Friday, March 9, 2018

Big Brother

My daughter Reagan is a junior in high school. I haven't talked about her on my blog as much as I have her brother. This year, she is taking AP Lang, and recently wrote this essay about Pierce. You've heard a lot from me about parenting a child with autism, but I thought you'd appreciate a different perspective. Reagan has given her blessing and allowed me to share.

Reagan McKay
Narration Essay
AP Language and composition

Big Brother
I stepped out of the car into the humid evening air of July, my face rigid in an attempt to remain neutral. I wasn’t happy to be here, but I wasn't angry. Not yet. I tread through the parking lot alongside my father, listening to my brother sing to himself about a talking vegetable who had lost his hairbrush. He was dressed in a white button up shirt and dress pants, and only God knows if he knew why. As we strolled into our beloved church’s sanctuary my stomach dropped. Lively music was being played over the speakers, and on the screen were displayed the many faces of those who were about to depart from our body. We were there to say a final farewell to the now graduated class of 2017, as it was the end of a summer of lasts: last camps, last Otter Creek Sundays, last life groups, last youth group adventures. Senior Night was the throw of the cap in the graduation ceremony of an OCYG member, when your final camp had been completed and your last retreats long gone. This was all that was left in the process.

We took our places in the third pew from the front, my parents beginning to make small talk with some people I didn’t know well enough. I watched my big brother’s face with a sort of pity as he watched Veggietales on his phone, smiling with him as a silly green cartoon cucumber hopped across the screen. He rewound and replayed the same ten seconds over and over again, a finger pressed against his left earbud to insure he could hear better.

“Pierce is here!”

I looked up to see the familiar faces of the boys in Pierce’s grade as they travelled over to our pew, and Pierce pulled out his earbuds and waved. A huge grin spread itself across his face.

“Hi guys!”
“Pierce, you wanna come sit over there with us?”

As he gave them a simple yes in reply and jumped to his feet, the boys checked with my mother to make sure it was okay. She threw them the “Oh of course” she always did, and watched them all sit down together with a tearful smile. It was like any other church event, and to an outsider, it was just any other group of guys.

As the lights dimmed and the music faded, our youth minister came onto the stage. He thanked everyone for coming, welcomed a round of applause for the grads, and introduced a video that contained clips of different church members sending their thoughts and prayers for the seniors; thus, beginning the same spiel that I had begun to despise.

“We are so proud of all of you; we’re going to miss you; we know you’re going to be successful; don’t forget the lessons you’ve learned here; come back and visit when you can!”

My eyes darted over to my brother, folded in on himself staring down at the floor as he whispered nonsense movie lines to himself. My stomach boiled. Unable to stand it any longer, I rose from the pew, charging for the doors towards lobby. Hot tears were brimming the edges of my eyes; they came fast and hot and plentiful, for though it wasn’t the first time I had been hit with these feelings, it was the first time they had hit me with such force.

I couldn't comprehend why we were being forced to endure such a spectacle, for though my brother had graduated, it felt like it didn’t count. Everyone else had been saying goodbye, and all summer I had listened to the laments of girls who were losing their brothers and sisters to the call of college, yet they were so proud. I envied them. Everyone continued to pester us over where Pierce was headed, and it felt like a cruel jab every time. Pierce wouldn’t be going anywhere; he wouldn’t for a long time. I, his little sister, would all too soon be leaving before he did. He was trapped in the basement, tangled in computer cords, rewatching old veggietales DVDs that should have gone to goodwill, singing “Oh Where Is My Hairbrush” and “Barbra Manatee” day in and day out, without a care in the world. That was the best and worst part about it; though my parents and I grieved over unrealistic life goals we had hoped for him, he couldn’t give a care to the world. Pierce was both blessed and cursed, living with a childlike mind in a 19-year-old body, unable to see where he wasn’t going, yet so content and happy in where he was staying. Life in Brentwood would most likely be the only life he’ll know, for there are not many places a boy with autism like Pierce can travel.

