It was a hot June 18 in Princeton, West Virginia, 63 years ago. Beth King was busy watching over her three children, ages 4 and under, as well as preparing for her parents to arrive from Florida. Her husband, Jack, was at work and so she busily got the house and dinner ready for her family to arrive. Oh, and someone else was getting ready to arrive, too. Beth was 9 months pregnant! And so in her typical hard-working fashion, she decided to tackle one more task that needed to be done. Grabbing the lawn mower, she set out to mow the large yard. She was barefoot – after all, this IS West Virginia I’m talking about!
After mowing awhile, Beth ran in to check on the dinner in the oven. She had made a specialty of hers – Cheese Souffle – and knew that she needed to watch its rising very carefully. Bending over, she slowly opened the oven door and received quite a surprise. Her water broke!! I don’t remember all the details at that point – I was the one about to be born – but I can imagine that there was much rushing around and changing of plans and phone calls and getting to the hospital!
Dr. Pace had to be called in from a family picnic on this beautiful summer Saturday. I had no concern for other’s plans, only my own! Dr. Pace was wearing a very bright Hawaiian shirt and didn’t have time to change because I was in a hurry. Mother had green feet from mowing the lawn. And so I was born, looking at green feet and a bold Hawaiian shirt. Does this explain me to all of you? It should.
And guess what my favorite meal is, the one that Mom always made for me when I would come home from college or from being around the world as a military wife? Cheese Souffle, of course!! I love you, Mom, for giving me life on this day 57 years ago – strange as it was!
I saw the greatest demonstration of his selflessness many times during the month that I spent with him and Mom before he died. I’ve heard it said that the way a person handles his impending death is a real evidence of the person they truly are. I can vouch for this statement when I think of Dad. He was polite, and humorous, and gentle, and thankful even as he daily faced pain and uncertainty and the knowledge that he was leaving Mom. I learned a lot from him during that emotional month.
It was only a matter of days after I arrived that he was allowing me to assist with getting him into bed. He had pajamas on but it was still hard for him. Yet we both laughed and said funny things and as always, he was able to handle the situation with humor and sweetness. Soon his health declined enough that Hospice brought in a portable toilet that sat in his room. Dad was determined to be up and about in his wheelchair every day as much as possible, but the bathroom was impossible. Mom was handling all these details herself, of course, as I waited in the living room.
The reality of what he meant hit me with such force that I could hardly speak. Dad wasn’t crying for himself or for his own humiliation. He was crying because he felt like he had made Jan and I be a part of something that we should, in his opinion, never have had to do. He was thinking of us, not of himself. He was apologizing for what he felt he had caused for us – embarrassment at having to take care of our father’s personal needs. I hugged him and assured him that we were privileged to be allowed to care for him. And I told him that I didn’t want him to ever feel that way again.
Yesterday Aaron had a dentist appointment, so as usual I told him that we would eat lunch out somewhere – his choice. This of course makes Aaron very happy. He climbed in the car and settled in for the ride to Chili’s, with our music cranked up but with Aaron still trying to talk over the sound of Billy Joel. Nothing deters Aaron from talking. Trust me.
It’s fun to just sit with Aaron in a restaurant and let him guide the conversation. Control might be a better word. As soon as we were led to our table, the talking began and continued non-stop for the entire meal. Only when chewing his huge burger was Aaron quiet. I also knew from the moment that our server, Christy, came to the table that she got Aaron. She was relaxed with him, smiling and interacting with him, which showed me how much she liked and enjoyed him. She had none of the nervous glances and stony looks that so many others do when they meet Aaron. This also put me at ease.
Christy asked right away if we wanted an appetizer. Aaron perked up and asked, “What’s an appetizer?” Christy and I tried to explain appetizers to Aaron, but all he cared about was revealed in his next question: “Does it have bread?” You know how Aaron loves bread. Anyone who buys 36 rolls at Wal-Mart does indeed love bread. Christy went on to get our water while I continued to answer appetizer questions and assure Aaron that we did not need an appetizer, and that no, there was no bread appetizer.
