The New York Times
Friday, May 18, 2012
By JOEL YANOFSKY
It should be interesting.
At least, that’s what I’ve been telling guests in advance of my son Jonah’s impending bar mitzvah. Sometimes, I wish we’d added this phrase — part disclaimer, part promo — to the invitations that went out a couple of months ago.
Anyone who’s organized a bar or bat mitzvah, a communion, a sweet 16, even a relatively big birthday party knows how much there is to prepare. But when your child has autism, as Jonah does, the preparations never seem to end; nor does the worrying about everything that might go wrong. So, yes, it’s even money that on the day of his bar mitzvah Jonah will do something interesting. I’m betting that just as the rabbi is briefing him on the significance of this time-honored ritual, Jonah will give a shout-out to his favorite animals, yaks and zebras.
That’s Jonah’s move. He’s a sweet, lovable child who, quite regularly, says or does something we can’t explain to other people — something that will invariably seem kind of weird.
But then everyone around here is acting a little weird lately. Jonah’s Hebrew tutor, for instance, is concerned about his dropping the Torah, thus dooming us all to an Indiana Jones-style curse. My wife, Cynthia, has concluded that there are too many guests and too few tables. “Someone’s sitting on the floor,” she keeps muttering. As for me, I fall asleep humming the tune to “Que Sera Sera.”
Whatever will be, will be. Our new family motto. It marks a dramatic change from how our son has been raised for the last decade. Jonah was diagnosed with autism when he was almost 4, and ever since we’ve not only been preoccupied with anticipating every behavior he has but have been analyzing why he has them: a parenting style that has effectively prevented me from thinking too far ahead. The future is a scary place for every parent, but it’s especially so for the parent of a child with autism. No one has ever been able to tell Cynthia or me with any degree of certainty what our son is capable of.
What I’m capable of is another story. Tradition holds that I make a speech after Jonah is done. I’m supposed to expound on what kind of adult I hope he’s going to become. “Today, you are a man.” That sort of thing.
But I still can’t imagine what my son’s adulthood is going to look like, even if I get glimpses of it every day. Now, as he waits for the school bus in the morning, he shoos me away. Evidently, I embarrass him and it’s high time, too. There is, also, above his lip, visible only to his mother and me, the ghost of a future mustache.
Once he’s off to school, I return to my speech-writing, though all I have to show for my efforts so far are false starts. Like, “I should probably explain why Jonah was talking about zebras before.”
I’m also tempted to explain what the last 10 years has required of Jonah and Cynthia and me — how we got to this point. When you have a child with autism you soon learn that you have to teach him everything, especially things most kids pick up intuitively — from playing with toys to carrying on a simple conversation.
Then again, I can’t leave out how much Jonah has taught me and keeps teaching me. Like how to accept him for who he is. For the growing boy who delights in the moment; the brand new teenager who’s remarkably immune to embarrassment; the young man who will always be, let’s face it, interesting. Come to think of it, not bad qualities to carry into adulthood. Worrying about what others think, about everything that might go wrong — as Jonah also keeps reminding me, by his example — is not worth the worry. Wrong is simply the wrong word.
In fact, I’d be wise to begin my speech by thanking my son for making me grow up a little. How’s this for an opening line? “Today, I am a man.”
Joel Yanofsky is a writer in Montreal, Canada. His latest book is Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.