I listened to boy’s names ebb though the open doors of the balcony, names of boys who were Pierce’s closest friends and guardians. They’d be leaving him, and he couldn’t follow. Maybe they’d visit, but it’d never be the same. My brother would never again have the same constant, inviting circle of boys he had right now, who were happy to invite him over to sit or take him out to the newest Disney movies. He would have me, my parents, and adults from church and school once he returned there for more learning in the fall. He’d never have any more guys his age there for him, and it made my heart ache then more than it ever had.

An hour later my family walked to the car together, my parents emitting a silence that I knew meant I’d done something wrong by fleeing. But as I looked upon my brother walking to the car, a hand cupped to his ear as he reenacted a line from the Pixar film, Finding Dory, “Dory, you are about to find your parents! And when you do that, you’ll be home,” I wanted so badly to give to my brother what I had. Opportunity, awareness, a life that was better than the one he had been dealt. I wanted to hurt and feel joy for him in the way everyone else got to for their siblings; missing them when they leave, crying with happiness when they marry. I’d never know these supposed luxuries.

In spite of all of it, however, I’m reminded that we were, and still sometimes continue to do all this hurting for a boy who wasn’t even hurt himself. It was all almost funny. We all wish we didn’t have to grow up, and in a way, my brother had the ultimate wish come true. As a friend of mine later put it, he’s always going to be with people who love him. He’ll never have to leave the shelter that we’d always known. And once I leave, he’ll always be there waiting for me.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Things That Made Me Happy In 2017

2017 is nearly over, so it's time to do what everyone does at the end of the year: Reflect on what I've accomplished, evaluate where I've been unsuccessful, and make a plan for next year. Every year, I make a list of goals, and every year, I fail at most of them. Three years ago, I made a goal that I actually managed to accomplish. I decided I needed to get healthy, and I lost a total of 35 pounds. Now, I have fallen off of the wagon a couple of times (the holidays completely wreck all sense of willpower) and put a few pounds back on, but I manage to shed them once I start eating healthy again and the Spring season at the garden center kicks my butt. This is one of those very few New Year's Resolutions I consider a win.

This past year, I had a list of things I wanted to do. I failed to complete the majority of that list, as usual. BUT, the number one thing on my "need" list, written in all caps, was to FIND MY JOY. My first approach was taking on the Complaint-Free World challenge. That involved wearing a bracelet and switching it to the other wrist every time I complained about something/someone. The goal was to make it 21 days straight without moving the bracelet. I was not successful with this challenge. Like, didn't even make it more than 2 days in a row. However, it did make me work harder to stop complaining. Through January, while the country seemed to be in a tailspin of despair (I can't help thinking of a certain Hee-Haw sketch when I hear the words "gloom" or "despair"), I struggled to keep my head above water. One day, I thought about all of the small details that had cheered me up throughout the day. My mood seemed to improve. I decided I would practice writing down these little gems every day for a month. Thus, the Things That Made Me Happy Today project began in February. In 2017, I have journaled every day since February 1st. I've filled up two books, and part of another. I also found an article on bullet journaling about how to chart your mood daily. There was a handful of days that I forgot to document, so I had to go back and guess, but I have a color-coded chart for the entire year. This practice has dramatically changed how I perceive my day. It has helped me to let go of anger or frustration I felt about something that may have happened to me, and put it all into perspective when I list the positive things about my day. I'm more likely to consider the day "good" or "ok" instead of a total wash because of a couple of bad incidents. I've spent the day reading all of my happy lists from this year. Here's my Top 20 Things That Made Me Happy in 2017. Of course, there were LOTS of other things that made my lists throughout the year, but these topics showed up the most consistently. They are listed in no particular order.  

There are things I wish I'd been able to add more often, and others I wish didn't have as much prominence. I'll be working to change that in 2018. 

Actions besides journaling that I took in an effort to find my joy:

  • I dropped a couple of activities that were bringing me more stress than happiness.
  • I found an alternate route home from work so that I avoid the interstate completely. That has made a WORLD of difference in my mood during the afternoon commute.  
  • Tim and I made an effort to fit in a date night every week (usually Sunday nights). We also scheduled 3 weekend get-aways instead of taking one vacation for just the two of us. We aimed for 4, but it was a little too difficult with my work schedule.

