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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Requiem for Paw Paw

My Dad, who is known to Finbar and his brother as the hero "Paw Paw Ralph" is dead.  To say that this sucks, is an understatement.  Dad was only 63. He was the rock in my life and Finbar's biggest fan, worrying constantly about Finbar's well being, sending me autism information regularly, calling Finbar on Sundays for long chats, always pointing out cool mechanical toys that he thought Finbar would like...always trying to help and support him through personal contact.

I was about to blog about Finbar's Valentine's experience, his new love, his cards from girls, his lost teeth...and then on Feb 15 I got a call from my brother saying that my Dad had a boat accident and didn't make it.  And just like that - if you will refer back to my previous blog post describing my journey with God- God sent not 400 men, but about 400,000 men to test my faith once again. 

But this blog is not about my faith in God. It is about Finbar, and my life with him. Only fitting then, that I should relate how this experience has impacted Finbar.   In order to do so, I need to back up and describe my father's relationship to and experiences with Finney.  To say that these were "deep" or " very close" is not accurate enough.  "Kindred spirits" perhaps is a better description of their relationship. It certainly is a description of my own relationship with Dad and, Finbar being a mirror of myself, mirrored that relationship with his grandfather, even at such a young age.  They were truly connected.

My first memory of Dad with Finbar is Dad holding Finbar, a newborn, swaddled on his crossed leg. Rubbing his forehead to make him fall asleep. Such peace, such joy in my Dad, and Finbar too.  During that same visit Dad taught me how to help Finbar help himself to fall asleep.  Little did I know that I would use that same advice time and time again with both my kids. What a hero. What a Dad. What a grandfather. What a gift!

Fast forward  3 1/2 years and Dad, knowing that Finbar has been diagnosed with autism, is anxious about a visit from Finbar and I to his house in New Orleans.  Dad worries that Finbar will not be able to relate to him and worries whether he (Dad) will know "what to do".  I hope that Finbar will "connect" wtih my Dad somehow, so few are his connections wtih people at this point. And I really want Finbar to KNOW my Dad.  But my Dad is irresistible to me, and my intuition tells me that it will be the same for Finbar.  Upon meeting my dad, now as a preschooler, Finbar doesn't miss a beat. Hugs and squeezes abound during that visit. Finbar is chatty with Dad. He hangs out constantly with Dad on his Lazy Boy.  He falls in love with Dad's boat. He wants Dad to teach him to fish. My Dad is his sportsman's paradise idol. So many things to do and learn from Paw PAw.  He connects with my Dad's super warm, hands on, soft-hearted self. Finbar is devastated when we have to go home to Santa Barbara. And for the first time in his life, he talks to me and others about shared experiences and past memories - with his Paw Paw Ralph.

A second trip to New Orleans followed a year later...with a side trip to Walt Disney World, camping in Fort Wilderness in Dad's new motorhome.  FUN. I still remember the awe watching Finbar guffaw with Dad over the Hoop Dee Do Revue show like they were two old pals.  Another new and unexpected reaction from Finbar.  And my Dad was soooo patient with Finbar. I learned from watching him.   After this visit, Paw Paw has now risen to rock star status with Finbar.  His influence on Finbar is magical.  I am amazed at how eager to please my Dad Finbar is, so much so that his usual autistic rigidity fades away when with my Dad.  

So when a few months later, my husband Bill was set to go out of town for almost two weeks, on a whim, i decided to visit Dad again with the boys just for fun, rationalising "he could be dead tomorrow".    I just wanted my boys to be with Dad and know him, especially Finbar.    Finbar caught his first fish during that trip off Dad's dock. In Finbar's mind, he would be returning one day to live with Paw Paw so they could fish together. After this particular trip, Finbar begins to worry about Paw Paw Ralph living alone and hopes he is not sad. He wants to visit Paw Paw more often and he talks about it a lot. Sympathy for another, a rare thing for Finbar at this point.

Using the same rationale that "he could be dead tomorrow", in July 2010, we planned another adventure with the boys.    Dad drove out 3 days in his motorhome to meet us in Colorado where we were doing sensory  integration therapy for Finbar.   From there, we drove through Wyoming and spent time in Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, then beelined it down to the Grand Canyon on a whim. We then decided to go back to Boulder, CO last minute because an opportunity for Finbar to do brain integration therapy arose.  I hugged Dad tight as we stood on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. He heading to the Durango, Colorado area to visit a friend, the same friend that would be with him in his last moments on the fishing boat, we carrying on to Boulder. I still remember how warm he felt and the pit in my stomach as we hugged and parted ways.  That is the last time that I saw him.

