A Father’s Day Salute to Special Fathers
We here at the Amenta Hacienda are getting ready for Father’s Day in the usual way—my husband’s favorite pork roast was purchased last week and frozen to be defrosted and prepared on the grill this Sunday. The kids have their own Father’s Day projects in the works--from a spicy salsa with a favorite brand of chips at the ready to an item he’s been hinting about and found by accident on SALE! I decided to go all sentimental with my own gift for him and will tell you about it after he gets it. In short, we are doing what every family does for Father’s Day, with our own special spin. To the outside world, just what we should be doing. Don’t get me wrong, he’s no saint and I will be the first to tell you that in DETAIL. But my husband—and many like him—deserve so much more.
Chuck is a wonderful physician, with a private ENT practice in Homewood. His patients will tell you he’s funny and patient and caring and will go out of his way to find some way to help them. His office staff likes him and admires him for the caring compassionate physician he is—and he’s funny!—and nice to work for. And his colleagues like him and send him referrals because they respect his judgment. The nurses at South Suburban Hospital like him, too—and they’re picky. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
He is passionate about music, and when he proposed to me, lo, those many years ago, asked me to bring music into his life. I did—not always in the ways he thought I would, I’m sure. He became involved in music organizations here in the south suburbs. He’s been on the board of the Suburban Youth Symphony for over ten years now, since two of our sons played timpani and ‘cello with them in junior high and high school. He’s been on the board of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra for about ten years, serving as president as well and is the immediate past-president. Anyone working with those organizations will tell you, he loves music and has written program notes for the IPO for the sheer love of it. He supports me in my work with the Midwest Motet Society and is the first person to cheer when Our-Son-the-Pianist gives recitals at the universities where he’s studied and concerts he’s played. And all those things show what a wonderful supporter of music in the south suburbs he is, but it's not quite what I had in mind to share here.
He is a sweet, loving husband and my best friend. A wonderful son and son-in-law—just ask his mother and my mother! I enjoy spending time with him and we wish it could be more, but with our crazy life together, it’s not always as much time as we would want. But he is so much more than a husband and son and father.
Since this is a Father's Day Salute, I will tell you right off, my husband is a great father by anyone’s judgment. Our younger two sons have masters degrees--and more--and are lovely, caring, ethical young men, with him as such a fine example of what it means to be a *good man* in this day and age. He loved them when they were babies and read to them every chance he got, books of mythology and Grimm’s fairy tales. He helped out, changed diapers, and stayed up nights when he could. He drove carpools, drove to piano lessons and drum lessons and swimming lessons and cello lessons and Little League—and was a good Band and Orchestra Dad. Sound good, if not a little ordinary? There’s more, much more to it than just that.
Our eldest son, Russell, was an especially beautiful child--dark brown eyes, Rafael cherub light brown curls and a smile that could melt steel. He was a happy child, born to us six months before my husband started medical school. He could do puzzles at the age of ten months; match musical pitches accurately at 12 months and figured out how to get what he wanted from the top of a kitchen cabinet at 15 months. He was a “commercial detector” and would run from anywhere in our townhouse when one of his favorites came on television. He loved the sound of a soda pop bottle opening and would flirt with us endlessly to let him have some, eventho he knew he wasn’t allowed. At about 18 months of age when he wasn’t speaking or showing other signs of what we thought were age appropriate language development, we began to think there was something wrong.
Chuck was in the Medical Scholars program at the University of Illinois and was a graduate student in the Speech and Hearing Science department as well as a medical student. Around the time Russ was 18 months old; we were invited to a party for Chuck’s department and met a new faculty member who specialized in early childhood language acquisition. She asked if we would like Russell videotaped at the Speech and Hearing Science Department as part of examples of “normal” 18 month old language development. We shared our concerns and she promised if anything seemed to be amiss, she would tell us. After the taping, we were assured his behavior was well within normal ranges, however, if he still wasn’t speaking by the time he was 24 months old, we should bring him in for testing. And we did. He was finally diagnosed as having autism when he was about four and a half.
Russell is now 32 years old, and while nonverbal, is a wonderful young man, just as his two younger, neuro-typical brothers are. That says something about their father’s influence.
Parenting a child with autism is not easy and marriages suffer. But my husband loved Russell so much and wanted him to do as well as he possibly could, so we tried many ways to help our family cope. We wanted a way to explain to our younger sons, other family members and friends so my husband wrote the first children’s book about autism, “Russell is Extra-Special: A Book for Children About Autism.” In it's third printing, it was updated last year, with a new title, “Russell’s World: A Book for Kids About Autism.” We wanted Russell to fit in and feel a part of our family and our community no matter what, no matter if he had autism--Russ is a person who just happens to have autism. His father thought if he explained what autism is and how we treated him--helping him, teaching him, loving him--it would help Russell, and those like him, to be accepted for who and what he is.
My husband was in the trenches with me when he was a small child to get him services and at night (when he wasn’t on-call), when he would scream for hours. We tried all sorts of treatments and diets and vitamins. Autism can drive couples apart but we vowed we would not blame each other or anyone else and work as partners. More than anything, we were in it together--we were a team.
When we moved to Flossmoor, we joined the Chicago/South Suburban Chapter of the Autism Society of America and met many likeminded parents. Later, I was president of the chapter for about six years in the late 1990s/early 2000s. We met other fathers and mothers, who on the surface didn’t have a thing in common with us. But we all shared the love for our kids with autism, our other children and the desire to help them get what they needed and to be part of our community. We held holiday parties—with a father dressed as Santa and a sister dressed as His Elf—so we could get those longed for pictures with Santa we couldn’t get with a Mall Santa. We had pool parties, renting out Lion’s Pool, so we could let our kids just be who they are, even if they did shriek a bit too loudly. And behind it all, were the fathers, quietly supporting the Moms who arranged it, doing what we told them to do so our kids and families could just be “normal” for a little bit. And we laughed! And we laughed together at things no one else would find funny because there is a bit of “Gallows Humor” with parenting someone with autism.
Today I salute the Brethren of Fathers of Children with Autism I know—Chuck and Ken and Bren and Jerry and Mike, too, and oh, so many more—who go over and above and beyond what it means to be a Good Father. We never know what we are capable of doing until we are pushed and you fellows were pushed—and are so much more than you seem. You are the Rocks we build our families on and we love you!
Happy Father’s Day!