Two weeks before Cowboy’s high school graduation, friends kept asking me, “Are you okay? Have you cried yet? How are you doing with all this?” And to every question my answers were consistently, “I’m great. No tears here; what’s there to cry about? I’m excited.”
Excited was a severe understatement. I hadn’t been that over-the-top-freaking-out ecstatic over a public event since my wedding. I googled “How many weeks before graduation should I send out announcements?” Answers varied, but I set the Mail-Out Date as three weeks prior. I was on target, until I discovered the announcement company hadn’t sent enough name cards; my expedited shipping took a week and a half. Then, the school district changed the time of the ceremony. Mom drama ensued. But thanks to a silver Sharpie I used to change the time on unsealed announcements, and labels noting the new time to stick on the sealed ones, a world crisis was averted. Thousands of announcements were safely in the mail 12 days before the Big Night. Unfortunately, I realized too late that I should’ve ordered extras. There were more people who needed to be notified, including a few politicians and some foreign dignitaries.
The next week, when Cowboy brought his cap and gown home, I displayed them in the hallway by the front door. Even while gazing at them every day, I still had no tears. Kleenexes would be flowing the night of commencement, and I’d be the Mom with the Wooden Heart. Is something wrong with me? Everyone’s talking about their babies growing up; they’re a little melancholy about it.
“But I’m not melancholy, Baby,” I told Flash. “Maybe it’s because he’s not leaving home, not going off to college. It’s different; he will still be with us.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “I think that’s the difference.”
Then, Graduation Week began. That Monday morning, I had a meltdown for breakfast. After drying my tears, and called my friend Rosebud. But 15 seconds into the conversation, I was falling apart again. Sometimes, you don’t realize what your heart’s trying to tell you, until its words fly out of your mouth. "This is so much more than a high school graduation,” I told her. “This ceremony represents the last 15 years, the hell we went through, the millions of school meetings, my standing up for what Cowboy needed, the dark times, and how he has come so far. And we made it to the other side. And our marriage made it. This is about witnessing a miracle." My tears were born from deep gratitude.
Life has changed in innumerable ways. The days of chasing after Cowboy when he'd run away from us in public are long gone. Horrific struggles I thought I'd never forget are fuzzier now. Not forgotten, but no longer a knife twisting in my gut. They seem like a long nightmare, and I’m grateful to be awake now.
My Hero has overcome challenges and habits I thought he'd have forever.
“He’s going to be 30 years old, still chewing on the front of his shirt,” I’d told Flash when Cowboy was 9. He needed oral-motor sensory input, so we bought chew tubes for him to carry around, to save the shirts. Still, the chewing lasted years. We brushed his skin, with a special brush from his occupational therapist, to help with tactile defensiveness; we had to grab hugs quickly, before he squirmed out of our embrace. Now, he initiates hugs with us and his friends. Once upon a time, he merely collected balls; they filled his closet and were seldom noticed. Now, he plays baseball, basketball, and soccer every year. He’s the most athletic person in our family.
Focus was difficult for Cowboy, and sitting still was nearly impossible, at school and at home. Techniques were used to help him attend to tasks in small increments. Sometimes, a visual timer was used to help him see time pass and indicate when he could get out of his chair. Little things Flash and I used to take for granted were mountains for Cowboy to climb. Since he came into our lives, there’ve been no small accomplishments; all are huge. In a few days, he’ll be sitting through a long graduation ceremony, I thought to myself, and he’ll be fine. That wouldn’t have been possible six and a half years ago.
“I want everyone I love to be there,” I told Flash. “Don’t they know this is the most monumental event in the history of the world? What could possibly be more important?”
He smiled back at me, but I know he was thinking the same thing.
“My son is graduating,” I announced everywhere I went. Cashiers at Walmart, my mother’s care attendants at her assisted living facility, the pharmacist at Walgreens, the mailman. Anyone who came within a ten-foot radius heard the Good News.
Every time someone told me they were coming to graduation, I cried. I was stunned that they would voluntarily sit on hard stadium bleachers for hours. Graduations are not for the faint of heart, or the weak of butt. Two hours before graduation, I found out six more friends would be coming. Cowboy’s cheering section was shaping up quite well.
As we sat waiting for the ceremony to begin, I wondered how Cowboy would do on stage. Flash and I had prepped him for graduation night. “Cowboy, don’t shake hands with everyone. Just with the person who gives you your diploma. And don’t do your special handshake; do a regular grown-man handshake.”