Has the practice of journaling turned me into a 24/7 happy person? Absolutely not. There were still days that filled me with sorrow and angst in 2017. Trying to adjust to parenting an adult with autism and facing all of the uncertainty that comes with the territory has been difficult, to say the very least. Raising a teenager is lots of fun but also quite terrifying and, at times, aggravating. Cutting out some activities has given me more time at home with Tim and the kids, and that has been wonderful. In doing so, however, I now feel disconnected and isolated from friends and church family. Have I misled you on social media and painted a rosy picture? I certainly hope not, and I don't believe I have. We've had some struggles this year, and I feel like I've been honest about that. If your perception of me and my family is that we are completely carefree, I apologize. I never want to sugar-coat a situation or deliver a false reality. On the other hand, there are NUMEROUS frustrations that I could've told you about and chose not to. I've seen these negative posts on social media, and, while they may allow the person posting to vent, it also whips their followers into a furious mob: "Yeah, I HATE that, too!!!" "If I were you, I'd have handled that with *insert with angry retort or violent reaction here*!!!" The poster may feel vindicated, but lots of their followers are angry, sometimes for no good reason. Instead, I tried (and many days I had to try harder than others) to share the positive in my life. I mainly wanted to stop myself from knee-jerk responses to those daily annoyances that happen to all of us. I am truly humbled by the comments I've gotten from so many of you. I've been told that my happy posts make YOU happy; that you look forward to seeing them on Facebook or Instagram. Those reactions are Things That Make Me Happy Today, too.

Some statements during a recent sermon have stuck with me: "We like to be around hopeful people. We want to be around people who stand for hope and possibility." If you find your friend group shrinking, "What do you exude? What are you pouring into people? Joy? Encouragement? Hope?" Before I get comments about it, I'm obviously not talking to people that are struggling with a mental illness right now. Your brain is literally unable to see things in a positive light. Trust me, I know. For the rest of you out there, you can't choose how you feel, but you CAN choose how you react. I love the quote, "Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate" (origin unknown). I am challenging you in your daily social media interactions, heck, even in your face-to-face interactions. Before you spew about the jerk that cut you off in traffic, or rant about the horrible customer service you just received, or tear down the latest celebrity that's done something shocking, or whine about something frustrating that your spouse or kids did, or share that political meme as a way of shaming those who voted differently than you, pause for just a moment and think about what you are "pouring into people". It is extremely hard to positively interact on social media all of the time. But I think we ALL can do a better job. Joy is choice. Negativity is choice. May we all choose wisely. I hope all of you will join me in my challenge to document the Things That Made Me Happy Today. I already have a new journal, one that has enough pages to last me all of 2018, and two new packs of colorful markers (also pictured is a new planner and an instructional book for a new hobby I want to try).

I am ridiculously happy about these new markers. They definitely made it onto a happy list. May you all have a very HAPPY New Year!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Never A Dull Moment

I don't have a single picture of our honeymoon. Why? I'm not sure, exactly. I owned a camera at the time, though it was pretty darn cheap. We were young, broke college kids. We'd been gifted a week of timeshare at a place in Lake Lure. In winter. I decided on a Christmas wedding, because after 2 1/2 years of dating we were, quite frankly, too anxious to wait until the following spring to get married (as we had originally planned), moving in together was definitely out of the question, and we knew we wouldn't have any more money in May than we had that December, so why wait another 6 months? Besides a candlelit tour of the Biltmore at Christmastime, there wasn't a lot of sightseeing on that honeymoon, therefore, hardly any scenery worthy of a photo. Sometimes I kick myself for not asking someone to take a picture of the two of us at dinner, or the place we stayed, or even the dang Biltmore House in all of its Christmas glory. 

