John adds spice, energy, and texture to our family. His innocence, quick wit, and academic mind are exceptional for a boy of twelve. His personality pours from the pages of our family journal. A few quotes from years gone by reveal his essence. "I fixed the hole in your sheet, Mama. I stapled it." (He put the hole in the sheet in the first place.) Once when instructed to finish his dinner, John responded, "But I ate forty-five minutes of it." (That would be 3/4 to the rest of us.) After I asked him to stop talking: "But I have to talk, I'm a Yak-In-The-Box." A boy with a thousand questions, "Where does steel wool come from anyway? Mechanical sheep?" "Do sharks have tongues? It seems like if sharks had tongues, they would bite them."
John is my firstborn. My crucible child. Sent by the Refiner to remove my dross. I was twenty-six when he was born. He dawdled into the world after three days of intermittent labor. He nursed vigorously and continuously and slept little. He was born to a prideful mother and for years, John fed that pride. He spoke words at six months and sentences at a year. He knew all of his letters and was making up original jokes and puns at two. He played chess and read at three. He was a fierce Scrabble competitor at six. A tenderhearted, funny, creative and strikingly beautiful boy.
In October, when John was seven, Stuart came home with the news that he was being transferred. John responded to the news by touching me with his right hand and then his left. He touched the table, the cat, the wall, me again. Right, left. Right, left. Day after day. He left Rhode Island as a sweet boy and arrived in Chattanooga a stranger. The first week in our new neighborhood, he snuck off. I called and called and hunted frantically. The sun sank low in the sky. Neighbors searched and I phoned the police. Stuart found him in the trailer park behind our house. So much for perfect parenting.
John began to throw raging temper tantrums that lasted for hours and left us all limp and exhausted. At the time, Stuart and I didn’t understand the role that anxiety about the move played in John’s behavior for his life was essentially the same. Same family, same routine. He didn't even have to adjust to a new school because we homeschooled him. My nightstand was piled high with The Strong Willed Child, Dare to Discipline, To Train Up a Child, Making Children Mind without Losing Yours…All good books, but books that said essentially, “If your child does this, you do this…” I was left with the impression that I could control my child if I could only find the right combination of ingredients. I did not know mercy; I did not know grace. I knew discipline, rules, time out, and spankings. I used all of these with consistency.
Testing began. A team of specialists administered tests for days. A hundred pages came back with the diagnosis of Pervasive Development Disorder. A disorder on the autistic spectrum. Autism? My son was particularly interactive and engaging. It couldn't be. One of the main things that a child exhibits with PDD is speech delay. That was not my child so I mentally threw out the ambiguous report. We visited more pediatricians and added a dose of stimulant medication that was so high it made doctors do a double take when they read his chart. The medicine worked. But when it wore off, we paid the price. I became a slave to the clock and the medicine cabinet.
John continued to need me at his side every second at ages eight and nine and ten for chores and schoolwork. He was destructive to property and awake all hours of the night. We finally put him in a sleeping bag in our walk-in closet at night so we could be sure he was at least in bed. I responded to John's antics with words spoken through clenched teeth, cold words delivered in a cold tone, words of ridicule and swearing. He would weep with remorse and ask for forgiveness but my heart was so hardened toward his unpredictable behavior that I would “forgive” him while reminding him of his transgression in the process. I was the saint, he the sinner. When my rage passed, it was my turn to feel drained and empty and incompetent. I loved him fiercely and hated him in turns. I was a prisoner to my emotions. I was paralyzed with worry that we were raising a child who would not experience success in the adult world. I took the things that he couldn’t do and added ten years to his age and believed that in a decade he would make no progress. I screamed at God. “This is not right! He should have had a different mother! I am no good for him! I am ruining him!"
Tomorrow: The Conclusion