Next, Aaron wanted to know what a margarita was as he studied the poster on the wall. No, Aaron, you cannot have a margarita, either. Now please look at the menu at something that you CAN have………..and of course, he ordered the biggest bacon burger that he could find……….after looking at all the menu pictures and having many questions about the food that he saw. He always comes back to burgers………with bacon, surely.
His eyes are always moving, observing every detail around him. He liked the tile table where we sat, bright and unusual. “Mom, this design looks like a snowflake……….and this one looks like leafs…….with snowflakes.” Which led him to remember pepper. “Mom, remember when I looked at pepper in the microscope? It’s all leafs! Why would we eat leafs?”
He was bothered by the water left on the table from where it was cleaned before we arrived, so he began swiping the table with his hands. He also does this for crumbs, but I stopped him before we had even more water on the table from spilled drinks. Then he realized that he didn’t have his obligatory toothpick by his side that he must always have by his side when he eats. He got up to go get a toothpick that he had seen at the welcome desk near the front door, but I stopped him quickly. His eyes don’t miss anything! Christy was kind enough to bring Aaron a toothpick on a little paper towel………..which he promptly dropped and lost. Somehow he managed to finish his meal minus the toothpick.
He wanted to clap, so I gave him repeated reminders that clapping was not to be done in the restaurant. He still got a few in anyway, despite my stern looks. And talk, talk, talk! We talked about getting him new shoes after the dentist, when we went to Wal-Mart. Whereupon he turned in the booth and stuck his foot out to show me the semi-hole in his tennis shoes…………and poked his finger in the hole as he said, “See, Mom, you can actually feel the inside of the shoe!” Turn around, Aaron, and quit jabbing your finger in your shoe!
He held up the onion slice that was on his huge bacon hamburger. “Do you call these purple onions?” He knows the answer but will always ask anyway, so I answer the way that I always answer………..that these are not purple onions but are called red onions………which leads to a discussion of red vs. purple, and is he color blind like Granddaddy?
He remembers that he read a long time last night before bed and is now feeling tired. “Mom, guess what time I got up? I got up at 7:57!” He paused for a second and then continued, “I mean, not 7:57. It was 7:17!” When did you go to bed, Aaron? “I turned my light off at 11:23!” The precise world of Aaron. I would expect no less.
We also know all about the literal world of Aaron, which he hilariously demonstrated in this conversation: “Mom, Paradigm has a janitor now. I didn’t know they hired a janitor!” And I teasingly replied, “Well, it’s because of all you messy people.” With a straight face, Aaron said, “No, she doesn’t clean people. She cleans tables and floors.” He did not understand my laughter, which made it even funnier.
More talking, all the while eating……….or should I say cramming………..his huge bacon burger into his mouth. Finally, there lay on his plate the burger, the onions, the tomato, the lettuce, and the bacon. He continued to eat the bun smeared with ketchup and mayo, and then finished off each of the other items one by one. He saved the best til last……..the bacon………..and proceeded to cut one of the pieces in half. I wondered why, and then he handed me one of the halves. “Here Mom. You can have half of my bacon.” Oh, how sweet. But I declined, begging fullness on my part, and so he happily shoved both halves in his mouth and finished off his meal.
We drove through the car wash, where every aspect of every feature of the car wash was expounded by Aaron……….even up to bedtime last night…………every aspect, believe me. The dentist visit was next, where it was discovered that Aaron has a crack in his tooth. We remember when it happened not long ago at supper, where he was vigorously eating steak. Now we are hearing all about cracks in teeth, crowns on teeth, and the prospect of his next dental visit soon to come. Gary and I are just seeing dollar signs. Wal-Mart was the usual going here and going there and hearing all his observations about EVERYTHING…………do you know how much there is to talk about at Wal-Mart??!! We left with his favorite non-flavor-bursting sour cream and onion Pringles………….Cheez-Its because we ran out because he ate them all………..and a box of croissants……….of course.
