
With that attitude, determined to keep my simchah as I made Chezky’s simchas bar mitzvah, we arrived at the night of his reception.
Despite my positive resolutions, it’s hard to be a gracious hostess when your whole body’s tense, unconsciously listening for any sound that may portend a crisis. I greeted, shook hands, air-kissed — and prayed. To my shock (I’d parted ways with optimism years before), the evening proceeded without incident. Most attendees — my neighbors, acquaintances, and even many of my friends and family — were unaware of Chezky’s issues. (It’s not something you bring up when you meet over the produce section. Oh, by the way, my oldest son is autistic….)
On the one hand, that made it easier to maintain my privacy. On the other, now that Chezky was on display, the brachos that were extended were both heartwarming and heartrending.
“Wow! He looks likes such an erlich bochur.” (You should see him if someone moved his colored pencils out of order.)
“His leining was beautiful! Such a sweet clear voice!” (I’ve heard Chezky’s sweet voice raised in prayer — and in shrieks. His bein adam laMakom was legendary. His bein adam l’chaveiro infamous.)
As the night progressed, I felt myself marginally relaxing. Peeking across the mechitzah I saw Chezky shake hands, nod, and turn to the next guest. At his elbow hovered Yitzchak. Yitzchak, who I’m convinced moonlights as Eliyahu Hanavi.
Yitzchak had been recommended to us by Chezky’s doctor. I’d been cynical of trying any new therapists as we’d had so many disastrous results.
But Yitzchak was everything a therapist should be. He’d come to our house, to Chezky’s own home turf, to work with him on issues with his siblings and with daily hurdles.
He’d go to Chezky’s school during recess, take a group of three or four boys and play with them, teaching Chezky the skills of group play. To an ASD child, the unspoken rules of social behavior are Greek, and Chezky benefited from clear-cut demonstrations of how to respond and act.
Yitzchak was extremely soft-spoken and patient, working Chezky through anger, grudges, and the inevitable meltdowns. And he helped us as parents as well. More and more as Chezky grew, we realized that our reactions and responses to Chezky’s behavior were critical. The more we managed to stay in control, the easier it was for Chezky to maintain his own control. I started consciously working on myself to speak softly and gently even when I was about to have my own meltdown. The minute there was any anger or frustration in my voice, Chezky would lose it, screaming and sobbing, “I’m sorry, I won’t ever do it again, just don’t be angry!”
So I simply couldn’t get angry. Chezky’s ASD transformed me as a person and a mother. Instead of focusing on Chezky’s triggers, I realized that chinuch is mostly about focusing on my reactions. And despite the wear and tear of having an ASD sibling, I think this newfound skill of mine benefited all my children. Our house became a quieter place, at least on the parental end. And the kids knew: If Mommy ever drops her voice to a whisper, boy you’d better watch out — that means she’s really angry.
Much of these changes were to Yitzchak’s credit and guidance. And these last few weeks as we approached the bar mitzvah, Yitzchak walked him through the entire process, running rehearsals in the shul and the kiddush hall. Day after day they practiced shaking hands, thanking a guest for coming, and what to do if you suddenly feel like you need a break.
I don’t remember all the brachos I got at Chezky’s bar mitzvah. But I do remember that the biggest brachah was that we got through Chezky’s bar mitzvah without a hitch. And I attribute that entirely to Yitzchak.
As the evening wound down, my thoughts of the future were mellow and content. I conveniently forgot past issues and incidents. “Look at Chezky!” I whispered to Layee, my all-in-one therapist, mentor, and rebbetzin. (Rule #1 in special child parenting: Have someone to speak to!) Layee was a lifesaver during these tumultuous years, and that night was her nachas as well. “Doesn’t Chezky look… well… normal?” I asked her.
She smiled and gave me a quick hug. “Define normal.”
I laughed, but still inside, I was allowing myself to dream. Maybe we’d turned a corner, passed the crisis. Maybe Chezky was maturing and would settle down.
Little did I know what the teenage years would bring.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 841)
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