By Barb Arland-Fye
My husband Steve, chef extraordinaire, headed out of our hotel to my parents’ house to help prepare the meal we would enjoy later that day. My older son Colin and I decided to walk to the house later to get some fresh air and exercise on the unseasonably warm Christmas day in Minnesota.
As we prepared to leave, Colin said he wanted to take his book bag, which contained around 40 pounds of books, mostly Bibles. I suggested removing one of the “heavier” books to lighten the burden. Colin politely rejected my suggestion, insisting that he could handle it. In 32 years of parenting a son with autism, I have learned a valuable lesson: avoid debates. They lead to high anxiety on both sides!
I attempted to assist Colin, who was wearing a heavy coat, to hoist the book bag onto his back. The attempt failed. In the process, the band on Colin’s watch broke off. The anxiety meter ticked upward. “Dad will fix your watchband when we get to Grandma and Grandpa’s,” I assured Colin. Appearing worried but not obsessing about the watchband (a good sign) he agreed to walk to the house — with the full book bag. That decision meant he would have to deal with the natural consequences of carrying his burden.
Colin did not say a word as we walked, maintaining a determined look on his face even as we dodged patches of black ice and slick, melting snow. Every 100 yards or so I looked up at Colin to try to gauge how he was doing. “Are you OK?” I asked. “Yes,” he responded as he held that heavy book bag against his chest. I offered to hold one strap while he held the other strap but he released his grip on his strap leaving me temporarily holding the bag!
A little more than a mile into the walk, about a half-mile from my parents’ home, I asked Colin if he wanted me to call Steve to come pick us up. Yes, he said, looking relieved. “Can we find a bench to sit on?” he asked. No benches were in sight, and it would have been too cold to sit and wait anyway. I suggested we continue walking until we met up with Steve. Colin agreed and we moved forward.
As we walked, a lump of emotion formed in my throat. Colin never complained about carrying his heavy load. He accepted the burden as his responsibility because the book bag’s contents provided him with a sense of wellbeing. I would have complained every step of the way.
Steve arrived within minutes and was amazed at how far we had walked on the treacherous sidewalks bogged down by Colin’s cargo. When we arrived at Grandma’s house, Colin admitted that his hands hurt (probably his arms, too) but only after we asked. His main concern was getting that watchband fixed!
Although Steve repairs and mends many broken things in our lives, he could not repair Colin’s watchband. What were we going to do on Christmas Day? Holding the backpack required fewer coping skills than dealing with a broken watchband. Anything amiss makes the world feel a little less secure to a person with autism.
Through the grace of God, my dad had an extra watch for Colin to wear. Our celebration of Christmas, which began the night before with Christmas Eve Mass and a family get-together, turned out beautifully, with the exception that we missed Patrick, Colin’s younger brother. He stayed home in Iowa because of work.
Sometimes I view Colin’s autism as a burden and certainly not a gift. On Christmas Day, I witnessed my son sacrificing his comfort so that he could hold on to something that centered him. When I pay attention to God’s presence in my life, I see myself pushing through the tissue paper to the gift.
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at firstname.lastname@example.org)