I stopped by to see my dad today because…well… because I can. My friends and I are getting old-ish and not everyone’s parents are still living and not everyone lives in the same town with their folks. I appreciate that I do on both counts. As I drove around to finish up my errands and catch up on my week, it dawned on me that I had this indulgent ability (after living away for twelve years it seems indulgent to me) to stop by my parent’s house at will. And, then it occurred to me that I should…because one day I won’t be able to and I’ll wish I could. One day, it won’t be a choice I get to make and, on that day, I’m going to wish I had taken more detours to stop by and say hello and sit for a bit because I owe that man a LOT.
And it’s not like it’s out of my way because I live close to them now. I spent twelve years living on the East Coast and when I moved back to Cali, I moved to the town where my folks live. When you’re a single parent as well as a single parent who has autism on your plate, you don’t isolate yourself. You look for the place where the reinforcements and support live. My folks just live about five miles away, around a corner and through the almond orchards. It’s even a pretty drive in the spring when the rain visits us.
The first thing you have to know about this man who is my father is that he is genuinely a mountain of a man. I mean it…a mountain.
He is old school in a big way and not a father/daughter dance guy or a let’s-play-tennis kind of guy. Even as he settles into the back side of his sixties, he is still the strongest man I know. He can move things even as he nears seventy that most people couldn’t budge. And, seriously, my dad has never stepped foot into a gym. He’s not that dad at all. The man is simply oilfield tough to his core. He’s the kind of old school strong that believed the only way to be a real man is with good, old fashioned, get your hands dirty, hard work. He has that kind of mettle within him they don’t seem to make much anymore.
One of my favorite stories about him comes from his early oilfield days. It went like this: On days when they were waiting for something to happen and needed to fill their time, the guys would start stacking sacks. The bags were kind of like giant flour sacks, a hundred pounds a piece, but filled with this stuff called barite they use to add weight to drilling fluid. One guy would get down on the ground on all fours while his buddies would start stacking 100 pound bags of barite on his back. The stacking of barite bags would continue, 100 pounds at a time, until the man on the ground couldn’t withstand anymore or else collapsed under the weight of it. They finally quit stacking them on my father’s back when they had TEN bags stacked. Yeah, I’m not exaggerating. 1000 pounds, balanced on the back of the bull.
Like I said, he is a mountain.
The other thing you have to know about my dad is he is completely that old-school-kind-of-honest, a man of his word. If he says he’s going to do it, if he shakes your hand, you better consider it done. It’s binding. He does not break his word or go back on a handshake because he is from the days when men didn’t need a written contract because their hand shake meant more. And, do you know how many times I can remember him breaking a promise or his word to me or anyone else?
Not ever. Not once.
I have not told this story before. It is testament to who he is but, in all honesty, I don’t write personal stories about my parents often. This is also something he and I don’t really speak of. He is not one to reminisce about his triumphs. That’s not him at all. It is just one more page of our story, from many chapters back,..the story of autism, when it first barged into our lives, and of the jaw dropping lengths great dads will go to for their children.
Once upon a time, in the middle of the autism-trauma that gripped my life, my mountain-of-a man-dad made this promise he had no authority to make and, truly, it was a promise I had no right to grab hold of with both hands but he did and so did I. I latched on hard to that promise. If you rewind back to the summer of 2002, you will find me in Ohio, a blubbering mess, still hiding in my bathtub, scared to death of autism and what it meant to my family. In those early months of hearing the big ‘A’ word and being crushed under its weight for the first time, I was an emotional basket case. Is my boy’s life over? Is there any reason to fight? How do you fight something that even the doctors don’t really understand? Like I said, I was taking cover in the bathtub underneath the bubbles most of the time when I wasn’t taking care of my newborn, my two year old and my four year old… all alone and away from family in Ohio.
My parents and I talk frequently. More than once a week, usually three times a week, but sometimes, if a recipe is in question, three times a day. It all depends on the day so it wasn’t unusual to hear my father call one morning to see how we all are. I am sure the phone call started with my mom and then was handed off to my dad when she realized how upset I was becoming as I tried to fight autism alone…and all hopped up on postpartum hormones (which is never good). In my down-in-the-dumps, how-do-I-fight-autism pity party, my dad hauls right off and does this crazy thing from out of the blue. As he listens to me cry while I ask what’s going to happen to my boy, he interrupts my frailty and my want to give up and give in.