As we approach our 24th wedding anniversary, I think of all those moments in our life that I failed to document. In 1993, we weren't equipped with camera phones, always prepared to capture life's most significant events. No one was there to snap a picture of Tim proposing to me in my dorm room, not that I would've wanted an audience, anyway. No elaborate, romantic, well-thought-out proposal. Just a 19-year-old kid, down on one knee, pretending to find something in my laundry bag, and trying to put the ring on my right hand instead of my left. Would I have wanted something more dramatic? Of course; I was a hopelessly romantic, 18-year-old girl. I did have my very own customized ring, though; Tim's stepdad, who happened to be a jeweler, designed my ring using a sapphire from my mother-in-law's first wedding ring and a couple of cubic zirconia stones (did I mention we were broke?).

There are other things from early in our relationship that I wish I'd documented in pictures:
-The cars Tim and I were driving when we were dating
-Tim (or both of us, actually) on his motorcycle
-The site of our first date 
-The dorm where Tim proposed to me
-Pictures from our time together at Clemson
-Our first apartment in Clemson
-The coffee table that Tim built using PVC pipe, and old mirror, and dark green spray paint
-The dryer we inherited that required a bungee cord wrapped around the door for it to work
-The couple of places I worked while Tim finished school (daycare, discount eyeglass place)
-The craptastic apartment we rented when we first moved to Nashville

We traveled back to our hometown recently for Thanksgiving. Tim and I grew up together, though we weren't really friends until the months before we started dating. There's a comfort that can't be explained knowing that, with the exception of the first 3 years or so of our lives, and the year Tim was at Clemson and I was still in high school, we've never lived more than a few miles apart. We shared some of the same elementary, middle, and high school teachers, though not at the same time, since Tim was a year older. We felt so very old driving around town and pointing out buildings and locations to our kids, saying, "That used to be a Blockbuster. The Fast Fare used to be right on that corner. We used to play with kids in this neighborhood. The lot where those apartments are used to be a giant field of kudzu." One of the first things that greeted us as we got off of the interstate, was the Bi-Lo grocery store on Reidville Road. Tim and I expressed surprise that it still exists, since so many other things have changed over the years. We told the kids that this was the place where our romance began. You see, one night, Tim had stopped at the Bi-Lo to cash his McDonald's paycheck. He managed to lock himself out of his truck. My family had stopped at the Bi-Lo to grab something (can't remember what) on our way home from church on a Wednesday night. When my parents got back in the car, I pointed out Tim McKay, a guy from my math class, and that he seemed to be locked out of his truck. Dad drove over and asked if he could help, but Tim said that his stepdad was already on his way. As we left, my mom asked me all kinds of questions about him and gushed over how cute she thought he was. Fast forward a month or so to prom season, and I was whining about not having a date. Mom suggested that I could ask that cute guy from the Bi-Lo parking lot if I REALLY wanted to go that badly. She kept pestering me, until I finally said I'd ask him (with little hope that he'd actually want to go with a geeky junior like myself). I passed him a note one day after class, because I was WAY too shy to ask him face to face; he called me that afternoon to accept. And here we were, driving past that same Bi-Lo more than 26 years after that encounter. Reagan suggested we get a picture. So on our way out of town, we drove into the parking lot, and I snapped this picture with my phone.

It wasn't until I had kids and became an avid scrapbooker that I realized the importance of documenting our life, for us and for future generations. The older I get, the more nostalgic I become. I want to savor every moment of time together, and I want to remember what we've shared. Every ordinary bit of it. The proposal was anything but grand, the wedding was simple but lovely, our beginnings were ever so humble. But this marriage continues to evolve, flourish, strengthen; it's a magnificent tapestry of beauty that might show some fraying in places, but is still being woven, and with new threads being added every day, it will not be unraveled. This boy that I fell head-over-heels in love with is the man with whom I still want to spend the rest of my days, whether they be mundane or full of adventure. And with each passing year, I'm learning that no part of our story is too dull to be photographed.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The More Things Change, The More Things Stay The Same

In case you didn't know (and how could you not; I've posted about it ad nauseum), Pierce will be graduating from Brentwood High School next month. Spring is becoming a flurry of activity. Travel plans are being made by family. I've spent hours writing up his info and compiling his slide show pictures for our church's Senior Night service in a couple of weeks. My daughter tells me that Pierce will probably get his cap and gown this week. That will be followed by a sign in our yard telling all of our neighbors that a Brentwood senior lives here.

