The newborn baby stopped crying for a brief moment and our eyes met as he lay on the scale. It seemed as if he was studying me intently, looking deep into the soul of this blurry mass hovering over him.
I was an excited first-time father, and I had let that baby know for months during the summer and fall of 2005 I was on the outside, ready to welcome him into the world that December. I would put his mouth on Cindy’s belly, say “Nooooolllan!” in a deep baritone voice, and the baby often would respond either by kicking or moving. I bought a used copy of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and sat in bed one night reading it in a loud voice as Cindy lay next to me. The boy would know his father’s voice, and maybe get a head start on a 4.0 grade-point average.
In the span of 13 months, I had gone from agreeing with Cindy it was time to start a family with a high-five in our bathroom – from what I understand, a legally binding agreement in 32 states, including Wisconsin – to being responsible for this 8-pound, 6½-ounce human being. I wasn’t sure if I was truly ready for what was ahead – is any parent? – but I sure was going to do my best. Nolan deserved the best I could give him. I’ve never forgotten the way he looked at me his first few minutes of life: So, you’re the guy who’s been talking to me through mom’s tummy. I hope you know what you’re doing.
Sunday marks Nolan’s 14th year on this planet, and after all this time there still are days when I feel like that nervous, clueless new father standing over that helpless baby. I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would about Autism Spectrum Disorder, and yet sometimes I feel like I’ve only read the first chapter of a textbook and I’m being tested tomorrow morning on an additional 20 chapters. There still are times I’m still unsure how to help Nolan when he’s angry, sad, or not feeling well. Even after all these years, there still are times I’m not exactly sure if I’m connecting with him.
And yet I always try to find a way, because he expects me to know what I’m doing.
The first time I really noticed the trust Nolan had in me was when he was less than a year old. We were sitting on the front porch of our first house watching the traffic drive by when he turned around, looked at me, sighed, and put his head against my chest. Thankfully, similar happy moments the two of us have shared over the years have been captured on film. There is a picture Cindy snapped one weekend before we went to her mother’s house of Nolan as a baby lying on our bed and looking at me with a big smile on his face. The picture I included with this post was taken about four years ago when we went hiking in a nearby state park. At one point, Nolan turned around, put his face close to mine and smiled. I’d like to think it was his way of saying, “Dad’s here with me, we’re having fun together, and everything is okay.”
Even now, there are moments when he pulls me in close – I mean, forehead-to-forehead – and stares into my eyes as if to say, “I believe in you, dad.” Trust me, I believe in him, too. That’s why I channel my inner Tony Robbins and tell him as I’m walking him to the bus that he’s going to have a great day at school even on the mornings he’s been up since 4 a.m. and had two meltdowns. It’s why I channel my inner Vince Lombardi when he doesn’t want to return to his music therapy session after taking a bathroom break, slap him on the backside and send him back. It’s why I try to be patient during the rough days, weeks, and months. I have faith Nolan will pull out of it. He always does.
The man who stood over that newborn 14 years ago didn’t have all the answers that evening. He sure as hell doesn’t have them now, either. All I want Nolan to see is that I’m always going to be there for him.