He runs with surprising speed from bathroom to bedroom, towel trailing behind him as I beg him to return to no avail. Over the past two weeks my eldest has created this game for his own amusement, one in which a dripping wet boy tries to dive into dry sheets before his middle-aged mother can prevent him from doing so.
Somehow, almost every night in September, he had negotiated the space in our bathroom between me and freedom with absolute ease. I have had to track him down each time to prevent having to change his sheets, a chore I seem to despise even more in the evening than I do in the early hours of day.
Tonight, however, I’m on to him. He races into his room with his mother mere inches from his dripping torso, but for once, he stops short of his bed. Justin is staring at his bookshelves with a look of wonder, and I watch as a huge grin glides across his face. I take the opportunity to wrap him up again in his warm cotton Cookie Monster towel, and congratulate myself on winning this round.
It’s a small victory, but it’s mine. I’ll take them where I can get them.
I know exactly why he’s so happy, and watch as he grazes the spines of his reading material ever so gently, pushing back a few books so that all are flush with one another. His joy is twofold.
First, he recognizes that the literature has changed, because his mother has succumbed to the demands of a better-late-than-never spring cleaning, and has finally purged the baby books that have graced his shelves for far too long.
Last, he realizes I’ve tucked his favorites from infancy and toddlerhood into one of the upper corners of the shelves, because I simply can’t bear to part with them, no matter how ragged and torn they are. I watch as Justin jumps up and down with delight, and I take the opportunity when he’s airborn to maneuver him across the hall back to tiled floor, and the lonely toothbrush that is awaiting him.
I’m thrilled, because it’s the first time I’ve seen him excited by a book in ages, and this used to be “our thing”. Besides, who can get rid of Eric Carle?
We quickly conclude our bedtime ministrations, and Justin dashes back to the bedroom, impatiently thrusting his pajamas at me so we can get down to business. Memories flood back to me or our house in Virginia, where toddler and infant Justin forged his appreciation for words and illustrations, and his mother reveled in our shared interest.
For years books and Baby Einstein videos were the only vehicles available with which to soothe his tantrums, and since I could only watch spinning teddy bears so many times, reading material usually won the day. My small son and I spent many an hour cuddled on the couch under a comforting blanket, finding out the fates of errant spiders or ducks with unreasonable demands. Quite often we’d drift off to slumber mid-sentence.
Reading is hard work after all.
Unfortunately over the last few years his penchant for books has waned, and has been replaced by an unfathomable desire to destroy his once cherished friends, a symptom of his autism I know I’ll never comprehend. I often have to read to him while in motion, at times holding the book in question over my head until his urge for capture has disappeared.
I long ago ceased engaging in this activity in his bedroom, as I’d invariably be greeted the next morning by the remnants of a good read in his waste basket. This was despite the fact that he was thrilled beyond reason that I’d shared said read with him the night before.
Yet another mystery of autism I’m confident won’t be revealed to me any time in the near future.
Although I’m wary about reinstating our bedtime ritual I’m also hopeful, because the key with Justin (and almost any child) is to let him lead, to see the world on his terms, to embrace his whims whenever possible. Maybe the subtle changes on white shelves has renewed his interest.
Perhaps seeing all his favorites from infancy banded together has inspired him. Maybe tonight he’ll let me unveil a story to him once more, will permit me to indulge in a pastime I too have loved since toddlerhood, one that once bonded me to my son in a way I never thought possible.
Of course, there’s no pressure surrounding this moment. None at all.
He selects one of his all-time favorites, worn and weary but still viable after nine years, and settles into my lap. My eldest sits quietly as I proceed with the story arc of one ravenous caterpillar, and I recall how when he was younger reading was the sole pastime where he was still, where his overabundant energy was finally (and for his tired mother, gratefully), contained.
Eventually, both emerging butterfly and boy are satiated, and I offer to read him one more. He slides off my lap and firmly replaces his find, looks me right in the eyes, and throws himself onto his bed.
Normally at this point I would have been wrestling his preferred author out of his hands, but tonight he seems at peace with his choice, and with my having read it to him. I do however wrestle with whether or not to leave Mr. Carle’s work shelved with his other stories, and decide to throw caution to the wind.
I wrap my not-so-small-son up in his rocket sleeping bag, and throw his softest blanket on top of him for good measure. Justin bears with me as I butcher the trilogy of lyrics I’ve sung to him since he was little, then gently and firmly pushes me off his bed and toward the door. I bestow one last kiss on the nape of his neck, the only stretch of his skin left showing, and head for the hallway.
Over the years, I’ve finally learned how to take a hint.
I have no idea what will be waiting for me in the wee hours of the day to come, but then again, that is true of everything. Over the past few months I’ve watched Justin take an unpredented interest in his little brother, the ramifications of which could encompass a post all by themselves. I’ve witnessed his increased ability to wait for his whims to be satisfied, often without an accompanying pinch, or whine.
He’s even embraced mini-golf, which since I remain the mini-golf queen (at least in this family), has only endeared me to him further. These are subtle changes, no parades evoked, no monuments erected. They simply are evidence of happiness, an increasing desire to try new things (and reinstate old), and perhaps, most importantly, a sign that Justin is learning to embrace change.
And as I gently close the door behind me, I silently thank the universe for a good night.