It comes up in casual conversation with people I meet.:
"Do you have kids?" Yes
"How old are they?" 16 and 18, almost 19
"18? A senior?" Yes
"Oh wow! So where will he be going in the Fall?" ...

That's where things get complicated. I've been asked by people that know us, "How does it feel, now that Pierce is a senior?" I've been giving pretty much the same answer: "It's weird." And it is. That's the easiest way to say it. I don't think people really want me to vomit all over them exactly what's going through my head right now.

We are going through the motions with all of his senior friends. Pretending that he's on to new and exciting things just like the rest of them. But Pierce's future just won't be the same as everyone else's. I can't deny it. The thought of watching him walk across that stage in his cap and gown and getting to celebrate just how much he's managed to accomplish does fill me with joy and excitement. But come August, he will carpool with his little sister right back to the very high school he "graduated" from the previous Spring to be in the Transition Program, where he'll learn more life and work skills. He will be at BHS for 3 more years. In fact, his younger sister will leave BHS before he does. Though he will technically still be a high school student, he will no longer be a part of the youth ministry at our church. Pierce will be in the "young adult ministry" instead. I don't know if any of his friends will still be in town, but most likely he will have to make a new group of church friends. It's as if everything and nothing is changing all at once. Instead of starting a new chapter, it feels like a comma in the sentence.

Selecting pictures for the Senior Night service at Otter Creek was a stressful and depressing process for me. Nineteen years of photos edited down to 20 images. Oh there were lots and lots of smiling pictures, and his high school years have given him an opportunity to participate in Best Buddies, so I could share pictures from prom and his 1st place wins in Special Olympics events. But how do I tell his story in 20 pictures? I found photos from his first Kindergarten program and wondered which one to select. The one before the program of him dressed like his father in a hard hat and smiling in the doorway of the gym, or the one of him sitting on the risers in the lap of his resource teacher, red-faced and crying, totally overwhelmed by the noise and the people, while his teacher tried to soothe him and help him do the hand motions along with his classmates? I looked at pictures from the Disney trip our family took when he was 10 years old. There aren't a lot of smiling Pierce pictures. The one I chose was pretty descriptive of that trip. It's a picture of Tim and Pierce together on the sidelines of a parade, taken just before Tim took him back to the hotel to get a break from the excitement; Pierce had his hands over his ears. I included it in the slideshow, because it is so symbolic of life with a child on the autism spectrum.

I've been asked if Pierce is excited about graduation. I honestly don't think he knows what it's all about. I have no doubt that he will soak in the applause when his name is called for him to come forward and accept his diploma, and he'll be happy that his grandparents have come to town for the occasion. But when he gets home, he'll most likely add his diploma to the pile of school papers on a table in his room. And I'm sure he doesn't realize that he only has a few months left to hang out with these friends of his before they all go their separate ways to colleges around the country; that he won't see them every Sunday morning like he has for the last 8 years. That will be hard on him.

To all the moms of the seniors that are graduating with Pierce, please know that I am SO excited with you for the bright futures that lie ahead for your kids. And I really don't want things to be awkward when we chat about graduation. I will likely get all teary, and I sincerely hope that it's not off-putting. Our parenting journey, like yours, has been full of ups and downs, and this moment in time, for me, is a little more bitter than sweet. But it's on me to find more of the beauty and joy in this. I love all of you, and I love all of your kids; especially the ways they have loved Pierce along the way. They have been such a blessing to our family.

