Her Autistic Son Taught Her to Live in the Present

During a visit to her mother-in-law with Alzheimer's, her son opened her eyes to God's many blessings.

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- Posted on Apr 27, 2020

Joel and his grandma Barb

I parked at the Azlheimer’s center where my mother-in-law lived and paused, saying the quickest of prayers. I glanced at my 11-year-old son, Joel, in the backseat. He was totally absorbed in the photo album he had insisted on bringing along.

Joel has autism, and although I had reminded him that his grandmother couldn’t remember things the way she used to and might not be as interested in the photographs as he was, I couldn’t be sure that he completely understood what I was saying. I just hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed by his grandma Barb’s reaction.

Joel looked up. “See Grandma!” he exclaimed. Clutching the album, he bounded out of the car and up to the building entrance and marched in. I trudged along after him. We hadn’t even crossed the lobby when my senses were assailed by the smell of disinfectants and cafeteria food.

“Mmm, hamburgers,” Joel said, sniffing the air as if we were at a barbecue.

“Uh-huh,” I muttered, trying not to inhale too deeply. We passed the nurses’ station and headed down the hall toward Mom’s room, Joel in the lead.

A woman in a wheelchair cut us off. “Can I get a hug, young man?” she asked, thrusting out her arms.

I tensed. Sometimes Joel is anxious about meeting new people. What if he flinches and lashes out? I moved close to Joel, but all at once he fell into the woman’s embrace, then let the friend sitting beside her hug him for good measure.

We finally got to my mother-in-law’s room. Her door was open, and she was napping in her beloved antique rocker. She slept a lot these days. All the time now, it seemed. We tiptoed past her Victorian dresser, which had a collection of framed family pictures sitting atop it. I felt sad thinking of how little meaning those photographs had for her now.

Joel paused a moment, then went right up to her. “Grandma Barb,” he said softly. “Pictures.”

She awoke, and I saw the startled confusion in her eyes. Who is this little boy? they seemed to ask. Undeterred, Joel climbed into her lap and opened up his photo album. A hint of a smile appeared on Mom’s face. He pointed to pictures of his father and me, emphatically identifying us. He went on to his brothers. Yes, that was definitely a smile on Mom’s face. Joel reserved his greatest enthusiasm for his black Lab. “Poco! That’s Poco!” he exclaimed. Now the smile became laughter.

What Mom said to him didn’t make much sense, but that didn’t bother Joel. He knew that his grandmother was happy, and that was enough for him.

I looked at my son, battling his own cognitive challenges, and Mom slowly losing the fight against hers. They snuggled close, taking delight in the pictures and in each other, connecting on a level more profound than the everyday one most of us use when we relate to each other. And suddenly that gave me the peace I’d so badly needed.

I’d been worried about Joel understanding what was happening to his grandmother when really I was the one who needed to understand.

I smelled the odors of the nursing home. He smelled hamburgers.

I saw strangers invading his space. He welcomed their hugs.

I grieved for the mother-in-law I had known. He loved the grandma who was here now.

I thanked God for the gift of this moment. Then I pulled up a stool next to Joel and Mom and basked in the joy of it with them.

Adapted from Autism & Alleluias ©2010 by Kathleen Deyer Bolduc. Used by permission of Judson Press.

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