Once again I sat on a Chicago-bound airplane, about 30,000 feet above the earth, when the tears started flowing. It’s nothing new. I have been crying on that hour-long flight from Kansas City to Chicago for years. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the airlines put me on some sort of ‘emotional wreck’ watch list.
I was pretty comfortable in seat 14-C. My two-and-a-half-year-old precocious daughter sat next to me in the window seat. And across the aisle was Will: my stunningly handsome preschooler. The airlines didn’t put anyone else in our row (again, evidence of ‘the list’). Will sat next to the window so he could lift and lower the shade. His seatbelt remained buckled. He finally gave up trying to push the overhead ‘call button’. Will knows his limits; even with the help of his plastic Iron Man, he was too short. He occasionally kicked the seat in front of him, but luckily the man in that seat was friendly and graciously accepted our (make that, ‘my’) apologies. As Will sat gazing out onto the Midwestern sky… probably over some hard working farmer’s crops… it hit me. He was sitting nicely. Quietly. He was working on some sort of imaginary play. Maybe it just was the fact that his toy raised its arms when he squeezed the legs– more ’cause-and-effect’ than ‘play’– but it kept him busy. It looked typical, ‘normal’. Sitting in 14-A he could be any kid. But he wasn’t. He was, is, my Will. And just like that farmer, he and I have toiled very, very hard to get to this point.
Three years earlier Will and I were on the same flight. Just the two of us. I was pregnant with my daughter, Francie. It was a warm spring afternoon. The airlines boarded the plane late. And then once we were onboard, there was an issue with the air conditioner. An issue that meant instead of cool, refreshing air, hot air was pouring out into cabin. Our plane was not moving. Stuck– for an eternally long moment– on a runway at O’Hare. It started to get hot. Will started to get antsy. Yelling, screaming, kicking. The professionals had not yet diagnosed him as being on the autism spectrum. I just thought that’s how two-year-olds react to being stuck on a runway (thanks to the internet, we know some adults act even worse). But now I know it was more. He was frustrated. Angry. Unable to communicate. Overloaded by an assault on his senses. I walked with him. And it got hotter. The flight attendants– apparently concerned I was going to dramatically give birth on board– kept handing me ice cold paper towels. Will screamed more. The temperature rose. Thankfully, our seats were surrounded by the University of Texas Women’s tennis team. These ladies were funny and easy going. I remember one suggesting that we get my little Will naked so he wouldn’t be so hot. It’s nice to be able to laugh when all you want to do is cry.
Eventually the heat stopped. The cool air started to fill the plane and we took off for Kansas City.
I’d be lying if I said that three years later we have arrived. There’s still more work to do. But I was struck by the sight of my little guy: All of a sudden he’s sitting nicely in his seat, drinking his Sierra Mist with two hands. For that, I raise my glass. A toast to all the professionals who have spent countless hours with him. A toast to my family who has not only adapted to Will and his behavior– but somewhat effortlessly learned how to engage him. A toast to my husband who never once expressed disappointment that his only son might never be able to sit and do typical father-son things stuff. A toast to Will who probably thinks we are all a little ‘off’, but has accepted his ‘neurotypical family’ the way we are. And finally, dammit, a toast to me! There have been times I want to pull the emergency exit and slide off this ride, but it’s my awesome little buddy that keeps me on board. Thanks for coming along on our journey, Leslie