Driving home by the recently plowed farmer’s fields, he wondered why part of a field was bare. “Mom, why is there bald grass there?” Bald grass? “Yeah, there’s nothing in that field. It’s bald grass!” As always, I’m following Aaron and enjoying his language…………but agreeing with what he had said previously at Chili’s.
“Mom, I clapped at Paradigm one day and the janitor told me that I need to take a chill pill. Why did I need to have that?”
Oh Aaron, if only there was such a thing as a chill pill! There are times that if you didn’t take one………….I would!!!
Yesterday when Gary and I left church we ran a couple of errands. We also decided to eat lunch at Olive Garden. I’ve just returned from a week at camp, so the time alone with Gary was very nice. I really enjoyed our lunch……..the good food, uninterrupted conversation, and just time alone with my husband. Later in the day, Aaron was hungry and asked if he could have some Taco Bell. He and I jumped in the car while Gary was watering some new grass. Aaron and I stopped to throw some newspapers in the recycling bin, pick up a prescription, and finally ended up at the Taco Bell drive-through to buy his supper. Aaron wanted to know if I was getting any food, but I told him that I wasn’t really hungry.
On the drive home, Aaron asked why I didn’t buy any Taco Bell food. I again told him that I wasn’t hungry. I felt like I knew where this conversation was headed. Aaron was pondering about why I wasn’t hungry. He was wondering what I had eaten and when I had eaten that would cause me to not be hungry at this time of day. I wasn’t trying to hide anything from Aaron, necessarily, but I just didn’t want to make a big deal out of the fact that Gary and I had eaten out……….without Aaron.
Therein lies the problem……….we ate out without Aaron. And sure enough, as Aaron and I played a game of Skip-Bo before bed, Aaron brought the subject up again. “Mom, at Taco Bell, why didn’t you get food?” I repeated to him that I wasn’t hungry, even as I knew that now we would face this issue head on.
Aaron continued to probe. “Did you eat?” I told him that I had indeed eaten. And he asked, “So what did you eat?” I’m not going to lie, and therefore I told him that his dad and I had eaten lunch out.
“Where did you eat?” he wanted to know. Funny how I was feeling like a delinquent teenager who had to give an account to his parents for going somewhere that he should not have gone. Feeling badly now, I told Aaron that we had gone to eat at Olive Garden. He then gave me a look that touched my heart. And his words………oh my!
“You should have told me. I would have gone. Didn’t you want me?”
Stabs of guilt pierced my heart. Aaron’s shoulders slumped some, and I was initially feeling miserable at this turn in his mood and this sadness when he spoke. “Oh Aaron,” I assured him, “Your dad and I would have loved to have you go with us. It’s not that we didn’t want you…….but sometimes Dad and I need time together, too.”
Aaron seemed to accept this explanation, and his mood lifted as we continued to play Skip-Bo and talk about other things. He had no idea of how badly I felt………how conflicted. This conflict is one that any parent of a special needs child feels, especially an “adult child” that can put two and two together enough to know when he is being left out. For this is how Aaron sees this situation. He is simple in his thinking and very egocentric. He is being left out of an event that he loves………eating out………….with people that he loves to be with. He doesn’t understand the relationship of husband and wife. He doesn’t understand or care about the fact that Gary and I relish some time to be alone and to be “normal.”
Gary and I both have to balance our own relationship against that of our relationship with Aaron. This is paramount for any couple with children, and I believe especially important for those who parent special children who take so much time and energy. Gary and I are in a place in life when parents are typically experiencing empty nests. I’ve written about that before (Our Nest). We don’t know how long we will have Aaron at home with us. We do know that Aaron is smart enough to piece together that we went to a restaurant without him when we could have taken him. We do know that Aaron feels hurt about being left out. We do know that Aaron knows how to make us feel guilty, whether intentional or not. And we do know that we must not let this guilt rob us of our relationship with each other.
