The last time I sat down to write, I could hear beautiful noises from across the hall. You were in your room, making crashing and exploding sounds to animate a war between Ironman and a Transformer. Starsceam, I think. You spied me tapping at my keyboard, then bounded toward me- all one-hundred pounds of you.
I scramble to minimize the computer screen, but an almost nine year-old (who has you paralyzed in a bear hug) doesn’t miss a trick. “Why don’t you write about me, mom? You always write about J.R.,” you said. You notice these things?
I once wrote specifically about you, Jackson, but it seems like a lifetime ago. And maybe it’s on purpose I haven’t gone back to the topic.
My. Beautiful. Jackson. Action Jackson, Jack Jack, Jackson Robinson- you’ve had so many nicknames, and so many roles to play. It seems like yesterday you were chasing your brother, calling out “Jahhhhhh, Jahhhhhh! Wait fo meee!” Remember that? I prayed those days would never end. Just that one, perfect memory explains why my original PDA (penned display of affection) stands alone.
Since then, you have quickly grown into a gifted young man with enviable amounts of creativity, passion, and curiosity. You are just about the whole package, son. To screw things up, neither your daddy nor I have ever sat you down, in spite of your precociousness, to “inform” you of J.R.’s autism. We knew we could have been making a huge mistake by leaving you in the dark or at least thinking we were leaving you in the dark. “Kids are pretty perceptive,” our friends would tell us. “He already knows, and he’s resilient,” they assured us. I got all of that, but in my heart I felt I’d be taking your innocence away by speaking the dreaded “A” word in your general direction. Your dreams of looking up to a big brother in a “typical” fashion, dashed? I just couldn’t do it.
So the frustration came. Anger followed as well as a pretty creative zero tolerance policy toward all things J.R. I assume all you could gather was this: J.R. is a royally annoying, attention seeking (and attention receiving) dummy. Dummy is an actual word you’ve used. I felt very sad. Had your daddy and I created a monster? P.S. NO monster I know is as handsome as you, but hear me out…
Your confidence was low, and need to punch a hole in a wall, at DEFCON 1. Poor guy. Thank goodness you took the high road just a couple of weeks ago when another kid at school put his hands on you. Were you broken, falling victim to bullying? Insert a concerned, caring village. Your loving teacher suggested you speak with the school guidance counselor, who I prepped with a little bit of backstory (1 Jackson + 1 special needs sibling + 2 sheltering parents = 1 hot Vannatta mess). I know how much you love math, so I thought you’d appreciate that funny equation.
Your perceptive guidance counselor had also done her homework. After a one-on-one session with each of you, she brought you and the other boy together and pointed out something you had in common- a less than perfect family dynamic. Genius, right? You returned to me beaming from the attention, equally flabbergasted and overjoyed that you weren’t alone. You spoke of the other boy’s situation with an empathy I never knew you had in you.
My parenting mantra is to quietly lead by example and pray a tenth of it sinks in. Plus, I yell sometimes. Seriously though, from that counseling session forward you quizzed me incessantly about my charity work. You offered suggestions (why don’t I raise enough money so no family has to pay for summer camp?) and wanted to know why you didn’t own a t-shirt with the charity’s logo. I feel like I am in heaven; do you know that? And who received this month’s Kid of Character at school? For Caring? You guessed it; it was you Jackson Reed! Consequently, you’re the boy wants to arrive to class earlier and practice baseball more. You went from striking out carelessly through each day to swinging for the fences happily and effortlessly. It has been impossible to contain my excitement for you.
We’ve talked lots since about the “A” word, haven’t we? And you’ve been all ears. And the more we’ve talked, the more I have been able to share. Your successes pushed me to educate other kids- apparently I am HUGE on the Girl Scouts’ speaking circuit. Just try booking me. Now lots of girls have my attention, as they will soon have yours. If I let them. Have you suddenly become the poster child for special sibling love and acceptance? Hardly. You are, however, back to your fighting weight. Hopefully, with your trust and the right amount of guilt, I can continue guiding you in the right direction. Jackson, this is where you say Mom, who are you kidding? You have zero sense of direction. Busted.
I’d feel like a fraud if I ended this post on a(nother) brag. In our latest attempt to show you haven’t been purposely handed the short end of the stick, we celebrated your ninth birthday at Walt Disney World. Not only did you grab a hold of that stick, but you ran with it and nearly smacked J.R. silly before the end of our Monorail ride into the park. And I get it. Rome wasn’t built in a day (mostly because it wasn’t made of Legos, and you weren’t the foreman). Hopefully, sharing a hotel with Invictus Games athletes provided a healthy dose of positivity for all of us. If I can get you and J.R to never stop counting your blessings nor ever stop striving for the best version of yourselves possible no matter what you are faced with, I will die happy. But first, donuts.
Jackson, version 9.0, is a work in progress. You’ll reboot, adjust your coding, and strive to rise from the ashes of autism fallout. Only to have to do it all again tomorrow. I hate that autism is a part of your life, but DO know this: I have recognized the incredible amount of bravery required of J.R. to make it through each day. It’s about time I recognized yours.
P.S. Dearest Jackson, how did you like this post? It’s about you (again). I am so proud of you. Happy NINTH birthday, baby- I love you!