Susan's Blog

Friday, July 1, 2011

My Grandparent Piece in NY Times “Motherlode”

June 22, 2011, 4:22 pm

Grandfather Knows Best


Grandparents. It can be comforting to know our parents are there when we have kids, with wisdom and experience to share. It can be exasperating, too, that they assume they know best. As Susan Senator, author of “The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide” writes in a guest post today, it can often be both of those things at the same time.

Especially when they are right.

By Susan Senator

When I first told my father about my oldest son Nat’s autism, Dad said, “Well, he’s still our Nat.” Our Nat. I remember being stunned by the simplicity of that response, thinking, “does he really get what I just said?” even though he is an intelligent man. For some time after that, I took many opportunities to rub his face into the rotten places autism took me to.  But his reaction was maddeningly the same: basically, that Nat was just great, and what was I complaining about?

It quickly became apparent that Nat’s autism was very severe:  unpredictable tantrums, barely functional language, a vacuum-like withdrawal. In the early days family gatherings snapped with tension and the anxiety that Nat would explode into unpredictable rage. Back then my husband and I attended any holiday or visit with fearful expectation of having to pile ourselves back into the car at a moment’s notice, but my parents always begged us to come anyway. And we forced ourselves to, and face the specter of Nat’s volatile behavior year after year. The power of their unflagging, quiet insistence would swept us along, tsunami-like, carrying all of our messy uncertainty in its wake.

But Dad’s calm confidence – bordering on denial – was mixed for me.  His attitude – and his success with Nat – made me feel at times like an overwrought, incompetent parent, and yet at other times, like a worshipful daughter. After all, his approach seemed to do the trick:  when Nat was 4 Dad started getting him to do yard work for him.  When Nat was 8 Dad helped teach him how to ride a bike. When Nat hit his most difficult phases, at 11 and then at 17, he never once did anything to hurt or scare my father.  I can’t say the same about the rest of us.

I found myself thinking about Dad’s singular skill with Nat — and his blind spot — when my parents visited us recently for the holidays.  Passover now takes place at my house, because being on our own turf has proven to be an easy solution to some of our difficult family gatherings. This was a fairly typical Passover, with Nat hovering benignly over me while I cooked, making his usual endless walking loops around the living room and dining room.  Now 21, Nat has learned, at last (and after our frequent brave forays into the world)  that he can be with people calmly, even enjoyably.  Especially if the gatherings include food.  This time, Mom brought double the amount of food that we needed, including three kinds of dessert, so Nat was especially excited.  Every now and then his self-talk would become giggles, which floated over to me and bathed me with relief and joy.

Dad came in, loaded down with dog-eared copies of the Hagaddah (the Passover story and prayer book) and his lesson plan for leading the seder, complete with index cards and notes. And this year, Dad had one new item: a Hagaddah he had adapted for Nat so that he could really follow along and participate.  I loved the idea, though when I saw it, I grew skeptical over the many chicken-scrawled cues Dad had written for Nat.  Wasn’t it a little too much hope packed into such a small space?

A few hours before the seder was to begin, Dad sat down with Nat to familiarize him with this pared-down Hagaddah. At one point I heard Dad quizzing Nat about the part of the seder where the family welcomes the spirit of the prophet Elijah into their home. Dad said, “So Nat, you open the door for who?”
“Elijah,” Nat answered dutifully.

“And you count, 1-2-3, and then ….”

“Close the door.”

“1-2-3,” Dad repeated.

At the seder he called on Nat several times, and Nat would read in his halting, uncertain voice.  ”Thank you, Nat,” Dad would say each time.  All evening, Nat remained his usually antsy self, bouncing in his chair while the rest of us slurped our soup and crackled matzah onto our plates; clearly he wanted out of there, but he has learned enough about how his extended family works to know to stay put.  And there were all those desserts to consider.

Then the time came to open the door for Elijah.  At my father’s cue, Nat sprang up and opened the door. Dad shouted “1-2-3!” but Nat had already slammed the door shut. I laughed softly at both Dad’s zeal to get Nat to do the right thing – and Nat’s equal zeal to resist.

But Dad’s smile declared victory, as if that was exactly what was supposed to happen.  Dad always has to be right.

And yet, wasn’t he?  As I watch my stubborn Dad and my irrepressible Nat, tarnished hope starts to sparkle and glow like old silver.  Why can’t Dad’s gauzy veil of denial actually be the truth?  Whose to say it isn’t?  The door was opened.  It was shut again, sure, but the bottom line is:  a door has opened.


Lovely story Susan, actually reminds me so much of how my own father is with Dylan. You and I are very lucky to have such great dads:)

— added by Eileen from Florida on Friday, July 1, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Beautifully written. I alternate between what you and your husband have gone through, what you have achieved and knowledge that there is a lot more coming.

— added by Julia Mallach on Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm

This was wonderful. I am fortunate to have the same situation with my mom, who approaches every difficult situation so calmly, and expects so much from my son. I have learned a great deal from her approach (even if my inability to mirror it at times is annoying!). Great post, and a reminder to always strive for more.

— added by kim mccafferty on Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 10:57 am

So beautiful. Heart-lifting and heart-squeezing at the same time.

— added by Dixie Redmond on Friday, July 15, 2011 at 8:55 am

I have tears in my eyes…this is so beautiful…your Dad rocks!

— added by Candy on Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 10:32 am

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