He interrupts me and comforts me by saying, “He’s going to be fine.”
So, being the emotionally-crazed-postpartum-mom that I was that day, I ask, “How do you know?”
And, in his don’t-worry-I’ve-got-this kind of voice that he has, he says, “I just know. That’s just the way it’s going to be.” He has this way, when he uses that voice, of laying down the law. Mountains can do that because the mountain has never broke a promise and their little girls believe what the mountain says because mountains never lie.
Suddenly feeling like I am catapulted back to my days as his little girl, I feel like I am facing Santa and want to ask for more…so I ask, “And, he’ll go to regular kindergarten?” I ask as though I am challenging him but he does not take it as a challenge because he is the mountain and mountains never back down.
He simply tells me, “Yes.”
And I cry a little harder because I have the reports upstairs in my room that show my nearly three year old boy with receptive and expressive language skills that are at an abysmal nine month old level and I want to believe anyone who will tell me he will grow stronger. With my mom-in-crisis tears falling I ask, “You promise?”
“I promise you he is going to be fine,” he tells me without any pause in his voice because mountains do not have to think before they answer tough questions.
No matter how much it didn’t make sense or seem plausible and no matter how much he did not have the backing or medical authority to make that statement, he did and I clung to his promise. You have to remember my father is not a doctor, he is not a psychologist, he is not a knower-of-things related to kiddos. He is a man who knows tools, cars, engines, and all things oil field. He is not a man who knows about autism, childhood development, milestones or how many words his grandson should know by two years old. He is not that guy. He does not change diapers or do bottles…not on his own children or his grandkids. What he is is a man you can count on and he knows about life in the big picture. He is your go-to guy in a pinch. He is the guy who fixes things, makes promises he will keep, and he is the guy you go to when everything is falling apart because, somehow you know, he will make it better. He is the man who gives faith and hope back in the moments when you think your life is void of them…and he helps you believe it will get better even when you don’t see how that is possible.
He made a promise to me that day that essentially said, “I’ve got this. I’ve got your back. I’m going to take the worry and fret from you and let you put your eyes on the prize, concentrate on the work ahead. Keep looking at the big picture and don’t get so mired down in the microscopic muck.”
He promised me my boy would make it to regular ed by kinder and my boy…did. The school may not have thought of the idea first or thought it was a splendid idea but… it happened. The school may have winced a bit, felt sorry for me and capitulated a bit but, in the end, my boy opened all our eyes and the mountain kept his promise. Believe me, it was a game changer of a promise. For me, for my boy, and for a school district who held a meeting to apologize to me for pigeonholing my boy’s abilities before he had a chance to shine. In their words of apology to me, they said, “He is our red flag and a lesson to us all that sometimes we just don’t know how far children will rise up until we let them. We thought we knew what his functioning level would be and we were wrong.”
To this day, even knowing as much as I do about autism and having teaching credentials in regular and special ed, I do not know how my dad knew what he did or was confident enough to make that promise to me. Perhaps it was old school intuition, perhaps it was luck, perhaps it was a glint he saw in his grandson’s eye. I have no explanations. I just know that to this day he has never broken a promise to me and I am not sure that he or anyone else will ever understand how much that promise meant to me and how much I clung to it in the darker moments when I had nothing else to hold on to.
So, for as long as I can, I will keep stopping in to see the mountain of a man I call my father and I will watch every John Wayne movie and Audie Murphy western known to man if that is what my dad is watching because there is something remarkable in that man and I want to spend as much time at the foot of that mountain for as long as I can until I can’t go to the mountain anymore. I may not ever fully understand how he knows what he knows but I understand enough to know that promise changed our lives and the best part of life is the family that holds you together and gives you faith when your faith bucket is empty.
And, without preaching, I will say…call your parents and say hello if you can because you can and you should.