Back in summer 1998, when Alanis Morrisette was putting the finishing touches on her album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, I was helping to put the finishing touches on my high school’s 10-year reunion. At the time, that didn’t bother me at all. Along with a few classmates, I threw myself into reunion-organizing, even giving a (poorly received) speech at the event.
Later in life, I would wonder why I spent so much time on something so ephemeral instead of something with the durability of a great Alanis album.
But still later – now we’re up to right now – I’ve changed my entire approach to a reunion. That goes along with changing my whole approach to life. And I have to thank Dar for that. For better and for worse.
As I prepare for my 30-year reunion this weekend, I remember that I love my high school classmates. I love even (especially?) the ones I don’t know that well. I love a reunion. Not everyone feels this way, but I do. Maybe Berkeley has something to do with that; our experience was unusual in many ways.
Maybe that love had something to do with my…can I call it an arrested development? That phrase might be too strong, too easy to relate to Dar. I’m trying to suggest that worrying about my classmates’ opinions may have slowed my growth in certain areas?
It’s not just the classmates. It’s everyone. I’ve always cared a lot, maybe too much, about the opinions of others. This isn’t to blame others or blame Berkeley; I entirely blame myself.
Reunions are obvious opportunities to take stock, to assess. And when I assess, I see that in many ways, I’ve gone from wandering to squandering. I have probably spent way too much time trying to feel good and healthy, and not enough time contributing to the good in the world. Not enough Alanis-ing.
And yet…I am strangely at peace with all of that. Because of Dar.
No one can tell you how to lose a parent, much less a child. People may say a few things that can provide some measure of comfort. Dar’s condition is like mourning a lost parent, or maybe a lost child, except that there’s not the least amount of closure. Hope flickers from time to time. Yesterday Dar got closer than ever to spelling “cat” all by himself. That’s hope. Then he did something else he’d never done…get in a full bath with all his clothes on. When you live with hope and despair like that…in some ways it’s the natural condition of parenthood. But in other ways it’s way, way beyond.
Dar’s condition puts everything in perspective. It reminds me how lucky and unlucky I am, all at the same time. Thinking about Dar brings up a Valles Marineris of emotion, a planet-span that is both impossibly deep and unimaginably high.
The difference between me now and me at the 10-year and the 20-year reunions is that no one can really tell me anything that changes anything. I’ve heard all the platitudes and folk wisdom and Oprah-esque sayings. Half of them simply do not apply to a parent of a young child with severe autism. With all due respect (and love) for Dan Savage, I mean things like “It gets better.” Uh, no, it doesn’t.
I do want there to be a half of accumulated wisdom that somehow does help. Because I want this blog to be part of that half, for someone. Maybe for Dar. Maybe for his brother. Maybe for some unknown stranger who I’ve never met. Maybe for someone in the 22ndcentury who happened upon these old pixels.
In a weird way, Dar has unlocked me to feel free. Free from judgment and opinion. I can come into the reunion gatherings without regrets, without needing to one-up anyone, with something like the beatitude of the Dalai Lama. As John Lennon once sang, “nothing’s gonna change my world.” Put that remark in the relevant half.
I mean, if someone at the reunion says something like, “still in Berkeley, eh?” I don’t feel any need to scramble and say, “uh I was away for twenty years” or “at this point the familiar house is best for my autistic kid” or anything of the kind. Instead I’ll be feeling peaceful with something like an “uh-huh.” That’s a nice feeling.
If I don’t make any major life changes, Dar will wind up at Berkeley High. I never, not once, heard the term autism when I was there. I heard it for the first time six months after I graduated, when I went to a movie theater to see Rain Man. Were there autistic kids there? Probably? Did any of us kids know? Probably not. I’m guessing that will have changed for kids these days.
Looking back at Berkeley High reminds me of our two (apparently) quadriplegic classmates, Kevin and Stephanie. Was I good enough to them? God knows. I haven’t seen them at the reunions. Is that because they couldn’t make it? Or because they didn’t want to make it, because my classmates and I treated them horribly? I hope that’s not why.
It’s very, very hard for Dar to make friends. Even kids who like Dar eventually lose interest in him. I get that. If you’re talking to a brick wall, you eventually stop (or go crazy). Would Dar have better friends at a more special-needs school? Or would those kids also go their own way?
I always think in terms of past, present, and future. Don’t tell me to live in the moment. That’s another one in the unhelpful half.
What will my high school classmates say at my funeral? “He was getting himself healthy for the first 40 years, and he meant to do more, but Dar interrupted him”? I hope they don’t say that. I’ve been incredibly lucky in so many ways. I’ve been afforded the time and space to create. Sure, my creations haven’t always done much in the way of taking off, but they’re there. What a joy, what a life, what a chance. Put that ABBA lyric in the relevant half.
Although I realize that here, at the 30-year reunion, I’m far closer to my death than I am to my birth, I somehow feel absolutely thrilled at the possibilities for the next chapter of my life. I know and accept that Dar will always be Dar. But Dar’s brother is Dar’s brother. My wife is my wife. And I can work toward helping America. And beyond that, for the very first time in my life, I have the makings of a new project to which I wouldn’t mind devoting the rest of my life. (To be discussed here later.) And no one else is doing it! What an amazing feeling that is.
Here’s what my classmates should say at the reunion that I’m too dead to attend: he always had hope for the future. Let’s keep some of that.