October 17th was the day the call came. I was sitting at the computer in the bedroom I shared with my husband, probably preparing a Bible study lesson or returning an email or fulfilling any one of my weekly responsibilities, but the details of what I was doing became instantly trivial with the ring of the phone. When I picked it up, Dr. Wherly was on the line. It took a moment for her name to register, and then I knew. The moment I had been expecting, dreading, wanting, and hoping wouldn’t come-- had come. I listened as she spoke the word, a simple word that upended and changed my entire life.
For me, the conversation stopped right there. A million thoughts flooded my mind and I needed to get off the phone quickly to think. I went through the motions: “No, I have no questions. Thank you very much. Yes, we can meet soon to talk about it further. Goodbye.” I sat and stared. I couldn’t cry. I tried but I couldn’t. I wondered to myself, “What do I do now that a single word has changed the entire course of my life and the life of the little boy happily asleep upstairs?” I certainly couldn’t go back to a trivial email. I thought of my husband, deep in the busyness of his day, still living a happy, unshattered life, untouched by the bomb had just exploded in our home, instantaneously destroying the ideas and dreams we had for our little family. I called him and quietly repeated the word spoken to me: “Autism. She said autism.”
Still sitting there so uncharacteristically unemotional, I felt the familiarity smack me in the face. It hadn’t happened in decades, but the same feelings washed over me as I relived the experience of falling off my bicycle. I’d had the wind knocked out of me. I lay wounded on the ground, with a handlebar in my stomach. I couldn’t scream. I felt helpless. I had no control. I heard life happening in the distance, mocking me with laughter, but I remained disoriented and down for the count. I didn’t know what to do, how to make the scream come out, how to respond to this fresh crisis, or how to make life return to normal. I feared that normal would never come back.
A few days later, we attended Parents’ Night at Will’s preschool. As soon as we entered the school and saw the artwork hung above the coat hooks, trepidation swept over me. We could pick out Will’s artwork easily. The others had carefully painted flowers or drawn stick family members, but Will had obviously taken a brush, jerked it down the page, and been pleased enough with his work to leave it at that. When we entered the classroom, it was the same. Nothing of his screamed, “I have a personality” or “I am clued in to what is happening here.” Instead, we saw a list posted to the cabinet to remind the teachers which hand each child used to cut with scissors. Will’s was blank.
The teacher sat us down in chairs made for 3-year-olds and told us about the things they were doing each day. She ended with an explanation of how each activity was designed to encourage the children to interact with one another and develop language skills. She then looked straight at me and said, “Well, some we are getting to try to talk.” I was humiliated. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else she said until I got out of there and had a good cry. Kyle and I got in the car and sat in the parking lot for an hour crying and screaming in pain.
We were in the throes of grief and the humiliation of being singled out in a preschool classroom had not been helpful, although it had cracked the unemotional numbness I had been living in since receiving the diagnosis.
That call had changed our entire lives, but we weren’t sure how to respond. We would have liked a direction or solution to step toward, but so far we had just been surviving. We went about our days that week as usual, but our thoughts were never far from autism. I felt as if I were grasping for solid ground.
Just a few years had passed since God’s sweet whisper promised the coming of a baby, a baby we would name Will. As we stepped into the unending depths that is grief, even further from my mind were the words that had followed God’s impression on my heart. They were hidden, almost lost, covered by layers of confusion, anger, and pain: “This baby will be a sign of my love for you.”