We spent an hour stuffing his oversized backpack with everything he would need: Mess kit, head lamp, layers of wool. He asked six times if I was sure that the drop-off time for the trip was five o'clock. Four times he reminded me, or himself, that he would not be able to text or call. As I grabbed the car keys, he fastened the last clip on his bag with shaking hands, which he then clumsily stuffed into his front pockets. "Ready?" I said with a smile. He nodded and placed his hat on his head.
In the parking lot, the other Boy Scouts greeted him with smiles and high-fives. He dropped his camping gear in the growing mountain of oversized bags. The pack leader gathered them in and began the prep talk for their camping trek in the caves of upstate New York. Liam glanced over at me and mouthed the word, "Stay," when he saw me glancing at my watch. When the debriefing was over, they returned to their gear to get their hats and gloves as instructed. But Liam had missed the instructions while he was keeping his eye on me. He nervously asked me under his breath what he was supposed to be doing. "Get your hat and gloves," I said quietly, "just stop and think for a minute and you'll remember where we put them." I could feel a presence behind me. "Mom," it said, "I'm going to ask you to step back and let Liam handle this himself. He's got it from here." I turned and glanced sheepishly at the Scoutmaster as waves of emotions overcame me.
My mama bear instincts started to rare their ugly head and I wanted to say, "Listen, buddy, do you have any idea what this kid has been through in his life? Did you see that bag of medications I handed you? Do you think those are just children's aspirin? Don't tell me..." I instead chose to stop the outrage in its tracks, smiled, said OK, and took a step back. But I still thought in my head, do you know?
Do you know that this boy was born a month too soon? Do you know that in the hospital, I watched him through the glass as warming lights and IVs gave him the things that I couldn't provide? That when he was an infant he cried incessantly and barely slept? That I was the only one who could calm him down?
Do you know that when he was a toddler, it became glaringly obvious to me that his brain worked differently? He had no sense of danger. He ran away in parking lots, stores, the beach. He repeatedly banged his head on walls. He ate crayons and sticks. He went through life like a hurricane and all the recommended parenting strategies fell short in helping him.
Do you know that after years of trying to get help, and after he was kicked out of regular preschool because they "couldn't meet his needs," that I waited six long months to see a top specialist? Do you know that when he was 3, I drove for over two hours in a snowstorm with Liam screaming in the back seat to get to that appointment, come hell or high water? Do you know that that was the first day I heard the word "autism" and my child's name in the same sentence?
Do you know that when he was in elementary school, I received phone calls almost every day detailing his struggles? Liam walked across the lunch table to throw out his trash. Liam locked himself in a bathroom stall. Liam had a meltdown in the school library. Do you know that I have advocated for him in over 30 IEP meetings where a short list of his strengths was followed by a disproportionately larger list of hurdles to overcome? We have spent countless hours and dollars with specialists, therapists and on trying new medications. Endless nights reading every book I could find and scouring the internet for solutions. Not to mention the tears I have cried, the sadness and worry so deep that at times it felt impossible to breathe.
Do you know that in elementary school, he was not invited to one birthday party? NOT ONE. Children laughed at him and called him "weirdo." He had no friends. At soccer games, his team would sit on the sidelines huddled together, laughing and joking. I watched from across the field as Liam sat several feet away, picking at the grass. Not because he wanted to be, but because they were most likely laughing at him or because he knew that if he tried to join in, suddenly, things wouldn't be so funny anymore.
Do you know the anxiety this boy has dealt with? Panic attacks at school during which an ambulance was called as I rushed to get there. Debilitating fears. A bald patch on his head from literally pulling his hair out. Medications that made things worse before we found one that made things better.
Do you know how hard we have worked to get him to where he is today? We, his parents, his family, his teachers, his therapists and his doctors. More importantly, do you know how hard Liam has worked? The struggles he has overcome? The demands and experiences placed on him that no child should have to endure? The hours of therapy, social training and extra work he has put in?
Most importantly, do you know that he is, this is, a miracle? If you had told me when he was 3 years old on that snowy day when I first heard the words, "Liam has autism," that he would be here -- leaving for a three-day camping trip on his own at age 14 -- I would never have believed you. Do you know that the child that for years had a one-on-one aide accompanying him to the bathroom, packing his things, or helping him stay seated in his desk, is currently registered for all honors classes next year at high school? The boy who needed full support to complete basic routines and tolerate daily life now works as a camp counselor helping younger special needs children to do the same? The child who was never invited to a birthday party has many great friends and is finally being understood and accepted by his peers.
And do you know that when he was 7, he had to leave Cub Scouts because it was too hard for him? And yet, here he is. Years later he has returned as a teenage Boy Scout wearing his uniform proudly, his salute more resolute than any other member, his commitment unwavering.
The truth is that this Scout leader doesn't know. And neither will many others to come. And that's OK. Liam deserves to live in the present and be treated as he has worked so hard to be treated -- just like everyone else. All of our efforts were done with the small hope that this very moment might be possible. His past and his journey will always be a part of his story, but they should never carry more weight than where he is now, or where he is headed. Pack light, they had told us in preparation for the trip. Take only what you need and what will serve you in the days ahead.
And so instead of feeling anger or embarrassment, I bask in the words. "Mom, I'm going to ask you to step back and let Liam handle this himself. He's got it from here."
When I think about it, those are the most beautiful, glorious and miraculous words I have heard in some time.