I’ve been a father now for 15½ years. Several of my pre-fatherhood memories are like the faded pictures in my family’s photo albums – which, like some of my Carter Administration fashion choices, is a very good thing. It just seems like Nolan has always been a part of my life.
There is one moment before he entered this world that I can’t forget. It was November 2004. Cindy and I had been talking for a few months about starting a family. I knew we probably would become parents at some point, but part of me wanted to take the “let’s wait just a little bit longer” route. You know, kind of like the two minutes left in the football game really equates to 20. I had timeouts to burn, and I was going to use them.
But there Cindy and I were together that late autumn day in the bathroom. She turned to me and asked me if I was ready to try conceiving. I think I said ‘yes’ or something that resembled answering in the affirmative. She gave me a high five, said “Let’s do this,” and left. This was the moment I realized I’d entered my own version of the “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer’s low-talking girlfriend asked Jerry to wear a puffy shirt on national television, and he agreed without knowing what he’d agreed to do.
“What are you talking about???”
“I was just nodding!”
“But I don’t want to be a daddy!”
The real fear didn’t come when Nolan was born in December 2005, nor did it come in the days when I took care of him while Cindy was at work and before I left for my job in the mid-afternoon at the local newspaper. It arrived in the summer of 2008 when Nolan was formally diagnosed with Autism. At that moment, everything I’d envisioned for him – success in school, extracurricular activities, sending him off to college at 18 with a pat on the back and a hearty handshake – vanished like a mirage in the desert. I honestly didn’t think I could hack it being the father of a special needs child.
Some of my fears have diminished over time. We have enjoyed some really special father-son moments together. I’ve learned how to help him, and myself, work through some challenging situations. Being a father means being there for your son or daughter and supporting him or her during both the euphoric moments and those moments when you want to close the curtains and hide under a blanket for six months.
And then there are the moments when we’re someplace together and enjoying each other’s company. Well, I’m usually enjoying being with Nolan. He also is nonverbal, but I’d like to think he’s glad pops is around.
Last Friday was Nolan’s first day of summer school, which included a field trip to a local beach and the opportunity to try adaptive waterskiing. Cindy and I had last taken him in 2015, and between the two of us and one of his former therapists, we got this close to getting him to participate – as in, he was strapped in the adaptive apparatus and the driver of the boat was waiting for the signal to hit the gas – before he decided he wanted no part of it. I told one of his teachers I wanted to meet the class at the beach and lend a hand. Plus, I would have my iPhone at the ready should Nolan decide he wanted to waterski.
Were we able to entice him to try it? Unfortunately, no. At best, there’s only a coin flip’s chance Nolan will enter any body of water larger than our bathtub. But I’m so glad I got to spend most of the morning and early afternoon with him.
I heard one of his loud “I’m not happy right now” yells when the school district vans arrived at the beach, and he almost immediately began pulling me toward and then across the road. We probably spent the first 20 to 25 minutes walking in the grass next to the road, which also runs parallel to the airport that serves our region. I made a few attempts to get him to go back toward the beach, but he just wasn’t having it. So we just walked, and then walked a little more, until we eventually crossed the road and made it to the beach.
I'll decide if the water's fine!
I gave Nolan a little space as he stood under the shelter and watched the other special needs students take their turn at waterskiing. He let one of his teachers put a lifejacket on him, and she used a doughnut to try to lure him to a chair that sat at the river’s edge. I walked with him until we got about a foot from the water, hoping it would be the gateway to take a spin around the river once he'd dipped his feet in. But he retreated back to the shelter, and that was just fine.
One of the most difficult things for me to hear is Nolan crying, which he started to do out of nowhere late morning. He pulled me away from the shelter, up the beach, and back across the road, which we spent another 15 to 20 minutes walking up and down until he was once again calm and went back to eat lunch with his classmates. I said goodbye to him and went on my way once I knew he was content. He stayed that way the rest of the school day, too.
I will tell anyone who will listen – Nolan’s teachers, my family, Cindy’s family, the person working at the checkout counter at the convenience store that’s a few blocks from our house – that there still are times when I don’t know what to do in certain situations, even after being a parent for nearly 16 years. Sometimes I have the confidence of a seasoned mechanic or an accomplished physician when I’m diagnosing what’s ailing my son (“Clearly he has a headache! Ibuprofen – stat!”). Far too often, I feel like wearing a dunce cap and seeking out the nearest corner to atone for not fixing whatever is wrong.
Look, I know being a parent isn’t easy for anyone. Multiply the difficulty factor by the population of San Antonio, and you’ve got a general idea of what the parents of special needs children face on a daily basis. The worrying never stops. There’s always the desire to make the bad things go away and give their kids the best life possible, unrealistic as it may be.
My hesitancy to be a father almost 17 years ago stemmed from a fear of not being able to be the type of parent my son or daughter needed me to be. I’ve learned a lot since then. I know there will be countless imperfect days, and there also will be countless days when I feel really uncomfortable. But there’s also always that desire to make tomorrow better, and hopefully make it happier and a little more comfortable for Nolan.
It’s all part of always wanting and trying to do my best for my son. I proudly wear the role of being a father – even on my puffy shirt days.