Twice another. It’s how my four-year old daughter said three this summer. “I went under twice another times at the pool today!” Three times underwater to blow bubbles. “I saw it twice another times, Mommy!” Three times watching Ronan clear the table (without throwing his plate and spoon in the trash can but bringing it to the sink). She also smiled so proudly when Ronan correctly put away the silverware from the dishwasher twice another times in a row. Ronan’s amazing accomplishments deserve big smiles from everyone, including from his silly four-year old little sister.
Something else that’s been wonderful is that in the last three weeks Ronan has gone to Church with us twice another times. It’s truly a blessing. Ronan used to be able to go to Mass, but that was a very, very long time ago. Things were bad one Easter Sunday when Ronan threw up all over me as soon as we sat down in the pew. His digestion problems resulted in full blow-outs from both ends. Things got much worse for Ronan over that next year causing more delays and eventually the inability to stay for more than a few minutes before having to duck out the side door. Ronan became a loud, irritated, sensory-overloaded child who would have nothing to do with Church or any public outing for that matter.
Not willing to skip Church entirely, my husband and I planned our weekends so that I could go to the Saturday Vigil and he could go to the Sunday morning Mass. We juggled the rest of the kids to make sure all who were capable of participating at Church would attend. For many years Ronan wasn’t on that list, and it made me so sad to leave him behind weekly as the rest of us worshipped.
Living my faith is a big part of who I am. I’d be lost without the chance to pray, believe and celebrate at Mass. I was an altar server as a kid. I taught at a Catholic School when I grew up. As a stay-at-home Mom I couldn’t stay away from teaching or my Church community, so I volunteered to teach high school CCD. Saint storybooks, crucifixes and Rosaries are as much a part of my home as is the furniture throughout. Not having my entire family with me at Church makes me feel like I’m missing appendages. I’d pray and pray and pray when I could get to daily Mass on my own wondering how I was going to make this better. I’d pray for Ronan to please learn how to talk, to be able to play with his little brother and to be able to someday do normal things with us like go to Church again. We try several times a year to get to Church as a family, but inevitably as soon as the first note of the processional hymn was played Ronan and my husband would be in the parking lot for the next 58 minutes. It was just too much.
Since my husband was going to be gone for the entire summer I hired a sitter to watch Ronan so I could get most of us to Church on Sundays. It pained me even more to leave Ronan behind while I brought my other children with me. One weekend I was without any helpers, so I decided that that was the weekend things were going to change. If not then, when would it be the “right” time to take Ronan back to Mass? When could I ever expect to start formal training with Ronan so that he could learn about God, the saints and of course the importance of Mass? When would he ever be ready to receive the Sacraments if he didn’t start practicing how to sit and listen and deal with the sensory overload that usually stops him in his tracks? When? Well, the path to learning and rejoining his faith community was “twice another” weeks ago.
I loaded up the kids, and off we went. We actually headed toward Mass at a different parish. Not because I don’t like my own Church but because the other one offered a Mass time that was perfect for us—late enough that I was not racing out the door with five kids in tow, and with enough time to give Ronan a chance to get some anxious wiggles out before having to sit still and be quiet for an entire hour. I thought it somewhat wise to go to a neighboring parish for Ronan’s return to Church anyway because Ronan hasn’t had the best track record. If I had to slip out the side door with him no one would recognize him or me! I didn’t need to worry about that though.
Ronan was able to sit through the entire Mass. One hour. Sit, stand, kneel. Listen, watch, learn. Attend, reflect, learn. Ronan was genuinely curious. I was eternally grateful. Ronan handled Mass better than some of my other children have in the past! What hope it gave me to sit right next to Ronan and see him work so well. In order to see if Ronan was really being attentive for Mass, or if it was just a little bit of luck that he did so well, I wanted to go back the next week to try all over again. I cancelled our usual sitter for the following weekend and repeated everything from the Sunday before: same time, same routine, same seat, same expectations. The outcome? Another wonderfully successful Sunday. Oh, how we rejoiced!
I am not a perfectionist but to really, really, really see if Ronan was making concrete gains I had to test this Mass attendance thing one more time. Plus, his siblings were as much in awe as I was. They too wanted to make sure Ronan could go to Church with us more often. Their morning and evening prayers always include Ronan and his recovery. It has been a family effort from the start, and the kids agreed that what Ronan was already able to do in just two weekends at Church was pretty exciting. I told our babysitter to cancel our consistent Sunday schedule for now, and off we went the third weekend in a row.
We left at the same time (with a 25 minute drive to arrive just as the priest takes his first step down the aisle). We brought the same reinforcers (something to drink, a small bag of snacks, my cell phone). We sat in the same row (last row on the right in the balcony). We wore the same clothes (not too dressy, but comfy and sharp in order show respect). And, as always, I brought a little bit of hope in my heart with me.
