“First sleep, then computer!”
My son’s frantic shriek pulls me from my dream and my bed. I find Jack reclining in the dark, alone under the soft Lightning McQueen blanket that covers him down to his ankles. He had a birthday last month. Fifteen years old. Twelve since “moderate autism” diagnosis. Nine since they upgraded it to “severe.” His limbs are longer now, and his forehead is bumpy with adolescence, but this scene is otherwise the same as it has been since the fog set in: his midnight panic, his rote collision of syllables, and my inability to discern what is really troubling him. My watch says 1:55 a.m., but time has little meaning in my dark living room. For Jack and me, it might as well be 2009.
People talk about “the arc of history,” and it’s easy to see why. Time walks a path so well-worn we can map it in the skies: antiquity moving through the uncomfortable now and into the deep unknown. History progresses and life changes. The prospect of losing the familiar keeps people up at night. But what happens when the arc of history stalls out? You’ll become like me, then. You won’t fear change; you’ll fear things staying the same.
“First sleep, then computer,” Jack says again, but quieter this time. I repeat his words and settle in close to his shaking body. I ask him if he had another bad dream, and he pushes out a “yes,” but it’s the short kind of “yes” he uses to shut me up. He doesn’t want to hear my questions. He just wants me to repeat his phrase, “first sleep, then computer,” because it gives him a small measure of comfort.
We have used “first, then” sentences for a decade. My son is functionally non-verbal. He doesn’t say much more than he did when he was five, but he still craves the language of sequence. Many of us find reassurance in knowing what will happen after this current thing is done. For Jack, that kind of information is a lifeline. His sensory input challenges make the world feel even more volatile than it does to me. “First, then” sentences whisper a bit of peace into that world by ordering the day. They make sense of time.
What is time if not sequence itself? First, a boy is born, then he learns to speak, then he goes to school, then he makes friends, then he falls in love, and then he starts a family. This soaring arc of a boy’s history is better measured in milestones than months. Time is not a collection of years and centuries; it is a first-then sentence.
This is the irony of my family story. Years have passed at the rate they always pass, but Jack’s arc has barely progressed. My precious son does not speak, and he has no friends. He is not following the arc. His progress loops like a scratched record. On some nights—darker ones like this one in the living room—I ask myself whether we’ve gained any ground at all. That’s when I’m in danger of falling back into my most crippling fear: that we are forever stuck between the “first” and the “then”; that we can’t escape the dreary grip of yesterday; that henceforth, all our days together will be yesterdays.
Morning always comes, however, and when it does, I remember to look at Jack more closely. I hear the new phrases, I see the way he’s utilizing his communication device, and how he is getting on with his service dog. Best of all, he started sending me text messages. It’s only happened three times, but one of those times was last week. I was away for a couple of nights, and he sent me this gem:
“Hi, dad. This is Jack. I am going to say I love you.”
I remind myself to look for these sequences—these victories—in micro increments. Not every small step needs to be a giant leap for mankind. Forward motion of any distance moves the plot further away from the past and toward possibility. In our case, that is enough cause for celebration.
I have to embrace this truth every day: history is not destiny. Maybe it would be in a world untethered from hope and heaven, but I’ve seen too much to despair for very long. Every morning, as far back as I can remember, the sun has risen anew, and God has not grown bored with the whole show. Newness is built into the fabric of creation.
As I read Jack’s text again, I embrace his words in all their literal glory. “I am going to say I love you.” Maybe that’s a promise. Maybe he’s not only telling me he loves me now, but also assuring me that he will tell me again someday, using all the words he longs to employ.
I look for that newness. I wait for it. I revel in it whenever it comes. Every tiny breakthrough points to the hope that the story of my son’s life will one day be a song, and everyone who hears it will dance.
Cover image by SpaceX.