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When You Can’t Protect

by Ruth Gordon, LCSW

2008 has been quite a year. Most of the people I come into contact with are eager for it to be over. I must admit that I join that group. Of course, the turning of the calendar doesn’t promise that anything novel is about to occur — it simply gives us the sometimes needed illusion that we have been given permission to start anew.

So, I asked myself, what exactly has made the last year so painful for me, personally. I think, that when I scrape everything else away, it is the realization that I cannot shield some of the people I love the most from harm.

You already know about my husband, Harry, and how distressing it is for me to witness his physical pain. There is, however, another family member who suffers from a different kind of pain — one that is damaging to self-esteem and, at times, results in insulting behavior from normally very decent people. That person is our oldest grandson, Max.

I can, of course, remember when he was born and the certainty with which we dreamed about his future. Max was born into a loving home with two sensible, warm and successful parents. When he was very tiny I babysat and that song, “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around…“ kept running through my head. I believed, that with love, we could shelter him from anything that came along.

When Max was 2 he was diagnosed with autism. It’s such a baffling condition, and my son and daughter-in-law were right on top of accessing every service that was available to them. Autism is part of a spectrum and Max was certainly on the high end of the continuum, which is far more apparent in a young child than in an older one. After his younger brother, who does not suffer from autism, was born, their parents moved to a community in Florida which afforded special services for children with special needs.

And so…we went along. Max will be 13 in January. He is old enough now to understand that he is not like other kids his age. He feels lonely and cut off from his peers. One of the myths about autism is that those who experience it do not miss their connection to others. This is not true. For “high functioning” people with autism loneliness becomes a way of life. Max cries about this and, of course, other than finding the best schools and programs and showering him with familial love, we can do nothing for him.

Max is extremely attached to his parents. Autistic children become very bonded to their caretakers. They are the folks who understand the world of autism and try to help these children adjust to a world that expects one to be “normal“.

Max’s mom now has cancer. At a recent family gathering, which his mother was too ill to attend, Max repeatedly reminded us, “My mom is sick, she has cancer”. Our hearts break and we scurry to try to make everything better. We can’t.

So, I have been unable to keep the harm away. Here I sit with the ability to help other people find new ways to look at and enjoy their lives and I can do nothing for this precious child. His situation breaks my heart. On the other hand, I am grateful that Max was born into a family that loves him without limits. We will continue to encourage him to make the most of his strengths and let him know that we believe in him.

And, I do believe in Max. Max believes in himself. He has so many plans for his future. He has aspired to be everything from a paleontologist to an accountant (that’s quite a range there!). Max doesn’t stop trying. Although people (even me, I must confess) tire of his repeated stories, (perseverance is one of the characteristics of autism), Max hangs in there. Of course, I don’t know his thought process, but he must expect that if he keeps on trying someone will share his interests. For those of you who wonder why he doesn’t belong to a group with youngsters more like himself, I can only say that he has, he does, and he will, but, kids like Max have a restricted ability to pick up on social cues and to imagine what situations feel like to others. It is difficult for them to offer solace to each other.

I hope with every particle of my heart and soul that my daughter-in-law will be well. I hope that all of us experience a swell of optimism in the year ahead. I believe that my job in the coming year , and in all of those from then on, is to continue to make peace with my own impotence. I wish, I wish, I wish that I had more influence on the lives of those I love. I am, however, simply human.

Wishing all of you a year in which your heart sings.

Ruth Gordon is licensed clinical social worker in both Massachusetts and Florida. For more information, please visit her listing on the Therapist Directory. This article may not be reprinted, reproduced, or retransmitted in whole or in part without the express written consent of the author.

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