My oldest boy has autism. While that was a twist in my life, one that I didn't see coming. This is not what the post is about.
My oldest boy has autism. To me, having autism has not limited Jona. He is very high functioning. He went to school and attended regular classes, even excelling in school work. That's not to say he didn't struggle. Jr. High was a difficult transition but isn't it for most kids? He struggled with finding friends although the kids in his school always seemed to like him. His Senior year he found a group of kids that welcomed him into their circle. Which was nice. He took drivers ed and passed and even got his learners permit to drive. He went out on a date (albeit it was only one date and the girl did the asking.) He struggled and still struggles with the social aspects of life but he's a pretty regular young man.
Last June he graduated from High School. We are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and in our church when a young man turns 19 they are asked to serve a two year proselyting mission (Young Women in the church can serve a mission at 21). Nineteen (and 21) was the age, until October of 2012 when the prophet, spoke at our semi-annual General Conference and lowered the ages to 18 and 19 respectively.
I can still remember standing at the sink in my kitchen and hearing these words come through the radio...
"I am pleased to announce that effective immediately all worthy and able young men who have graduated from high school or its equivalent, regardless of where they live, will have the option of being recommended for missionary service beginning at the age of 18, instead of age 19. I am not suggesting that all young men will—or should—serve at this earlier age. Rather, based on individual circumstances as well as upon a determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available."
I remember chills running through me and having to grasp on to the counter. I remember having to catch my breath. I remember thinking, "At this time next year Jona could be serving a mission."
Well it's "this time next year". We submitted mission papers. Because of the autism they wanted to do a pre-mission evaluation. Jona had to fill out some questionnaires, as did Ty and I. Then we had to go in and speak to a counselor, who basically asked us some of the same questions that we had filled out on the questionnaire. At the end of our session with the counselor he told us that in most cases where there is a diagnosis of autism a full time proselyting mission is usually not recommended.
Going into this process we have had faith, and have said time and time again that "We know that Jona will go where he will be able to serve the best. He will go where the Lord wants him to go."
After the evaluation we waited. Waited to see if a mission call would come in the mail. Or if there would be something else.
It turns out it was something else. The something else came in the form of a telephone call that our Stake President wanted to meet with Jonathan. Jona took that call and told us that they hadn't asked for us as parents to be there so when the time came for the meeting we weren't thinking we wouldn't be needed. Ty was packing to go out of town and I drove Jona down and was waiting out in the car. I told him that if he needed me to come out and get me. He was in the building maybe 5 minutes before coming out and telling me that the Stake President wanted me to come in as well.
As we sat across the desk from the Stake President I was pretty sure I could see one of those life turns coming full speed ahead. I thought I was prepared. But when the words came out of his mouth stating that Jona was excused from serving a full time proselyting mission, I found that I wasn't.
This turn had way more g-force than I expected. This turn was squishing my heart.
I watched as a sense of relief seemed to flood over my son as he heard those words. I did my best to smile and nod my head as I listened to what else the Stake President had to say. I listened as he spoke of the Family History mission located up in Salt Lake where he could live away from home but that it was a highly sought after mission and there were certain qualifications that needed to be met. Jona needed to be 19 and had to have lived away from home for a year were just the starting qualifications. I listened as he told us of YSA (Young Single Adult) missions that are available, where Jona can serve from home. I listened as Jona gave the Stake President his email address so that he could email him more information about the YSA missions as this was the first experience that our Stake President has had with them. I shook President Allred's hand and Jona and I went back out to the truck.
On the way home I asked Jona how he felt. He told me that he was okay and that he had felt like he wouldn't be serving a proselyting mission. I asked him why he hadn't said anything about that feeling to us. He had a difficult time with the explanation to that question but the feeling that I got was that he didn't want to let his dad and I down.
When we got home Jona went into the front room and I stood by the sink, in that same spot that I stood a year ago listening to the prophet lower the age requirements for missionaries. Ty came in and sat on the bench in front of the table and looked at me. I couldn't even speak. I couldn't even say the words. I just shook my head, no.
I was shocked (and still am) at the effect this was having on me. I had known all along that this was a very real possibility. I could tell that for Jonathan this answer was a huge relief. Why, then, was this causing me such pain and heartache? I knew that there were still options for him to serve in other ways. Ways that are just as valid and important as him serving a two year mission away from home. Why was this so hard?? I tried to quell the tears as best I could but they continued to flow. At family prayer I cried some more. And that night Ty held me in his arms as I cried myself to sleep.
We didn't call family and tell them this decision had come down. It wasn't that I was ashamed or worried about what they would think. I was just that I don't think I could have said anything to anyone without breaking down.
These past couple of weeks I have had to take a long look at why I am struggling so with this. Walking out to the mailbox to check the mail has taken on a different tone. Seeing and hearing other parents talk and post updates about their missionaries, while still enjoyable, stings. It's just been hard. Not every second of every day kind of hard. Just every once in a while something will hit unexpectedly, kind of hard.
This is the best explanation that I can come up with. When we learned that Jona had autism someone directed me towards a poem called Welcome to Holland written by Emily Perl Kingsley... This is how I feel now, except change "your going to have a baby" with "going top send a missionary off"
Welcome to HollandI am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this…
When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Michelangelo David, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."
"Holland?!" you say. "What do you mean, Holland?" I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy.But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven't taken you to some horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.
So you must go out and buy a new guidebook. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It's just a different place. It's slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around, and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, Holland has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life you will say, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."
The pain of that will never, ever, go away, because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss.
But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.
As of now I'm still learning that "Holland" is not a bad place to be. I'm looking around for a guidebook and trying to get the feel of things. This really is the first time that Jona hasn't been able to do something that his peers are doing. It's an adjustment.
We are still waiting to hear about the different YSA missions that are available. Our family and friends now know and have given us much support and love.
And this year as I listened to General Conference I had a different experience. My heart and soul received comfort as I heard the very end of Elder Holland's talk "Like a Broken Vessel". I had actually gone into another room to put some shoes on when I heard these words, it was like they were amplified a thousand times so that I wouldn't miss them. And I got the same chills as I did a year ago.
"I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. What a thrilling moment that will be. I do not know whether we will be happier for ourselves that we have witnessed such a miracle, or happier for them that they are fully perfect and finally free at last."This turn has been a hairpin of a turn but, I know that Jona will serve where he is supposed to serve and he will be AMAZING wherever that may be. I am looking forward, with faith, to see the road straighten out before us and I'm looking forward to see where he, where we, will go.