I am so scared about what happens next. I don't know what to expect. But I do know that Pierce will continue to amaze us with what he's able to accomplish, so that gives me some comfort. I will find a way to cope with this "new normal"; I always have before. But until I manage to pull myself together, please forgive me for being a puddle in the corner for a while.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Proof Positive

A month ago, I started my Things That Made Me Happy Today project. I've journaled every day in the month of February, and shared my lists of happiness on social media. Several of you have told me that my posts have encouraged and inspired you, and I sincerely appreciate those sentiments. But as I said in my last post, my main motivation for doing this was purely selfish. I did this for me as a mental health experiment. I'm pleased to share my results/observations with you.

I can honestly say that this has been life-changing for me. By thinking so much about what happy thoughts I can write down every day, I've found that I'm able to let go of the things that irritate me a little more readily than before. I'm not dwelling on those negative aspects of my day the way I always have. Now, it's possible that there are other factors at play. About the same time I started journaling, I began taking an herbal supplement from Advocare every morning that "promotes a sense of well-being and brightens mood". I've also stopped reading articles that are politically inflammatory and gotten better about either scrolling past those sorts of posts on Facebook or hiding them altogether. Facebook is not where I want to get my "news", anyhow. And with the beautiful Spring-like weather we've been having, how could I not feel more cheery these days?

Along with the journaling, I discovered a fun method to track mental health. It comes from the practice of bullet journaling. Basically, you set up a grid for the year. Pick out some pen colors and assign a mood to each color. Then, based on your mood that day, you color in the day on the grid. I started this along with the journaling, but I went back and filled in the chart for January by looking back at my social media posts and from memory. For the month of February, I've had more amazing and really good days, and though I have had a couple of exhausted, frustrated, and stressed days, I've had NO depressed days (as opposed to about 4 in January). That's pretty huge for me. Tim can tell a difference in me as well. He notices that I'm not as prone to those knee-jerk freak-outs as I was just a month ago.

Do I think I can just will away the negative in life by trying to think happy thoughts? Absolutely not, especially knowing my history of depression. But science has proven the health benefits of keeping a positive outlook on life. I'm going to keep up the journaling and mental health tracker, though I don't know if I'll be sharing those posts on social media every day. To those of you that have shared happy stuff on my Facebook wall, I'm grateful for your encouragement and support of my experiment. And though I've done this for my own gain, I do hope that I've brought a little joy into the world and maybe helped to start a "happiness movement" on social media.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Things That Made Me Happy Today...

Things that made me happy today:

  • Rearranging a couple of kitchen cabinets that allowed space for stuff that's been cluttering our counters
  • Sunshine!
  • The lady in the chair next to me at the salon that was doing a crossword puzzle and enlisted the help of everyone around her to solve it
  • The most relaxing eyebrow wax I've ever had. Seriously, y'all. I almost dozed off.
  • Riding with the windows down and blaring old-school rock from Rush, Queen, and Yes.
  • Watching Pierce try on a jacket and pick out the vest and tie he wants to wear with his tux at next weekend's Best Buddies Prom
  • Laughing at old SnapChat videos that Reagan has saved on her phone
  • Reagan wanted to show us her documentary assignment for her broadcasting class (she did it on the marching band's trip to Pearl Harbor a couple months ago) and then she lit up when we told her how much we loved it and how great we thought it was
  • A new Fixer Upper
  • A long, hot shower, with the lights dimmed
  • Reading the beautifully illustrated book, How To Be A Wildflower, in bed
  • Kissing my husband goodnight

Most of you know what a struggle winter is for me. I made all these goals in the hopes that I'd stay busy and keep depression at bay. But, it's just not working. Along with my tendency for depression, I'm also a VERY anxious person. The bombardment of news about current events from every place, every person, every TV, every computer, every radio, is doing nothing but feeding this tendency in me to FREAK OUT ABOUT EVERYTHING, until I feel like I can barely keep my head above water. I can't do this anymore.

One of my goals for 2017 was to reclaim my joy. It's been so very difficult to find lately, and when I do find it, I can't seem to hold onto it for any length of time. I decided today that I'm going to try an experiment for the month of February. Instead of just trying not to focus on the things that stressed me out or caused me to complain each day, I'm going to try to write down all the things that made me happy that day. And not just by using my note-taking app on my phone, but actually writing it down on paper, maybe in a pretty journal.

