The recent crisp mornings and the sharper blue of the sky has reminded me that fall approaches and with it, the new year, Rosh Hashanah. I don’t practice Judaism as much as I would like, but Rosh Hashanah has always been one of my favorites, because it is all about counting your blessings. Unlike that other holiday that follows all too quickly on the heels of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur — which is darker and contemplative — Rosh Hashanah to my ultra-Reform Jewish eye, is bright and light. Yom Kippur is fasting; Rosh Hashanah is eating apples and honey. To me, Yom Kippur is adulthood; Rosh Hashanah is childhood.
It is probably because of my oldest child Nat that Rosh Hashanah resonates so strongly for me. Nat is severely autistic, which means that he has a lot of difficulty talking, socializing, and behaving calmly and appropriately. Unlike how it sounds, however, Nat, like my other two younger sons, is a joy to have in the family. That is not to say it is easy; it has never been easy. But unlike anything else that has ever happened to me, getting to know Nat despite the thorny difficulties of autism has taught me precisely what it means to count your blessings and greet the New Year head on.
Because of Nat, I had to confront the horrible fact: something is wrong with my baby. While my little son smiled at me and filled up my heart with his sweetness, earning the nickname “Sweet Guy,” a dark fear hovered at the edges of my consciousness, an inexplicable worry that never went away. As vague anxiety grew into full-blown concerns, I had to grapple with the reality of profound disability, of the “never going to be.” For a while, that was all I could see.
Not exactly blessings. The pain I felt in those early years was intense. But somewhere along the way, it eased. At some point I realized that I had kind of gotten used to it all, and Nat became just a kid — a sweet, goofy kid — rather than a boy who was autistic. I was focused more on how to do things, than “why autism?” My husband and I figured out how to be a team, how to split up the hard work, the Nat-tasks, like doctors’ appointments, school meetings, all the extra shlepping that comes with parenting a special needs child. We eventually found the right school program, the right combination of medication, some sports he could do, and thought we were doing pretty well. And we even took the challenge of all challenges: a bar mitzvah. We had him memorize the prayers because we knew he couldn’t learn Hebrew but he had a memory like the proverbial elephant, and because his autism causes him to crave repetition. He was a natural for practicing with a tape recorder everyday.
But truthfully, Nat’s triumphant bar mitzvah was one victory of many. As his teenage years moved forward, I began to see that Nat, unlike many typically developing teenage boys I knew, had learned to control his most difficult behaviors. No more tantrums, or aggression. Though he still lagged in so many ways behind his peers, I could see that that same Sweet Guy was still there, and that was the important thing. And I was happy; no longer a young, worried Mommy, I felt like a seasoned warrior Mom.
Is it that Nat humbled me, taught me to appreciate every small achievement? Perhaps. How many other mothers feel their hearts burst with pride simply because their sixteen-year-old made his own lunch? Well, come to think of it, probably many! And that is what life with Nat has shown me. In learning just how different my son was, and how unusual and full of struggle his life was going to be, I learned that he — and we — are not that different from anybody else. It is strange to think, though it took me so long to see, just how profoundly apt was the name we had given him: Nathaniel, gift of God. For it is Nat who has shown me the true meaning of Rosh Hashanah: that the important thing is to embrace what is, rather than regret what is not.
Copyright 2005, Susan Senator