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Monday, May 20, 2013

I'm Addicted to Parenthood

Last night I watched the season finale of Season 4 of the “sitcom” Parenthood. That’s right, I don’t have cable, just Amazon streaming so I am behind the TV curve.  I got hooked on this show the minute it was revealed in one of the first episodes that Max, son of Kristina and Adam Braverman, has Asperger syndrome.  Max was about 8 at the time, same age as my kiddo.  The emotion surrounding Max’s diagnosis in those first few episodes I caught was real, yet wonderfully therapeutic and escapist  for me, as TV  can sometimes be.   I had been feeling pretty good about all things Finbar during that period, yet I would find myself balling my eyes out at some point during the show (and still do, it is pathetic really, but it feels soooo good to have a good cry).  Or, I would find myself running scenes of the show over and over again in my head, inspired by the actions of Max’s parents.  So, periodically, my husband and I  have been sitting together to watch 3-4 episodes a night (we promised not to watch it without the other), bonding over our shared ability to relate to the Braverman’s experiences with Max and his Aspergers.  For anyone who wonders what the big deal is about raising Finbar or any kid with Aspergers is, watch this show. 
Kristina trying to get through to Max. Skittles anyone?

Monica Potter, the actress who plays Max’s mom is my new favorite actress and superhero.  She nails her role as Max's mom portraying her with the grace, fear, sadness, strength , dignity, hope and especially comedic timing and HUMOR that I aspire to.  I know that the Bravermans are not a real family and that Kristina is not a real mom to an Aspergerian, but I don’t care, they so easily could be.  The actors who portray Max and his parents are so genuine  in their reactions to different challenges and situations, many of them very uncommon in a "normal" household,  that at one point I just had to find out how they were pulling this off.  Surely, someone on the writing or production team of this show must have a son with autism.  I learned that there is a behaviorist specialized in autism on the production staff who runs through every scene that Max is in in detail before shooting. They carefully plan out every reaction he has, everything he says, as well as that of any other actors in the scene to make sure that it is authentic. And it truly is.  It is in fact so authentic that every time I see Kristina trying to “get through” to Max unsuccessfully, I cry for her. I cry for me. I cry for other parents like me who are watching the show and relating to it too. (Did I mention that I like to cry a lot during this show LOL?) And when Max surprises his parents with a breakthrough, as in the case of agreeing to shower more regularly washing “my armpits, balls and bum like Dad told me too.” I celebrate too as if it is my own son. Just days before watching that shower scene on Parenthood Finbar bragged to me that he now washes HIS armpits “like Dad showed me to, want to smell them, mom?”  That's authentic.  When Max's parents bribe him shamelessly with stickers and Skittles when they can’t get control of him (we use video games for bribery, err, I mean "rewards"), or when Kristina breaks social protocol with other moms on behalf of her son,  I feel some relief that someone actually knows about this stuff, and that  5 million people are seeing this on TV and are being educated about kids like mine and their families.
The other night, I watched an episode in which Max, furious that the vending machines in his school were removed, decided to run for student council President so that he could bring them back.  His parents were divided as to whether this was a good idea. His Dad Adam was against it believing that Max would be damaged by the students ridiculing him.  His mother, Kristina wanted to support Max and let the chips fall where they may.  She figured that it would be a good learning experience one way or the other for Max.  I put myself in her shoes and agreed with this sentiment in the end. I am learning to let Finbar put himself out there even when I think it means that he may get hurt (more on that in my next blog).  The important thing to understand in this scenario is that Max not only was not popular and had almost no social skills or friends, he also ONLY cared about fixing the vending machine situation, nothing else. He was obsessed and that is all he talked about. Max's sister Haddie volunteered to be at his speech. Just before Max made his speech, the following dialogue transpired. She may as well have been talking to Finbar…

Haddie: You know, Max, there actually are some qualities about you that would make you a good president.
Max: I know.
Haddie: Like, you’re super tenacious, and you’re funny.

Max: What do you mean by tenacious?

Haddie: I mean you don’t give up on things.  You’re persistent, and if you believe in something, you follow through.  And, also, you have a good memory.  It’s like really scary good.

Max: I know right?

Haddie: Do you remember your speech?

Max: Of course I do. You just said I have a good memory (LOL).

When Max got up to make his speech this is what he said:

I’m Max Braverman, (adjusts microphone awkwardly while audience giggles), I’m Max Braverman and I am running for student council present. If elected as president then I will bring back vending machines that used to be in our school. And that’s why you should vote for me. (More giggles, then a long silent awkward pause, then he musters). Also I’m very tenacious. It means being very persistent. I am like this because I have something called Asperger’s. Having Asperger’s makes some things very difficult for me, like looking people in the eye or saying hello.  So I don’t do those things very often. Some things also come very easily to me because I have Asperger’s, like being smart and remembering almost everything. Also it means being tenacious. And so I will be tenacious about the vending machines. Another thing about Asperger’s is that I always keep my promises. So when I tell you that I will bring back the vending machines, you can believe me. Some people say that having Asperger’s can sometimes be a bad thing, but I am glad that I have it because I think that it is my greatest strength. (Audience starts cheering and hollering “vending machines”)

Max won the election. Is that realistic TV?  I think so. Is Asperger’s Finbar’s greatest strength? I am starting to think so..
PS. Parenthood returns to NBC this fall for its 5th season 10/9c...somebody please DVR it for me!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Amazing Grace