When Cowboy was younger, we’d gone through various phases of greetings. First, he learned to sound out “hi” and “bye.” Then, he learned to high-five, but his was an anti-ballistic-missile high-five. Many a person winced when they endured what can only be described as phalange whiplash. I kept an oven mitt in my purse, for potential victims to wear. "Not hard, Cowboy; easy," became our daily mantra.
When Cowboy entered junior high, I felt obliged to teach him the groovy three-step handshake we did in the 1970s. But when our friend Birdie came to visit, she added more steps. This elongated handshake became, and still is, Cowboy’s signature handshake. He’s no respecter of age when it comes to teaching it to others - countless elderly people in the greater Houston area have indulged our son, quickly adding, "Oh, I'll have to practice that one," as they try to make it through all the steps. Please, God, don’t let him break their knuckles, I pray, every time. When we see an unsuspecting person approaching, Flash and I run interference, repeating, “Not hard, Cowboy; easy.” A couple of years ago, as I walked down a school hallway with Cowboy, teachers called out “Hey Cowboy,” as they stretched out hands to greet him. They enjoyed the handshake as much as he did, telling me, “I finally learned it!”
Given this history, we were concerned Cowboy would carry on the tradition during the ceremony.
At 6:50 p.m., one of the Top Ten Best Nights of My Life began. The band started playing “Pomp and Circumstance.” It was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. My pulse raced as the Class of 2017 passed in front of us. With my eyes glued to the football field sidelines, I searched for Cowboy. Finally, there he was, with his determined stride and his bright orange dress shirt. The moment I saw him, it took my breath away. Again, I wept with joy, just like I did the first time I saw him on the day he was born.
It was the second time he’d walked in his cap and gown that week. Three days prior, he’d marched through the elementary school he attended for six years, with his fellow classmates. His teacher there, Anne Sullivan, was our miracle worker during his early school days. Her heart broke with mine when Cowboy regressed during any given year; she rejoiced with me over all of his good days. Her oldest son and Cowboy would graduate together, and we mothers embraced as we admired our young men. Marley, Anne’s husband and one of Cowboy’s high school teachers, had told me earlier in the year, “I remember when Cowboy was three,” shaking his head in disbelief. Indeed, he was just three. I hear other mothers talk about how fast their children grew up. But, for me, there were times I thought we’d never get past the childhood days of autism. Looking back, I’m thankful for the here and now, and loving life in the present tense.
Cheers went up when all the seniors were seated. Speeches were given, cameras were ready, and my friend Red was ready to record the Big Moment, for those who couldn’t be there with us. Cowboy rose from his chair, and followed classmates to stand behind the stage. I glanced behind me at our crowd; they were all beaming along with me.
At the calling of his name, I sprung to my feet, raised my hands in the air, and screamed my heart out. I noticed our friend Buttercup, one of the school board trustees, would be the one to present Cowboy’s diploma to him. That was perfect; her daughter had been Cowboy’s teacher, when he was four years old.
I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t realize what was happening on stage, until a member of Cowboy’s fan club leaned up and said, “He’s shaking hands with everyone on stage.” Buttercup was standing there, diploma in hand, waiting until my son greeted other school board trustees and the superintendent himself, with a handshake. “We loved it,” Buttercup told me later. “We were excited that he was so excited.” Thankfully, Cowboy’s teacher Ms. Prince had noticed he was wearing his class ring; she reminded him to do a regular handshake instead of his signature shake, which ends in a fist bump. Injuries were avoided, and the ceremony moved along quickly, thanks to her help. I started getting text messages from friends watching from home, via the school’s live streaming on their website; they all mentioned his handshaking. My friend Coco wrote, “As soon as Cowboy stepped up on the stage, he started shaking hands. I could tell it was him before they called his name.” Cowboy brought extra pomp to his circumstance that night.
At last, the school song was sung, and hats flew in the air. We made our way onto the field to find him. Now off the stage, he resumed greeting his fans with his signature handshake and hugs.
A week before the ceremony, I’d told my friends, “You only have a few more days to hear me talk about graduation. Hang in there; it’s almost here.” But I lied. I haven’t climbed down from Cloud Nine yet. And I’m still crying at least four times a week. Graduation ceremony photos came in the mail this week, so I’m reliving every moment, again. It could be a long time before I’m interested in talking about anything else.