We can explain these issues to Aaron and we can assure him of our love, but we must never sacrifice our bond in an effort to always include Aaron. There’s a balance to be kept on both sides. It would be wrong for Gary and I to be so absorbed in each other that we neglected Aaron. Likewise, it would be equally wrong to be so taken up with Aaron and his needs that we neglected our own time and growth together. Thankfully, neither Gary nor I are ones that feel a need for constant attention or big trips together or going out every weekend. A dinner alone here several times a week is a respite for us, a time to recharge and converse and connect. It’s really a matter of the mind more than anything.
And sometimes those mind games can be very tricky. I refuse to feel guilty for enjoying time alone with my husband………time without Aaron. Time without listening to him talk of his latest movie, of something he has read, of what someone said, of the weather, of what time he went to bed and what time he got up, of global warming, of icebergs, of what food he’s eaten, of cavemen, of the legend of the trash men or the legend of the beagles, of the medium window he broke…………..I could go on and on just like Aaron does!
Sometimes Gary and I run out of things to talk about. Maybe we need Aaron around more than we realize!
I just returned home yesterday from a week at our church youth camp down in Davis, Oklahoma. I’m one of the cooks. The week is full of laughter, fellowship with my cooking buddies, hugs from the youth, sore feet, and many special memories that are made. This is our fourth year of camp, and each year I’m so grateful to Gary for making it possible for me to go. Sometimes he has taken vacation the week I am gone, or Andrea has been here to help with things. This year Gary did not take vacation and Andrea is no longer living here. Aaron was able to handle his mornings just fine, though. He knows the routine for the couple hours that he was here before his day group staff, Cody, picked him up.
There was one morning that wasn’t too smooth, though. On Wednesday, Aaron was apparently throwing his back scratcher down the stairs like a Frisbee, he said. We’re not exactly certain how it all happened, but the small window in the door broke. Aaron ended up calling Gary, who came home from work to help clean up the mess. Thankfully things worked out fine and hopefully Aaron learned a lesson. Probably not, but we can still hope.
Usually when I’m gone, Aaron will call my cell phone repeatedly…………but this time, I didn’t hear from Aaron all week. Until Friday afternoon. Aaron was still at his day group and Krysten let him borrow her cell phone………..I hope she let him borrow it. He’s been known to help himself to phones. Anyway, my phone rang and I knew when I saw the name on the phone that it was probably Aaron. I answered anyway. And was I surprised!
“Mom! I miss you!!”
Wow! Was this Aaron? Or just someone who sounded like Aaron? Usually when I answer the phone, even when I’ve been gone, he launches right into some grand story without saying anything personal at all.
So I responded, “Aw, Aaron, I’ve missed you too!”
He chuckled, unsure of how to accept those words.
“So Mom, when are you coming home?”
“I’m coming home tomorrow, Aaron!” And he quickly asked, “What time?” It’s very important for Aaron to have details. Tomorrow has many hours and he feels a need to know the time. I told him that I wasn’t exactly sure, but that didn’t work.
“But what time?” he asked again. So I told him an approximate time. He was content with that. Then I fully expected a food question, but he went on to tell me about his day at the movies………….and eventually, he got the dreaded Wednesday morning incident off his chest.
“Mom, I was throwing my back scratcher down the stairs like a Frisbee.”
I told him that I knew about that. We talked about not throwing things, etc. And he asked, “But don’t you throw a Frisbee?”
Yes, Aaron…….but the back scratcher is not a Frisbee……….and even if it was, we don’t throw Frisbees in the house.
“Well, I threw it like a Frisbee and it broke the medium window in the door.”
Dad told me about the medium window, Aaron. As we talked he was feeling relieved, I’m sure, to have this conversation out in the open before I came home. We finished talking as I told him that I had to go. And the next day, just as soon as I walked into the house, I heard him lumbering up the stairs. He had video game codes on his mind and didn’t give me a hug right away, but finally at Gary’s reminder, Aaron gave me a sideways Aaron hug.
And soon after that, he asked the question he had been saving all along.
“Mom! What’s for supper?”
Now that’s my Aaron! I missed you, Aaron!