My Dear Liam,
This Friday, you turn 7. I can't believe it's been seven years already since you arrived, dazed and tiny, so fresh in the world. I was exhausted by your birth, and I could barely breathe when you stopped breathing, but then I held you. And I knew it would be ok.
In your first year, you did all sorts of things: walked, talked, ate spaghetti, discovered Elmo, made me laugh, and we celebrated your birthday in a park with our family and friends.
In your second year, you grew strange. Distant sometimes, less talkative, more sensitive, but I still threw you a party. It was an all-out, open-the-house, bring-out-the-kiddy-pool, invite-everyone-we-know hoedown that you were barely interested in at all. Or at least I thought so at the time (I know better now—you were just processing it in your own way).
The day after your second birthday, my sweet sister told me she thought you had autism. We were at a park (the same one where we had your first birthday). She was wearing a new purple shirt, and she cornered me, whispering the word that would come to define you in our eyes for years to come: autism. Tears in my eyes, not wanting to hear her, I grabbed you off the slide and fled the park.
I still cry when I think about that moment. But I bet you don't remember it. I'm betting it was just another day at the park for your small self. Because what seemed like a gut-wrenching, heart-stopping moment in my mind was really not that big of deal to a curious toddler with a keen mind and big heart.
I know that now.
I don't remember your third birthday—we were in a new state, our dingy apartment wasn't very festive, your dad was immersed in a Ph.D. program, your brother was small, and you were even stranger that year. All I remember of that April was that you had just gotten an official diagnosis: severe autism. I don't think we felt much like celebrating that year.
By the time you turned 4, things were getting better. Our friends from out of town, Loki and Ashleigh, visited, and we had a small party for the two of you (since Loki's birthday is six days before yours). You ate cake with your hands, and didn't open presents, but it wasn't such a big deal. You see, by the time you were four, we were seeing more of you beyond autism.
When you turned 5, I decorated the kitchen. We had streamers, balloons, and presents. I made a messy gluten-and-dairy-free cake, and you laughed with your brother as you ate it.
For your 6th birthday, we brought popsicles to your class and ate them together as a family. Your friends at school were thrilled—"Popsicles before nap! Liam's so great!" And you wore your birthday crown for all the pictures.
And that brings us to this year. We've already celebrated with your extended family. Although you hid when the candle on your cake was lit, you ate with gusto, opened your presents, and played with the toys you got. You used signs to thank people for your gifts.
I'm not sure yet what we'll do for your actual birthday — I know other kids your age have themed parties and invite tons of other people — but I don't think anyone in our house is up for that. But I promise you this: we'll do something special. Because, you see, we are all so, so excited to celebrate you this year.
Oddly enough, your birthday falls during Autism Awareness/Acceptance month, and that's what you've taught us in these last seven years: to be aware, to be accepting, and to love despite differences and diagnosis.
So, my darling 7-year-old: I celebrate you.
I celebrate your hugs, your sense of humor, your clever problem solving, all the work you do to communicate, your spirit, your joy, your love of your family, and your connection to us all.
I can't imagine you as anything other than your self, and I love you fiercely, endlessly, and entirely.
Cheers to you my son, and happy, happy birthday.
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton
Images provided by Jamie Pacton