He and my boys had become such a family unit on that 3 week trip together.  And afterward I would hear from people about how my kids talked about Paw Paw Ralph, the legend.  So it was with this same spirit that again, on a whim, earlier this year Dad and I (with much urging from my boys) planned another trip to New Orleans and then to Walt Disney World. He could be dead tomorrow I told my husband again as I booked the plane tickets - besides Finbar was insisting on visiting Dad after school let out.  Little did I know.  Finbar was glad that Paw Paw would not be lonely if we visited. He wanted to go visit Dad right away. I wish we had.

I think the hardest thing for Finbar and myself to come to terms with is that we will no longer travel and have adventures with my Dad.  The finality of that is hard to bear.    I saw the difficulty in accepting this on Finbar's face when he realized that we would not be going to Disney World in the motorhome again.

When I told Finbar about my Dad's death, he first went into "autistic" mode. I wasn't sure if he had heard or paid attention. He started rambling.   He was even kind of laughing.  Then, I got hold of him, he snapped out of it, and the questions and complaints came..."Where on his head did he get bumped? Where did he land? Did his digestive system stop working? Could we build a machine to bring him back? How do you know that he is really dead?  Why did you tell me this...I wish you never had? I hate feeling this way and I will feel like this forever...I am mad. No, I am sad. Well actually, I am mad and sad. "

We caught a flight a day later to New Orleans and stayed a week while I organised with my siblings a funeral.  To say that week was hard on Finbar does not begin to describe his trauma during that time.  On the plane out, I nearly had a serious break down and vowed to medicate Finbar upon our return to Santa Barbara.  He was crazy and out of control.  But I knew he was processing Dad's death when he randomly asked me mid- sentence on the plane "Does he still have his bones?" and then carried on as if nothing was wrong.   And another time in the hotel "can we just bring his brain back"?

Seeing Finbar's reaction that week was agonizing.  His verbal and phsycial tics, which had been subsiding came back full force.   His only respite from his anxiety was when he was safe in the hotel room in his own world, or with his beloved Auntie Sheila, his Godmother and my best friend. She too is his kindred spirit. He feels safe with her.  He went to my Dad's house twice and was visibly uncomfortable being there, asking numerous times if he could go back to the hotel.  All the while, my 5 nieces and nephews all younger than Finbar appeared to be coping as well as could be expected.  My siblings did not seem terribly worried about their kids. Ugh. Another fringe experience as I fretted and vented to my siblings about Finbar's particular coping issues.  I felt like the ridiculously worried parent or that somehow I was making my own child's pain and sorrow to be more important than the others'.   I longed for him to just play and get on with things as his brother and cousins were doing.  But he never really did.

As soon as we got on the plane back to Santa Barbara, Finbar was a markedly changed person.  More mature, more willing and flexible, more respectful, more helpful, kinder and less temperamental. He has remained that way to date.  Is it a coincidence? Or has the depth of this experience and loss somehow "gotten through" to him?  is it Dad doing his guardian angel bit from above? Whatever it is, it is THE silver lining in all this.  Finbar now says "yes, mom" and "I'm sorry" regularly.

I, to say the least, am also a changed person. Especially with respect to Finbar and the fringe.  Bye bye supplements, bye bye reading every email article on autism. Bye Bye worrying about a cure, his progress, or what people think. Bye bye pity party.  I have found a level of peace with Finbar's challenges that was not there before Dad's death.  My priorities are not to spend my time fixing Finbar or avoiding his issues, but rather to embrace him unconditionally and with respect in the moments I have with him on Earth.  We snuggle a lot more, we talk deeply, we look each other in the eye and have understanding. Thanks Paw Paw, you have taught me and him well.

Finbar being wiser than his years and so attached to my Dad, I suspect will process and grieve not too differently from myself. But with less crying and drama. He still talks about Paw Paw regularly. Asks if he is an angel or a saint.  I am grateful that my faith before this was restored to a point where I had educated Finbar about heaven, eternal life through Jesus, etc.  He is able to reference this belief system, and find some comfort in talking about it.  However, he still insists that he does not want to go to Heaven. He wants to stay here on Earth. Good.