The expectations were the same for the third weekend. But, something was off. Ronan was more distracted this time than the first two times. I’d snuck in a daily Mass at our home parish midweek that didn’t go over so well. We had to leave during one of the most quiet and reverent parts. I rushed Ronan and his little sister into the cry room. Ronan felt trapped in there. He wouldn’t sit, be still or be quiet. With that as his last go-to-Church memory was Ronan going to remember how to sit for Sunday Mass? Was he going to wait until the readings (about 15 minutes) for his drink like he did the first weekend? Was his youngest sister who was being quite needy and grumpy going to throw him off as she clamored to sit in my lap where Ronan knows he has first dibs if he motions for that spot?
In order to make sure we continued the path of making a routine stick I whispered in Ronan’s ear as I had during the other times pointing to the priest, describing the color of his vestments, asking Ronan to find the alter, the crucifix, the lector, the cantor and to listen to the music from the piano while glancing at all people in the pews below us. Ronan settled again.
That Sunday Ronan waited five minutes longer for his drink. I really wanted to stretch out when to give him his snacks hoping to eventually fade out all the reinforcers. This third Sunday I’d picked up two books from the kids’ book basket that sits on a table next to the doorway to the balcony. Ronan flipped through the saint books several times which stretched the time before he requested the snack bag. Right before I handed Ronan him the bag an unexpected, peaceful beautiful moment interrupted. The pianist began to play a song Ronan recognized from one of his classical music CDs he’d listened to as a baby. The peace that came over Ronan’s body was amazing. He slowly stood up, turned toward the music, cradled his head in his hands and rested his elbows on the back of the pew in front of us. He swayed to the music as if it enveloped him. How I wanted to capture that moment forever.
Once the music stopped Ronan settled back into the pew and signed for his snacks. He was doing great until there was another quiet moment of prayer. As the special intentions were being said for lost individuals of the community Ronan, with half-chewed pretzels spilling out of his mouth bellowed an obnoxious laugh. I quickly reached for Ronan and brought him closer to me, having him face my chest to stifle the laughter. I gently covered his mouth with my hand and whispered, “Shh,” as quietly as I could. I uncovered Ronan’s mouth as he blew an enormous amount of snot out from his nostrils. Without a thought I caught most of it in one hand. He let out one more inappropriate laugh and some more pretzels drenched in boogies. So much for a three-peat of Mass successes.
I looked at Ronan and quietly said, “We’re almost done. Can you help and please, please be quieter.” Then I looked at my hand. It was covered in pretzel bits and goo. I had forgotten the wipes I usually keep in my purse. I had nothing to wipe it with. Looking around at what I could use as a napkin, I picked up Ronan’s foot and wiped my hand on Ronan’s sock. Things were not going as well as I’d hoped, and I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable. I wanted to stick it out though. These minor, quick interruptions from Ronan were not near the epic, meltdowns of years past. So, we stayed.
With only about ten minutes left, Ronan was able to be redirected. For the previous Sundays I’d used my phone toward the end of Mass to keep Ronan in the sanctuary until the final blessing. As much as I hate to use my phone as a reinforcer, it got Ronan to stay through to the last note of the last song when Mass is completely done. I’m hoping to fade using the phone first, and soon because I don’t think it’s the most appropriate thing to use in Church. But, Ronan knows my phone can get internet. We’ve used it before while waiting for excruciatingly long waiting room visits. He knows the phone has Youtube capabilities. He knows if I don’t turn on a movie clip that a shriek or wail creates just enough of a scene that we either leave where we are immediately, or I cave and turn on the video. Not wanting to have to duck out of that side door or cause a scene for the parishioners near us, I turned down the volume completely and let Ronan watch some Veggie Tale clips. The first Sunday Ronan watched four clips. The second Sunday he watched three. Last Sunday he watched two. I’m hoping this Sunday he can manage only one.
I’m not sure how or when we’ll transition back to our home parish. I’ve been grateful to have a spiritual home away from our own parish while watching Ronan be successful in a Church setting. Bringing Ronan “home” to Church has been weighing heavily on me this entire summer. But at least we’ve gotten through the initial “will he or won’t he…” these twice another weeks now. I do know that Ronan will do well. He will remember. He will try. He will listen. Best of all is that he can do all of that and more when shown how. He can join us. He can make it an entire hour. He can do what is appropriate. He can make progress, and he does understand the expectations.
Last Sunday as we were leaving I didn’t hurry us out like I’ve had to other times. I didn’t run to the parking lot as quickly as I could trying to leave before everyone else did. I didn’t miss the readings, the homily, the sign of peace or the quiet, reflective prayer I crave after Communion. In such a short amount of time Ronan’s abilities filled me some of that hope I used to leave behind when I’d jet out for Mass without Ronan. He filled me back up with faith to continue to believe. What a gift that little boy is.
When Mass was over weekend, after we returned the missalette, after we put the kneeler up and after we gathered all of our stuff there was one more thing to do. I held Ronan’s hand, had him turn toward the altar where the Tabernacle is and said, “Ronan, can you genuflect?” Never having taught Ronan to go down on his right knee or to bow his head while making the Sign of the Cross ever before, Ronan surprised me once more. He squatted a low squat with one knee hovering over the floor, looked up and smiled as I said the words to our final prayer. What a connection! An answer to a prayer is happening. I couldn’t be more thankful. Ronan, you are with me now, and I will always and forever be here for you.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.