The Change You Embrace (Jackson at 15)

Last weekend, it took the better part of 30 minutes to talk my son Jackson into staying with us.

For those who don’t know, Jackson is my son from my first marriage. He has autism and on the day that this post is being released, he will be 15 years old.

As he has gotten older, and more so in these delicate teenage years, Jackson has become more expressive with what he does and doesn’t want to do. He has always struggled with verbal skills and being able to communicate how he’s feeling to express it in sentences. He may be able to tell you “No” but he might not be able to say why the answer is no.

Many of his responses can be scripted and plucked from movies, TV shows or YouTube videos, so you’re not always sure where a phrase or a sentence comes from.

This last year in particular has been one of the more challenging ones as his father. I try my best to remind myself that not only is Jackson growing into a body, physically and hormonally, he’s doing things not unlike any neuro-typical child of the same age, autism aside.

Navigating the world through COVID brought its own challenges, because neither his mother nor I wanted him to catch the virus. She was one of the first people I personally knew who tested positive for it before vaccines were available and the general concern wasn’t just that Jackson might catch it but that he wouldn’t know how to express himself if he got sick.

The other downside to the pandemic was that each sniffle in our respective households carried its own anxiety about what was potentially being passed around, not to mention, many children in Jackson’s school were testing positive and that raised the anxiety levels as it pertained to him.

All of this has manifested into scenarios where Jackson has become more resistant to his visitations with us and more hesitant to break up his normal routines to see us as frequently as he used to. It’s no one’s fault and none of us are quite clear why there is so much friction but we’re all trying to piece it together.

Which is why his mother, my mother and myself spent those 30 minutes last weekend trying to get Jackson comfortable with staying the weekend with us, something that, once upon a time, happened with very little drama.

I can’t quite put into words what it feels like when you’re child tells you, in their own special way, that they don’t want to see you. Especially when you know that they generally seem happy on each occasion.

I write these words not searching for sympathy but more to remove the highlight filter and to have some documentation for myself of a snapshot in time.

For someone who spends most every day asking his clients to embrace change, I have to be able to walk the talk.

Over the last year, I’ve tried to be a respectful father and if Jackson was able to pull all of his words together to tell me he didn’t want to leave his mother, then I wouldn’t make him. We would find a compromise and if it couldn’t be one weekend, maybe we could do the next. This has worked with some success.

We balance that with reminding him that sometimes in life, we have to do some things even if we don’t want to (within reason, of course).

I have always, and likely will always, give credit to his mother for always doing her best to make sure we keep the ship straight. We may not have been the best couple for each other, but we have ALWAYS given Jackson our love, our respect and our attention.

I remember one night, several months ago, when I met up with Jackson and his mother to do our visitation exchange, and after speaking with him for a few minutes, we determined that maybe this wasn’t the best weekend for him to come over. He was uncomfortable enough that it warranted pushing off to the next weekend. That was the very first night that I drove back home without him on a weekend where we expected to see him. It’s not a feeling I look back on with fondness. And it’s a very difficult scenario to explain to his little step-brother, Sebastian, who gets very excited when he knows that Jackson will be around.

But change doesn’t always look pretty when it happens. It can be painful, it can leave you with an inexplicably hollow feeling as you transition from “what was” to “what is”.

I know my little boy is no longer a little boy. He is my young man. He may not be able to express himself like other 15 year olds but he can say enough that I have to be proud, as his father, that he is evolving.

Autism makes you measure progress in very different ways.

I tell myself, as many people I know would do the same, that this too shall pass.

For now, the best I can do, is what I’ve always done: to love my son no matter how seldom or how frequently we see him, to love him whether he is comfortable during his weekends with us or anxious for reasons he can’t put into words, to sing songs with him, to dance with him, to encourage him to engage with his little brother, and to wrap my arms around him, give him a big kiss, and let him know how proud I am of him.

Because at the root of all of this, I am so incredibly proud of my 15 year old. I may not have known what life would be like by time he reached this age, and I may not understand all that he’s feeling, but he’s still the boy who changed my world.

I’ll take the comfortable with the uncomfortable, because no one ever promised me that change would be easy.

Just that change would be worth it.

Happy Birthday to my big boy, you are always worth it.