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Pausing and reflecting on what used to be

A sunny, 66-degree early April day in western Wisconsin is cause for celebration in a part of the nation where we sometimes need to keep our warmer coats handy until Memorial Day weekend. Healthy doses of Vitamin D are always welcome in these parts this time of year.

Nolan and I have taken full advantage of what so far has been a relatively mild beginning to spring. We started taking afternoon walks two weeks ago as part of the weekly assignments his adaptive physical education teacher emails me. Nolan is required to take only one walk per week, but weather permitting, we’ve turned our strolls into an almost-daily routine. We walk less than a mile at a leisurely pace. Screen time is put on hold for 30 to 45 minutes in favor of fresh air, the sound of singing birds, and brownish grass that hopefully will soon turn green with April showers.

It's a great time to simply enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer and not think about anything. Until it isn’t.

Last Thursday, Nolan and I found ourselves across the street from the middle school he attends. He hasn’t been there since St. Patrick’s Day, the day before the governor indefinitely closed down the schools in our state due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I told him to turn left at the next corner and we would head for home, but he stopped, turned and faced the school, and just stared for what must have been close to a minute and a half. Maybe he was watching the guy shooting baskets on the courts located just to the west of the building. Maybe he was fixated on something far away that I couldn’t see. Maybe he just wanted to see just how patient dad was after another night of not enough sleep and a morning where the daily schoolwork routine had frustrated both of us.

Or maybe, as Cindy told me when we talked that evening about what had happened, Nolan really misses being in school and is still trying to process how much his life has changed over the last three weeks.

There are countless parents out there who have tried to explain – and probably still are trying to explain – to their children the horrible things that are going on in our world right now. All any of us knows is there is this invisible boogeyman who can indiscriminately make almost anyone very ill, or in some cases even kill them. Cindy told me her co-worker’s daughter, who is a high school freshman and a year older than Nolan, asked if their family would get sick or die. All Cindy’s co-worker could do was tell her daughter she didn’t have all the answers and at the same time try to calm her fears.

Nolan has severe Autism and is nonverbal, so attempting to explain the situation to him is much more challenging. I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible (“Nolan, there is something that is making people sick. You have to stay home from school, and dad is your teacher for now. I don’t know when you’ll get to go back.”). I know he understands more than some people give him credit for, but I doubt he truly comprehends why he’s not in school.

Everyone in our house is discombobulated – think of The Dude, Jeff Bridges’ character in “The Big Lebowski,” asking, “Is this a … what day is this?” without the intended belly laugh to follow. Since his forced break began, Nolan has been awake as early as 3:45 a.m. He hasn’t fallen asleep before 1:30 a.m. a couple of times. He got up before 8 a.m. one of the mornings he’d finally crashed in the wee hours the previous evening.

I give him time to wake up and settle in, which is what I need too because I get up at 5:30 a.m. five days a week and go running before Cindy leaves for work. The goal every day is to finish the worksheets of the three subjects Nolan’s teacher sent home – reading, News-2-You, math – before noon. Some days we’ve succeeded in doing so with a minimal amount of raised voices, meaning both Nolan and I. Some days we’ve returned to the kitchen table at 1 p.m. for what seems like the 50th time that day to complete what we’d started after taking a lengthy sensory break, meaning both Nolan and I (bouncing on yoga balls for several minutes can be therapeutic for adults, too).

I’ve tried to establish a routine that is as close to Nolan’s school day as I possibly can, and aside from the outbursts and occasional sore body parts from getting grabbed, he’s done all right with the abrupt change in routine. Still, I can’t get the image of him staring at his school out of my head. It’s left a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Nolan’s first two years of middle school were challenging. At times we’ve agreed to disagree with his teacher, who hadn’t worked with a nonverbal student before. He’s had difficulties with loose bowel movements, which led to me trying to explain to the district nurse last year that there is a correlation between Autism and gastrointestinal issues, and then being asked to send her links to studies that supported that. It got to the point where I cringed every time either the school’s or teacher’s number popped up on my phone.

Despite all the challenges and headaches, eighth grade was going pretty well for Nolan before the coronavirus decided to be an asshole, and I think the special education staff has grown to really like him. Two of his paraprofessionals emailed me to tell me how much they miss him. Last Thursday, his teacher texted me a photo of herself wearing blue for World Autism Awareness Day and a message that she missed him.

Now, with each passing day I grow less optimistic that Nolan will have the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to the staff, and to the school, before he starts high school in September. As much as I’m enjoying our father-son time together in what has been a nice start to spring, I want to give back to Nolan something I can’t right now: a sense of normalcy. I didn’t realize how much until last Thursday.

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