On Christmas morning, Elliott woke up around 4 a.m. Not because he was excited to open presents, but because he was having nightmares again. Once every few weeks or so, he has the nightmares from which he can’t recover. Tears stream across sticky cheeks. He aggressively sucks his thumb. I fold my 5’10” frame into a tiny plastic fire truck bed alongside him.
“Do you want a hug?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
I hug him and he violently throws my arm away. “No, no, no!” he screams.
I move away from him, attempting to widen the space between our bodies.
“Mommy, mommy,” he says.
“I’m here,” I tell him.
“I want Mommy!” he screams.
I don’t know what he wants. He plugs his soggy thumb back into red, swollen lips. He examines his free hand as it moves through the dark. He seems to relax. I try to fall asleep, but he screams again and the routine starts again, lasts for hours. In the morning, he wants nothing to do with me. It is Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. I ask him for a hug. “No,” he says, looking past me.
There was so much preparation. I shopped for hours online and in stores, bought video games and board games and books and puzzles and toys and art supplies and stocking stuffers. I wrapped presents until my back ached. My husband and I took the boys to see Santa Claus at a busy mall two days before Christmas. The line was an hour and a half. Elliott squirmed and whined and I dreaded what was to come. Would he throw a full tantrum before we even got to the front of the line? Kick or hit Santa?
Santa’s throne was in a dark, tiny hut. Elliott doesn’t like to be in closed spaces, especially unfamiliar ones. We were informed early on that no outside cameras would be allowed and that we’d be spending at least twenty-five dollars for three photos. Benjamin, my six-year-old, was thrilled to see Santa. He promptly told him what he wanted, tilted his head at a forty five degree angle, and smiled charmingly. Elliott looked scared at first, but he ultimately accepted sitting on Santa’s lap. His mouth hung open. The photos were taken. It was almost over.
I reached my arms in towards Elliott, but Santa spoke.
“What do you want, little boy,” he said to Elliott.
Elliott softly mumbled.
Benjamin interjected. “He can’t talk. He’s got autism.”
Santa went on about his grandsons having autism, too. He was sweet, but I wanted out. I took Elliott and we escaped the hut. It was over. My husband paid the obligatory twenty-five and returned with the 3 photos. Elliott touched his face on the photo paper and quietly said, “Elliott.” He seemed pleased.
Cookies were made. Elliott is on a special diet, so I made gluten-free gingerbread from scratch and erected and decorated it with the kids and my husband. We watched Christmas movies and told Christmas stories. We bought a present for Benjamin’s first-grade teacher and 8 presents for Elliott’s preschool teachers, speech therapists, behavioral therapist, and occupational therapist. We bought a tree, we put up lights. We put on fires in the fireplace. We drove around to look at lights. We drank hot apple cider. We attended Christmas parties. We were happy.
Elliott never went back to sleep on Christmas morning. He woke Benjamin at 6am, and we all stumbled down the stairs. Benjamin chanted, “Santa, Santa, Santa” and rushed to look at his stocking first. He then raced to the tree.
“Look, Elliott! Presents!”
Elliott, purple half-moons below his eyes, screamed.
“Grab the video camera,” I told my husband. “Put the battery in the camera.”
Ben’s straw-like hair was matted in places, protruding in others. Elliott looked unsteady, his eyes clouded over, his mouth working his thumb.
As Ben ripped through the candy-cane printed paper, I sat with Elliott and attempted to interest him in a gift. He let me help him open one. It was a figurine of a character from his favorite show, Super Why!.
“Super Why,” he said, quietly.
I repeated his words enthusiastically. Opening presents is fun, see?
I reached for another present and Elliott screamed, “No, no, no, no. My Super Why, my Super Why. No!”
Meanwhile, Benjamin picked up another book-shaped present and said, “I hope it’s not another book.”
“What did you say?” my husband and I both countered, Elliott still screaming in misery.
“Nothing,” Ben said.
We gave Ben the lecture about being grateful and other kids not having anything and he said he was sorry, but we could tell he was disappointed by his gifts. Elliott continued to scream and nothing would make him stop. I handed him to Ryan and opened up his presents for him. Ryan prepared the kids breakfast and I walked upstairs, laid down, and cried. Eventually, Ben expressed further displeasure with his gifts. Ryan scolded him, and he ran up to his room and cried as well. Elliott continued to eat his gluten-free waffle and screamed intermittently.
I needed to get out of the house. I changed my clothes and went out into the cold air for a 3-mile run. It had rained for the past week, and the streets were heavy with plant debris and mud. I ran past houses and imagined their mornings, the warmth inside. I felt guilty for not being home, for running away even momentarily.
Parents should not weigh their expectations too heavily on their children. I know that. I suffered too many miserable childhood holidays not to know that. It’s almost impossible for me to not be disappointed, though. I don’t want Elliott to scream through all the things that are supposed to bring him joy, to never quite understand what is going on around him. I just want to get closer to the inside of his mind and to be in there with him and to understand, to not always have to wonder why he is yelling at me or what he is saying. I want Benjamin to appreciate what he has, so much more than what I had when was a child, even though I realize there isn’t any real way for him to know that, to force context.
Still, my boys amaze me. Benjamin cares deeply about every one in his family, about animals, about his friends at school. He is funny and handsome and charming and interesting and smart. He says “frightening” and “nocturnal” and “deciduous” and “caribou.” He hugs me and brings me candy when I cry.
Elliott is beautiful and funny and delicate and strong and intelligent. I read him one of his Christmas books tonight, one about tucking in various baby animals before they go to sleep. He laughed his deep, throaty laugh as he folded the pages over to tuck each animal in. He did the sign language symbol for “more” so he could do it all over again. He laughed with me and kissed me good night and touched my hair with love and said “good night” and “I love you” in his way that only very few of us understand.
I know I am lucky in so many ways. But sometimes it wears on me. The screaming. And the special diets and therapy and token boards and data collection and ceaseless anxiety about how much or how little I am doing right. I want to be able to make plans with people and not worry about all of the routines and school and therapy sessions and appointments.
I know I’m whining. I guess I’m just having a hard time right now.