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If I were to die at any point in the next batch of years, I want to leave behind some writing about my son, Jake Thomas Sullivan.
The piece that I wrote about his twin brother, Keegan, has more than 3,000 views (search the archive for “Keegan Joe”).
Keegan is autistic, Jake is a typical five year old. Keegan is nonverbal, Jake never stops chatting. I never know if Keegan is sad, frustrated, or angry. With Jake it’s impossible to not know. Keegan never stops hopping, skipping, flapping his arms, and ricocheting from room to room. Jake will grab a soft blanket and happily melt his face watching episode after episode of Gigantosauras or Bluey so that I can read the Surfer’s Journal. With Keegan, every day is a loving battle. We’re forever working and drilling on everyday tasks. Jake likes to help me cook pancakes and can put his shoes on and carry his own stuff to the car. Jake and I talk and wrestle and read and do art and play sports together. He’s the reason I get to feel like a regular dad sometimes.
A couple times per week, I drive Jake to school. His school is twenty minutes away so we get to spend a little extra time together on these mornings. He’s at an age where he thinks I’m superman one minute and then hates my guts the next with the fire of a thousand suns.
We get settled in the car.
“Dad, can I pick something?” Jake asks.
“Sure, man. What do you feel like listening to?”
“Can we hear ‘Smokey Bar’?”
I was expecting this so I already had my finger hovering. The first two words of the song he wants are smokey and bar (the Drake White song). Jake always picks a couple of prominent words from a song without bothering to learn the title. Tom Petty’s “The Waiting” is called “Hardest Part” in our house.
As we make a right onto Commercial, I’m straining to hear him mumble and make up the words that he’s unsure of.
Cruising down Route 53, stealing glances at Jake in the mirror, my mind slips off to another place. I start shuffling through a rolodex of worries that are always just beneath the surface. When I’ve got both kids alone, Jake gets 28 percent of my effort and attention. His brother sponges up the rest. Jake’s often told, “hang on a sec, bud, I gotta see what Keegan’s up to.” When the three of us are outdoors, I’ve got to make sure Keeg doesn’t bolt into traffic.
I stay awake at night worrying about the kind of parenting job that I’m doing. How can you know which experiences (pleasant or painful) are leaving an imprint on your young kids? Jake is constantly shuttled between houses. I know that he’s safe and has a deep bench of people who love him but I can’t help but ruminate on what the shuttling feels like to him. Most days, he comes downstairs rubbing the crusties from his eyes and the first thing he wants to know is, “Dad, where am I going today?”
“You’ve got school today and then tonight is a Dad night, babe. You’re at Mom’s tomorrow and then Nina and Beepa’s on Saturday.”
Sometimes he hates the plan, but still demands the itinerary.
“Uggggggrrrrrrhhhhh. Why is it a Dad day again?”
We listen to “Smokey Bar” four more times. In my early twenties, a drive could be described as a four beer drive. Now, it’s a five song drive with the song never changing.
We turn into the school parking lot slowly so that I don’t flatten any kids. I pick out a spot 100 yards from the door and clunk the shifter into park. Jake’s unbuckled before I am, anxious to be let out.
I open his door and realize that I’ve forgotten to apply sunscreen again. The Pre-K newsletter features a weekly reminder about sunscreen, but I still forget. Along with a myriad of dinosaur action figures, ass wipes, loose goldfish and cheerios, I usually have a bottle of Coppertone shoved in a seatback pocket. I’m careful around his eyes, but otherwise I roughly smother him in the white goop. This is a tradition that dads have handed down to each other over generations. Roughly smothering.
As soon as I finish, he leaps out of the truck and clings to my torso like a koala. Arms and legs gripped tightly around me. He loosens his grip and starts sliding down my body.
“Like a fire pole, Dad.”
“Like a fire pole, Jake. We are in a parking lot now, babe, let’s take a look around for cars.”
He swivels his head around and takes a peek in both directions. His paw finds mine. A small hand slipping into your fingers can release enough of the right chemicals to make you want to live through the day. I don’t make a big deal of it, but I smile and look down and marvel at the little dirty fingernails and leftover stains from markers and paint.
We’re halfway to the front door. It’s 95 degrees at 8am. We’re both squinting against a sun that seems stronger this summer than at any other time in my life.
“That’s Steve, Dad.” Jake tells me.
There’s a guy, mid 40s, who’s spreading some mulch and tending to shrubs in a flower bed near the street. He’s sweating his ass off, trying to get his outside work done before it becomes deadly.
“What? Who?” I ask. Jake noticed him before I did.
“The guy,” he says.
“You know that guy’s name?”
“Ya. That’s Steve.”
We’re about to turn the corner to head into the building, but Jake stops for a moment.
“Hiiiiii Steeeeve!” Jake blasts out, in his high pitched small boy voice. He raises a hand to wave.
Steve, who’s hacking away at some crabgrass, is startled out of his work trance.
“Hey buddy! Good morning!” He calls back. He’s got a huge grin on his face as he fires a wave back.
Jake looks up at me and smiles before we get inside.
Moments like this linger in my mind for weeks.
I feel deeply for parents who have only special kids. I know that there are moments of beauty and love and progress, but the vast majority of the time you long for a better life for your child and for yourself.
Because of Jake, I get the full buffet of experiences. When I’m alone with him, I can unclench my jaw and know that he won’t sprint into traffic. At a playground, I can sit on a bench and fill my belly with a few breaths and spy on him as he interacts with other kids. He thrives in social situations. I love to watch him find his spot in a group of kids. Because of Keeg’s speech delay, I cherish every word that comes out of Jake’s mouth. It lights me up when he starts a sentence with, “Dad, let me ask you sumthin.”
It’s not all flowers and rainbows with Jake. We have plenty of the regular five year old a-hole moments. The refusals to get dressed. Chucking his dinner on the floor because he doesn’t want what I made. Magic Marker on the walls. Even still, I’m so grateful that I get to be Jake’s dad. Just like Keeg, my hope is that he feels safe, loved, and that he belongs.
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