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School psychologists through the years have warned that, as Joseph grows in awareness, autism will get him down. They’ve predicted insecurity, incompetence, depression, anxiety, drug addiction and suicidal tendencies. Whether due to a lack of awareness on Joseph’s part, a reasonable ability to overcome challenges, or his supportive school/social environment, we haven’t seen this happen.

I strongly dislike these dire proclamations, but despite that, some underlying part of me has been on the lookout for their emergence.

At the moment we are face-to-face with something that could bring it on:

Basketball.

Not the lovelpinnoccioy, slow, supportive basketball for kids of all abilities that Joseph’s participated in previously. Like Pinnoccio he wants to be a real boy, and that means school basketball with typical kids who have typical executive function and motor skills. And not young kids, either: 6th-8th graders only.

Joseph is on his second week of practice, and yesterday Blue Eyes showed up 15 minutes before it ended to watch. Picture it, if you can: ten kids playing fast, dynamic basketball and our Joseph standing out on the edge, his body turned partly away from the kids as if to block out such rapid-moving action. He sees his dad, runs to him and says, “Let’s go straight home!”

Ugh. Is this the time when he sees that he is not like the others, will never be like them? Is this when self-doubt and low self-confidence start their evil, insidious path inside Joseph’s head and heart?

“You’re being way too dramatic,” I tell myself. “Everyone has things they can’t do. It’s time he found some out.” I myself was lousy at group sports and swore it off without a complete breakdown. But what if, what if, what if this is the thing that cracks the lens and suddenly Joseph can see how his disability limits him…not only in basketball, but in so many other ways. And then what if he looks to his future and suddenly his dreams of productive work and a wife and family — of happiness, for God’s sake –seems way out of his reach.

And if he wants to quit basketball, what do I do? Do I coach him that quitters never win and winners never quit? Do I teach him about executive function and the limitations he faces? Do we just gracefully bow out?

Perhaps it’s not Joseph those psychologists were talking about; at the moment it seems to be me drifting into insecurity, incompetence, depression, anxiety, drug addiction and suicidal tendencies.

Thank God for my spiritual foundation. At times like these I turn within, and Spirit brings to my mind a story originally told by the Buddha:

There was a Zen master who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff.

The tiger snarls with hunger, and pursues the master. His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on.

If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, if he stays, there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then, the precariously-suspended Zen master notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. He says, “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”

Ah, the beautiful, lovely, amazing present moment. Nice to be back, where danger is no longer imminent and where I trust that, if I can stay open, I will be guided to say and do the right thing at the right time.

strawberryThis lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.

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Two weeks ago, a dear friend took his life. As soon as we heard, in shock and grief, Blue Eyes and I made emergency arrangements for Joseph and headed to his house. As we got out of the car his wife hugged us and said, “They are just taking Ian away. Say goodbye to him while you can.”

The coroner, who was helping to carry him out in a stretcher, unwrapped his face. Blood spattered and frozen, it didn’t look like Ian. Ian, the ever-smiling, ever-caring, silently serviceful man, was not in that body. The Best Man at our wedding 24 years ago, the deep friend and brother in God, this was no longer present in that body.

Most of our meditation group gathered there. Hugs, love and tears were exchanged freely. Oh, Ian. How we miss you.

Do we not know what an impact we make on others in our simple lives? Ian and his wife were so kind to Joseph. Healers come in all kinds of packages, and Ian, by his humble example of love and care, was a healer. He was an important male role model in my son’s life — and now he has removed his physical presence from our lives. The reason will always be a mystery.

In sharing with our group a few days later, his wife brought up how small talk was so hard for Ian. He found eye contact hard. He didn’t know how to start discussing inconsequential things and let the conversation move around to things of more substance. His wife said that this brought up a lot of anxiety for him — how he wished he could be “enough.”

I knew Ian had social anxiety and that he couldn’t easily meet my eyes. A long time ago I had silently diagnosed him as on the spectrum. Way up on the spectrum, but still on it. Yet he was famous for his huge smile, so friendly and sweet. I never, ever would have tagged him as a potential suicide.

Held a pistol to his heart and pulled the trigger. A nice, neat hole that took him instantly. And such symbolism. A broken heart. No more heart for this life.

We didn’t, couldn’t, tell Joseph how it happened. We told him Ian’s heart stopped, but Joseph guessed that Ian took pills to make that happen and we didn’t contradict him. I wonder if many suicides are from people on the spectrum. The only other suicide I’ve had close to me was a teenage neighbor, and, looking back, I remember that he couldn’t make eye contact and that he walked funny — on his toes. Sigh.

A surreal twist to the whole situation was that Ellen, a medium from England, was visiting our friends. She comes twice a year to the US and conducts readings with loved ones from the other side. So as we grieved on that day two weeks ago, she would quietly point and say, “He’s standing right in front of that tree. He keeps saying, ‘I’m free! I’m free!'”. She said he took his life because he felt like he didn’t belong. All these years trying to fit in, and he just didn’t belong. He was so confused, she said.

As a spiritual being having a human experience, I too have often felt like an alien in this life. This is a common feeling for those of us who identify with our spiritual side more than the human one.  But to feel that one also just can’t fit in with other humans — that must be hard. To stand quietly while others talk because you can’t think of what to say. To feel things deeply and not be able to express them. To be unable to engage or outwardly connect with people who you know and love. Ugh.

I pray for my Joseph, and for all our spectrum kids. May they make their way in this crazy world. May they find connection and authenticity. And, when it’s not working, may they seek help. As Ian’s sister said at his memorial service:

I wish you had not been so heroic with your burdens;
I would have carried more, much more and gladly.
It would have been an honor.
So I spit on stoicism today;
That chill perjurer who poses as a virtue.

Someone once told me that Satan loves it when we don’t ask for help. And I remember, at an OA meeting, the leader said that if you share your pain, you leave it there; but if you leave it unsaid, you take it with you.

May we have such a good relationship with our ASD kids, and all our kids, that they can share the good, the bad, and the agonizing. May we, as parents, have the ability to empathize, to hear and feel their pain, and not try to gloss it over or make it all better when it’s not. May our children feel heard. And loved. And worthwhile enough to choose life when facing the darkness.

Om. Peace. Amen.