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Sunday May 5, 2013
“Don’t worry Declan. Um, you’ll make your first communion one day too and you’ll get lots of presents.  You just have to patient. It took two long years of hard work to get to my first communion. But don’t worry, you’ll get there too.” Finbar’s voice was soft and sincere as he momentarily took his gaze off of the snow globe and turned to look past me and reassure his brother Declan.  We, that is Finbar, Declan, me and Finbar’s Godmother Sheila, were staring somewhat mesmerized at the snow globe that my mom sent to Finbar for his First Communion.  After a long day, just before bedtime it was time to open presents.  The snow globe stood almost a foot high and the glass globe was the size of an artichoke, larger and more beautiful than it had looked in the pictures online that my mom and I studied umpteen times before she purchased it. Inside the glass globe filled with white sparkly glitter and water was a heart shaped statue wrapped in silver threads and inscribed with a poem called The Light Of God.   The inscription engraved on the outside read simply "Love you, Grammy" .  The globe played “Amazing Grace” as the heart inside spun around looking magical.  Along with the snow globe on the dining table where we sat were two greeting cards each with $5 in it and one with $20 (also from "Grammyana Jones"), an Angry Birds space book and several other books, as well as two rosaries – one from Ireland gifted from me and one wooden gifted from the church.  To be sure, a younger brother seeing all that booty his older brother had collected, as well as all the attention bestowed upon his older brother that same day, might be  left a little jealous or wanting.  In moments such as this, when Finbar speaks empathetically as he did to Declan, I am at once an surprised at his unprompted sensitivity and  primarily relieved that he is finally mastering the selfless human task of putting himself in someone else’s shoes-  because THAT is not autism. THAT is the real life, caring, loving, making-your little-brother-feel-better stuff of life. Just a few months prior, Finbar's inappropriate reaction might very well have been to brag about his new things to his brother.  

"Amazing Grace" always brings tears to my eyes, even as I type right now. The song has so many meanings for me, but ever since it was played on bagpipes as my father’s coffin was wheeled to its final resting place, the hymn has become the lever that opens the floodgate of tears that I must  find the strength to shut off whenever I hear it.  This time though, the tears flowed from the realization while sitting all together at the dining table, resting after a slightly nerve wracking half day’s work at church and a friend-filled afternoon complete with retro-themed communion party, that we had come a very long way to get to this place - this spiritual place both in terms of the Catholic Church and in just being a caring human. And the day had been perfect.

As I reflect on the day of Finbar’s First Communion, I am reminded that it is by “Amazing Grace" that he (and myself) made it that far in the Church. As Finbar emphasized to Declan, two years IS a long time to hang in there, week after week in Sunday School following an hour long church service.  Many of those mornings seemed touch and go and then there was the grand finale of a 4 hour Communion Retreat - yikes.   What was I thinking, putting him through that and hoping that he would make it? I wasn’t thinking at all, I was just praying and taking a leap of faith that it would all work out.

I would not have taken that leap 2 years ago were it not for the involvement and caring of three very important friends who, as it turned out, all flew in for Finbar’s big day. I vividly recall driving North on Highway 1 two and a half years ago with the rolling hills flying by savoring a long girl talk discussion with my best friend, Finbar’s Godmother Sheila who was visiting. Whatever monologue I was uttering and my state of serenity were interrupted when she turned to me plainly stating “Jen, you HAVE to have Finny make First Communion. You just have to”, she let out a little chuckle of disbelief at the fact that I was actually considering not doing so.  She followed up with "I'm his GODMOTHER, I have to tell you these things, he's gotta make Communion."  “We’ll see, it's complicated.” I mumbled trying to blow off the gnawing knowledge that God himself was speaking to me through her. I mean I HAD chosen her as Godmother for this very reason right?  The thought of how I was going to make this work and the hypocrisy I felt in myself was a wake-up call.  This  was not just about First Communion, this was about having faith, faith that God could somehow get Finbar through this daunting 2 year process because I felt powerless to do so, fearing humiliation if he were to make inappropriate noises in church (which he inevitably did) or misbehave in class (predictably, he did that too).  And faith about getting back to the Catholic Church that I had been poo pooing for so long, yet following my father’s death and burial had been wanting to return to like a runaway teenager who, after a night spent out in the open, yearns for the comfort and familiarity of her own home, rules and all.   I am a big believer in divine intervention and I saw Sheila's prompting as such.

The other two caring friends, Sheila and Arin, flew in from Denver just  to spend Finbar’s First Communion with us.  As far as I know, they do not share a Christian faith, in fact I believe Arin is Jewish. Yet they felt compelled, even as excited as we were, to see this event through and to share it with me and my family.  Over the past two years as I have written previously (click here for that post), their kind work and support of Finbar and myself have fuelled a faith of a different kind. The faith that Finbar will be just fine, even better than fine.  Sure, Sheila and Arin perform brain integration therapy on my son, but more importantly, they understand and support his needs.  They provide a safe haven for his restlessness and anxiety. They help him. And me.   Their visit was a testament to Finbar's progress and his ability to draw people to him.   They may not be Catholic, but they too are Finbar’s Godparents. People put in his life by God to guide him on the right path.

Finbar made his First Communion in a large class of 35 children, the largest in San Roque church’s history. Dressed in his dark suit, navy blue tie with chalices imprinted on it, and a tiny gold cross lapel pin, he looked the picture of a handsome young believer. In true “autistic fashion” if that is what you want to call it, he kept waving inappropriately at us throughout the ceremony (he was
seated with his class), did not put his hands in the proper way to receive communion and did his jumping up and down stimming routine on the altar while the group picture was being taken. None of this mattered though. None of it was humiliating. What mattered is that he is now a full participant in receiving the body and blood of Christ in the church community. And so at least in one sense, he is no longer On The Fringe.

And Grace my fears relieved.