For Jack, at Five Years

It took me a while to actually sit down and write this, two weeks after Jack’s fifth birthday. It’s all still true.

You look the most like your dad: blond hair, tall and thin. But your eyes remind me of me and of my mom. Your rose-gold hair from infancy has changed to flax. Your face is longer and thinner. Gone are the chubby baby cheeks, the fat spiders of hands. You underwent surgery at fifteen months because you were born with just one testicle. You cried and cried when you came out from the anesthesia. We held you and cried, too, feeling helpless and broken, unable to take away your suffering. The nurse gave you one dose of pain medicine before we left, and when we got home, you slept for three hours. When you woke up, you were your own cheerful self, as if nothing had happened.

It’s your good cheer and your laughter that remind me of my side of the family, especially my dad, your Granddaddy Jim. You love to laugh, and you love to make us laugh. “You’re funny,” is a high compliment from you. Last night, you were looking for the brown owl I made for you years ago now, the one with only one eye, because the other fell off or was pulled off by you. Your dad was helping you look for it, and you found it before he did. You stayed silent, watching your dad look for the owl that you already had. When he finally turned around and saw it next to you on the bed, you started to laugh. You may not be able to talk very well yet, but you sure know how to laugh.

You were diagnosed with autism when you were two-and-a-half, half of your lifetime ago, now. You still struggle with speaking, but you understand much more. In the fall, you will start kindergarten at a school that specializes in helping kids with autism, and their school mascot is the owl. It seems like the perfect place for you. I don’t think I’m ready yet to put you on a bus, so I will drive you to school for another year, or two.

We’re potty training you this week, and you like the “big boy” underpants, preferring them over bulky diapers. Once you figure out how to sense when it’s time to go, I predict there will be no stopping you. I rejoice every time you reach a new level, every time you insist on doing something yourself: “Want Jack will do it!” And I’m also a little sad, because the baby version of you is gone, growing fainter in the distance with every new step you take into the world. Just this morning, you eschewed the booster seat, insisting to sit in the “big chair.” I praised your big-boy move as I sadly removed the booster and set it on the floor. Another point of no return.

You still love to be held, and you love music. You love to be sung to. Your favorite toys (apart from the owls) are the ones that play music. You memorize the songs and sing them to yourself at night, before you fall asleep. Whenever you hear a new one that you love, you listen to it over and over until you have it down pat. Your grandmother, your dad’s mom, is good at introducing new tunes that you like. But sometimes I come up with an old jingle or song that you love, and you have me sing it over and over, over and over. Your dad is a musician, and it looks like you’ll follow his lead, in your own time.

At the same time that I miss your sweet chubby baby self, I delight in the new, strong, independent boy sprouting up out of himself. You love basketball, and your aim is keen. You’re so good that when you miss one shot in ten or fifteen, you get angry. You think it’s supposed to hit the net every single time. You don’t know yet that even for the professionals, one miss in ten is pretty damn good. Be patient with yourself. Be kind. You have no idea how truly gifted you are. You only have yourself to compare to, right now. I hope that practice and growth and maturity will show you that everyone fails sometimes. Everyone misses the basket. Everyone falls down. It doesn’t make you a failure. Failure is to stop trying. Just get back up and try again. And hear the crowd go, “Wow.”

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