I am in love with the idea of creating traditions for my child. Kids typically grow up to live independent lives, and parents are forced to watch as the daily world they worked so hard to build slips away over time. This would be devastating if not for the things that do stick forever. Not just who we become as people, but which fragments of our history we choose to pass on to the next generation.
Board games. Birthday parties at Star World. Sundays at Grandma Hill’s house. Camping trips on Lake Michigan.
Experiences that stick are the only things that matter. Or maybe they are drops in a sea of nothing, only taking form when our imagination creates a mold for them; which feels a little meaningless. If I am going to exist in the world I only need to decide, I don’t have to be right about it. I like to believe that these are the things that define our lives and that they do matter- but they can also be anything we want them to be.
Annually I am forced to confront this thing that unsettles me. The holiday season is upon us, and my daughter doesn’t even know it. Halloween, Thanksgiving, her birthday, Christmas, New Year’s…. nothing. Each day is the same. No anticipation or excitement. It’s a concentrated group of traditions that should matter or shouldn’t matter. But that isn’t the problem.
It’s me. I cannot change so easily. It begins with Halloween, when I won’t be home until her bed time. I feel bad that she won’t get dressed up and go trick or treating like the other kids. Not because she will care, or because I want to participate, but because of the idea that thirty years ago I would have been disappointed. Halloween cannot simply be just another day, even if it is. In reality I have an excuse for something that probably wouldn’t have happened anyway.
And this will continue throughout the holiday season as I repeatedly choose between feeling guilty for my lack of effort and forcing ceremony upon a child who will not see the relevance. A child who will not keep any of this forever. It’s all for me. I am selfishly seeking meaning for her based on what has meaning for me. And if that matters or not is always open to interpretation.
Maybe it’s enough to believe that pieces of her childhood are digging their heels deep into her little brain whether I know about it or not. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all because this concept just isn’t something she finds useful. But I can’t wrap my mind around that, because the hardest part of living with the nature of her autism is that we aren’t wired the same. Not even close.
It’s something you hear a lot in the autism community, but unless you live it you cannot know the every day of it. I am constantly searching for clues about what she thinks and how she feels, but I am using a completely different operating system to interpret those clues. Now take away the ability to communicate with words. When you spend this much time running into brick walls, it’s hard to not feel like a failure every single day. You seek out normalcy where you can get it; a selfish, but necessary act.
She’s happy. She feels loved. In my rational, conscious mind I know this is most important. Connections matter. Life is made up of relationships and experiences; we are limited by what we can hold in our minds, and that amount is also what defines us. It’s what we pull meaning from. Maybe our past isn’t even real outside of what we know about it. Our history is nothing more than a string of memories we make room for. And occasionally, what others hold for us. Isn’t it the same for everyone?
Every once in a while I catch myself falling into old patterns, and I try one more time to sort out just what it is that matters. Then I go ahead and act on my conclusions, right or wrong, because what else is there to do about anything in life? The holidays seem like such a small thing to overthink this way. They are a spotlight to what I avoid thinking about most days of the year, and of course I came into parenthood hardwired to duplicate an entirely different experience. I had visions of this long before she even came along. Secretly I always knew how fragile visions could be.
I don’t feel sad or disappointed over the loss of my ideas anymore. That’s what this is, after all; and I know these are just as moldable as any other idea. Overcoming that challenge is something we all learn young, and often. But I am disappointed in myself for adapting so poorly. Nothing is missing, I’m just existing in unfamiliar territory until I can figure out how to read the road maps. The journey matters. Maybe this journey will be the very thing that sticks the most, for both of us.