I feel like the world is trying to tear me apart, and I need something physical to grasp onto. Because y'all, let me tell ya, there was some crap today. There were things I dreaded, things I should've done but put off, things that REALLY pissed me off and made me angry with people I love, things that scared the snot out of me (anyone else teaching their teenager to drive?!). My hope is that taking some time each day to put pen to paper and remind myself of all those glimpses of joy, however fleeting, will be one of those life rafts that will keep me afloat when I feel like I'm sinking. I am doing this for ME, but I can certainly share some of these happy thoughts for those of you, like me, that are ready to stop the world and get off. I KNOW I'm not alone; every day, I see another Facebook post about how tired someone is of the political banter and the desire to see more pictures of what you had for dinner or your cute baby instead of sparring over what's happening in government. So, if telling y'all about the little mundane things that made me smile might in turn brighten someone else's day, then I might make these lists public every now and then.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


A couple weeks ago, I shared the story of how Pierce was involved in the theme and artwork for Otter Creek Christian Camp this year. I said in that post that I had another aspect about camp that I wanted to write, and that deals with Pierce's journey at OCCC.

In 2010, we had been a part of Otter Creek for little more than a year. That summer, Reagan would be a rising 4th grader and Pierce a rising 6th grader. We expected for Reagan to go to camp, and wondered if Pierce would be able to handle it. We were encouraged to sign Pierce up. Camp director Jamon Martin met with us a couple of months beforehand. If you know Jamon, then you'll recognize the title of this blog post as his "catchphrase". He told us that Pierce would be their first autistic camper, and he was EXCITED about the challenge. He wanted camp to be a place for ALL children. He didn't sugarcoat anything; he was scared, but not so scared that he wasn't willing to give this a shot. He knew we were nervous about sending our child, who was prone to wander, out to a large wooded camp in the middle of nowhere, but Jamon assured us that someone would be with Pierce 24/7. We told him that we felt relieved that his little sister (who very much acts like his big sister) would be there with Pierce, but we didn't want her to miss out on any fun because she was constantly looking out for him. He said he'd try to make sure this wasn't an issue. 

The day came to drop our kids off at camp. I was a nervous wreck. This wouldn't be Pierce's first sleep away camp, but his other experience was Camp Discovery, a camp specifically for special needs kids. Most of my fears subsided, though, when we pulled up to Pierce's cabin. One of the 6th grade boys, coincidentally Jamon's son Gunner, yelled out, "Pierce is here!!". He and a couple other boys came running over to greet him. I can't explain the peace I felt, but I just knew that Pierce was in a place where he would be loved on and watched over. I heard nothing but great things at the end of the week. Reagan was able to enjoy herself, although she did admit that there were times she worried a bit about how her brother was doing. At Camp Night a few weeks later, I saw a slide show filled with happy pictures of Pierce. To my knowledge, there weren't any meltdowns or incidents of him trying to run from upsetting situations. It seemed to be a place where he was happy and carefree, and the campers loved having him there. He loved it! Every year, anticipation for camp was almost greater than that of Christmas. 

Pierce and Reagan OCCC 2010

Pierce and Jamon

He LOVED the giant slip 'n slide

Pierce's cabin mates (a few 6th grade boys)

