Unlike so many families with autism, we haven’t ever really had a problem with the Fourth of July before, but that was also because we haven’t really “done” the 4th for a couple of years. Last year, we were moving and so shell-shocked that large explosions overhead were a minor sensation penetrating our exhaustion. The children and I went down to the festivities last year, but James was sick and stayed home, Elizabeth fell asleep on my lap, and Ray just sat on me the whole time. The year before I was in Europe, and the year before that we were about 20 miles away from the fireworks, watching them on the horizon, and the year before that, we watched them on TV in Oklahoma City as we drove to Santa Fe to spend time with my mother. The last “normal” 4th we remembered was when the children were 3 and 4 in Rhode Island at a ball park, where Elizabeth fell asleep on us and Ray sat on me. That one was lovely- cool and beautiful explosions and warm, sleepy little ones. James and I still fondly remember our first married Fourth of July in Portland, Maine where it was hot, hot, hot- in so many ways. We don’t have traditions based around the Fourth, but we enjoy a good party as much as anyone.
This year promised to be such a party. Sitting on the edge of the water, watching the fireworks boats set up and the sun go down against the backdrop of palm trees and live oaks, with our backs against a wall, two portable chairs and a blanket, we had our “space” in the midst of an awful lot of people crammed into a small point of land. It was noisy and the press of people was significant. The smells of barbeques hung in the air. The sheen of humidity made everyone “glow”, although a breeze from the ocean cooled us down. It’s St. Simons Island, GA and the people, even the teenagers, are well-behaved. No overt drunkenness, no significant rudeness, no pushing or threats. Just a bunch of families of all races, saying “Hello”, running after small ones, and greeting friends. I met a few students of mine, we saw a few neighbors- we were ready to be part of the festivities. It was all very exotic and yet friendly. Strains of Kenny Chesney’s song “When the sun goes down…” played in my head. We settled in.
As the sun went down, Elizabeth stayed close, and Ray was impatient. “Mommy, when’s it going to start? … Mommy, can we get a glow necklace?… Mommy, we can find a better spot… Mommy, I want to get closer to those kids setting off the bottle rockets (In a little while. Yes. No, we’re fine here. umm- no way)…”
And then the fireworks started, and Elizabeth cowered in my arms. “Mommy, is it over yet? Mommy, when does it end? Mommy, it’s so LOUD! Mommy, I want to go to sleep NOW!” And she sat in my arms, a great big girl of 9, shaking and cowering.
Ray was fixated on knowing WHEN the finale was going to happen. “Is this the finale? How about now? Surely, NOW?!” And for whatever it’s worth, St. Simons Island puts on one heck of a fireworks show- the flashes and booms lasted about 45 minutes. James and I missed most of it, soothing, calming, reassuring , “No, this isn’t the finale. Yes, you will know when it happens. It’s all right- isn’t it pretty? I like the ones that stream across the sky. Can you take a picture of one? Which ones do you like? Put your head down and you can drowse right here. It’s all right- you won’t miss it. You’ll know it’s the finale….” for 45 minutes. And when the finale finally came, and yes, we could tell, I was exhausted.
I realized as I sat there, with my constant stream of comfort, that when she was too little to understand the Fourth, Elizabeth slept through it as a way of dealing with it. She didn’t like the noise, the chaos and it was happening past her bedtime, so she just slept. Sleeping as coping- it’s a strategy I well understand. And Ray keeps his anxiety at bay by connecting- by literally sitting on our laps and grounding himself. So, while James and I were last enjoying a cool July 4th in Rhode Island, our children had retreated.
But this year, they were awake. This year, they were alert. And this year, it was almost too much. And I was NOT going to let autism/anxiety win. I could see that they were coping. They were making it. It was tough, but they were still with me. And so, we pressed on, knowing that if we were to retreat in the face of the enemy, that it would be that much easier to retreat next time. That if we could win this time, if we could maintain equanimity, if they could cope- next time they would know how. They would know that they could.
We walked back to our car after it was all over. We laughed at the long lines and the crazy bicyclists. We argued about whether we had time to stop for ice cream. We remembered other Fourths. We saw the whole thing and we got stuck in traffic. Victorious- for today.
We did not leave, because like that fight so long ago, we would not allow the enemy to win.