My story is simple: I am a single mom. I have three sons. They have autism.
Yes. All of them. And I have been raising them alone since my youngest was just three weeks old. Even though they share the same diagnosis, Autism Spectrum Disorder, they are affected in very different ways. My 6-year-old takes anxiety meds and will only wear purple shirts. My 4-year-old cannot gauge where his body is in space. And my 3-year-old cannot recover from a meltdown in under 15 minutes. It isn’t easy, but they are mine. So I strap on the superhero cape and rock the mommy job all day, every day.
Mother’s Day has always been my favorite day of the year. In 2002, I celebrated my first Mother’s Day by bringing my firstborn home from the hospital. In 2004, I celebrated another Mother’s Day by bringing my second son home from the hospital. And in 2006, I “celebrated” yet another Mother’s Day by asking for a divorce. But none of those days counts as the day that changed my life forever. That distinction goes to Mother’s Day 2007.
Early in May, my best friend and her son (my godson) came over to visit. One pizza, two Disney movies and three bedtime stories later, all was quiet in my house. In only a few short moments, there was an eruption of crying from my sons’ bedroom. I walked in to find excrement smeared all over the bedding, the floors, the toys, the drapes and the walls. My sons had been finger-painting with their own feces. My friend and my godson gave the boys a bath while I bleached the room, removed the curtains and changed the bedding. Together, we managed to clean up the mess and get everybody back to bed before midnight. But that was with three of us.
A few days later, I celebrated Mother’s Day by doing what I normally do every other day of the year: cooking, cleaning and caring for my children. That evening, however, I found a new feces art project in their bedroom: 4-feet-high and 12-feet-wide. I couldn’t believe this was happening, again, on Mother’s Day. How was I going to clean this up all by myself? I went into the kitchen, grabbed the Clorox and the paper towels and I cried. Like a baby. Sobbed, actually.
In that moment, I was unsure how to cope. I was crying and crying and crying because I was tired and they were tired and their room smelled foul and I had just cleaned up this same mess a few days earlier. And I realized all of a sudden that this was my life.
Happy Mother’s Day to me.
In that moment, I wasn’t complaining or feeling sorry for myself. I was simply noticing the reality of my situation for the first time.
My life looked very much like I had imagined it would during the previous 35 years when I fashioned my dreams out of words and images: I had beautiful children, I had friendship and love and I had security and success. But my life also seemed so foreign to me. I didn’t feel like a superhero just then.
So I prayed instead. Hunkering down in a crisis and turning it all over to an unseen deity is not the first thing that would occur to me in my time of need-unless I have no other choice. And that night I had no other choice. Since it was Mother’s Day, I invoked Mary to intercede because I think she is brave, and I think that any mother who can watch her son die is worth knowing. I prayed for patience, peace and help. I cleaned up that nasty mess and I was calm. Still crying, but calm.
But as I was crying, I walked into the bathroom to dress the boys and my middle son looked straight at me and said, “What happened, mom?” It was clear as day and, mind you, he can’t talk. But he said, “What happened, mom?” and then my oldest son said, “Kiss’ll make it better …” and then I was crying for new reasons. My sons spoke. My sons knew I was sad and cared.
So I dried them off in the darkness and dressed them again and crawled in bed with them. They covered my face with kisses because I was still crying and offered me Band-Aids to make the crying stop. They proved that some autistic children can register pain and can register sadness and can do something about it. But then, as sleep almost overtook me and as the kisses almost wore off and as I had almost forgotten what life was like for a single mom with three autistic children, I heard in the dark, “Purple shirt, Mom.”
So, I got out of bed, went to the closet, found my son’s purple shirt and I dressed him again.
Jennifer Wheeler is a single mom with three sons with autism.