This year, I was blessed to experience camp first-hand. Pierce was totally in his element, as comfortable as being at home. This was his last year at camp. The rising seniors dress up in a different theme before dinner every night. After a mix-up the first night where Pierce didn't make it out in the clothes I'd labeled for him, those senior guys made sure that Pierce was ready for all the theme nights to follow. They watched out for him, almost more than the counsellors and staff, and made every effort to include him in all the senior rituals. One night, they dressed in 50s attire, which I thought was an odd choice. Then during dinner, We Go Together from Grease came blaring over the speakers. The seniors jumped up and did a choreographed dance number...and Pierce was right up there with them! The seniors had met a few times before camp, but didn't know how to get Pierce there without tipping us off. They met and rehearsed the first night of camp, and Pierce learned the whole dance with them that night. Turns out Pierce likes to dance. On Monday night, we had a dance party. He was right in the middle of it, jumping all around. At one point, he grabbed an inflatable flamingo that was on the stage as part of an earlier skit. He had it by the neck, shaking it and dancing. I got coaxed out onto the dance floor when the Spice Girls came on, and he came wandering over. I took his hand, and, floppy deflating flamingo in his other hand, we danced together for a minute or two. Then he and his flamingo danced away. Such a sweet moment that I'll never forget. Years ago, the loud music would've sent him over the edge. But in recent years, he's learned to appreciate the loud youth group environment. Game nights were always some version of "capture the flag". Pierce mostly wandered the field during these games, but occasionally his teammates would remind him whose flags he was supposed to pull. He'd target someone and chase them relentlessly, until the kid being chased finally gave up and let him pull their flag. EVERY. TIME. Trust me, these kids wanted to win, but they had a soft spot in their heart for Pierce and didn't mind losing their flag to him. Some of them even cheered with him when he managed to "catch" one of them! He loved all of the silly camp songs, but also loved the worship music and would sing along just as loudly as the other kids. It was such a joy to watch him praise God with all of his friends.

Seniors with Jamon Martin

Pierce pulled a flag!

He's proud of himself

Senior guys on 50s night

Staff that had been going to camp since Pierce's first year told us how much they loved having him there. Some even said that they felt it was just as beneficial to the other campers as it was for Pierce. One day, I was sitting with Jamon as we waited out a giant storm. He echoed the sentiment that having Pierce there was great for the entire camp. I told him how grateful I was for Pierce to be there. He admitted to me then that he'd been terrified that first year, but so glad he took the challenge. He said that these kids will carry their experiences with Pierce into other aspects of their lives. It will forever change the way they interact with people who are different than they are. He thanked ME for trusting HIM and for sharing Pierce with camp. On the last morning of small group time (a mixture of campers and staff), we decided to go around the circle and tell our camp highlights. When it got to me, I couldn't hold back the tears. I told this group of kids that the whole week had been a highlight. That they couldn't possibly know how much it meant to me to watch how loving and accepting they were of Pierce. That I was so grateful for all of them. When I finished, one of the senior boys in our group quietly said, "Pierce is special to us, too". 

I was teary all week long. My heart was about to burst witnessing the joy Pierce was experiencing, watching my children together in a place that's so dear to both of them. And along with that emotion, I felt profound emptiness that his camp journey was over. Every "last" of camp was bittersweet. Sure, he'll still be able to go to Camp Discovery (they take campers from 8-years-old to 80), but it won't be the same when he's surrounded by kids like him, most of whom can barely communicate with him. Being with his "normal" peers stretches him in ways I'd never imagine. And knowing that he won't have this kind of camp experience again makes me ache. It has been suggested that maybe there's a staff position he could fill so that he could be at camp another year or two, but there would be lots of logistics to work out before that could be a possibility. Reagan has 2 more years of camp left, and I'd love for all of us to be at camp together again before she graduates. So, I'm not ruling anything out.

OCCC has been a gift to our family, one I wouldn't trade for all the money in the world. Oh that every church had a Jamon Martin, a man so passionate about camp being a place for EVERY kid. He never once suggested that either Tim or I would need to accompany Pierce for him to be able to attend camp. And we had faith in Jamon and other OCCC staff that they would not simple "babysit" Pierce for a week, but that they'd include him in camp activities and make him feel like any other camper there. Thank you, God, for people that dedicate their lives to being the hands and feet of Jesus to "the least of these". Thank you for Otter Creek Christian Camp. Thank you for these campers that gave Pierce the same respect they'd give any "normal" camper. Thank you for the opportunity to watch Pierce be a part of a church family. In the words of every OCCC camper every morning, I LOOOOOOOVE CAMP!!!