Adaptation: The hardest lesson of all

Patrick is the oldest of four grandchildren, and while he is an only child in his family, he is not my only grandson – as he would be if granted his often-stated wish. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” I have reminded him. His frown deepens as he mulls over the meaning: His challenge this coming year is learning to share Nana’s time. He’s just turned 11 and it’s time to add this skill to his growing repertoire.

Sharing is harder than it sounds. From the year Patrick turned 5, I have left my husband and our dogs behind to spirit Patrick away from his Chicago home for scheduled weekend adventures. Sometimes my daughter Summer tagged along to the petting zoo or movie, but over time she’s just handed me his little suitcase. And so Patrick-and-Nana became a twosome with its own jokes, its own history and routines, and its own eccentric idea of fun.

When he turned 10, he said to me, “Nana, you look a little sad today. Are you worried that I’m getting older and when I’m a teenager, I won’t have time for you anymore? I’ll want to spend all my time with my peers? Because I won’t. I’ll always save time for you and our weekends.” It seems to both of us that we’ve just always been best buddies – it didn’t “start” and it won’t “end” because we both have a stake in preserving that.

However, there are three grandchildren lined up behind him who also want and deserve fun time with Nana. Alexander, 3, lives in Chicago, too. During the many months when I absolutely cannot make or afford two separate trips, how much easier it is to take TWO boys at once to the hotel to swim, to Lamb’s Farm to explore the barnyard, to the museum to see Egyptian mummies. But I’m getting a good amount of resistance to those plans from you-know-who.

There’s more to the story, of course

Patrick isn’t an ordinary child, or this would be an easier, more natural progression. He doesn’t, by inclination, particularly enjoy the company of other children. He has noise sensitivities and a laser-beam focus on whatever his interests are at any given time (writing business plans, etc.) –not necessarily the interests of other little boys. Patrick lacks very many true peers, in part because he’s outside the norm with regard to intelligence and quirkiness. His infallible memory for every spoken (or read) word leads to an uncanny second ability, which is to speak as if he were an old soul rather than a wee lad. That can be off-putting in a fifth-grade environment.

For example, he wanted me to take him to a haunted site in Pennsylvania. Patrick is a ghost hunter (it’s his keenest interest, and he has invested all of his earned money in equipment) and so I asked him to tell me about it. What’s PennHurst? I pulled out my little Flip video camera to record his off-the-cuff reply, because we document our hunts. His exact words: “PennHurst was an asylum used to separate those with mental retardation from society. Over 10,000 called this institution home; about half never left, Nana. PennHurst remained Pennsylvania’s best-kept secret until news reporter Bill Baldini, who worked for a CBS station, did a series of reports there that blew the top off Pennsylvania. It’s probably the most haunted place in the United States, so can we go?”

I must confess some responsibility for his fascination with the morbid. One Halloween, after getting over his fright at walking into a hotel room that I’d transformed into a haunted forest cemetery, he really got into the macabre. Haunted sites quickly became our forte – we moved beyond throwing a blanket over a chair to make a “fort” a long time ago. But even I have enough sense not to take an impressionable child into a state institution that once routinely starved and tortured disabled children. We’ll save that stop for after he’s old enough to visit The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in a couple years.

Adaptation: overrated but necessary

Patrick’s 10th year was a milestone year in terms of overcoming limiting obstacles – he pushed past a debilitating fear of flying in order to realize his dream of visiting the Cake Boss’ store (Carlo’s Bakery) in New Jersey with me. (Yes, given the enticement of flying to Disneyland, Sea World, Vegas, or to see Pike’s Peak in Colorado, he picked a storefront in Hoboken, N.J., which gives you an appreciation of the depth of his love of the absurd.)

I consciously work with him to expand his horizons so that when the time is right for him to fly, he will have the confidence and strength of character to set a solo course. He likely will not have the posse of cheerleaders many children have on his life’s journey because he can’t comprehend his audience’s wants or needs. His immediate family, yes – we are his coaches because we “get” him and we love him for what makes him different. However, we aren’t blind to the cost that being different demands of Patrick, so we try to help him bridge it.

Patrick and Brownie after grandpa’s coaching session

My husband recently had one of those incredible “aha!” moments where he was able to become Patrick’s guide. Patrick has long suffered from an excruciatingly severe dog phobia, which makes his few trips to Madison challenging; we stay in a hotel because of our dogs. Kevin, knowing that Patrick can be reached cerebrally, explained to him the concept of “outcomes.”

“You are not afraid of people, animals, or things. You are afraid of outcomes, Patrick,” Kevin told him. “You aren’t afraid of dogs; you’re afraid of being bitten and you don’t want to be licked. Those are outcomes. That’s what you fear. If you control the outcome, you control the fear.”

We went to our backyard, where Kevin presented Patrick with our tamest dog, Brownie, who despite being a large pit bull/lab mix, will not bite without provocation. She never licks. After a few tentative false starts, Patrick finally managed to touch her. Then pet her. Then hold her. The next dog, Gene, is a jumper but not a licker or biter. He prefers to touch nose-to-nose. Eventually Patrick sat in the midst of all four of our dogs (to his mother’s shock and awe) and then we took him to the dog park to reinforce that he need not fear any dog. We taught him how to approach dogs in ways to have the best outcomes.

He’s getting better at dealing with unpredictability, too, which is what I concentrate on with him. His need for routine too often has kept him homebound instead of enjoying boyhood activities. Just before his birthday this year, I spirited him away to Florida. For the next five days, we set out for “unknown adventures.” He landed in an Everglades airboat, holding an alligator, swimming with wild birds in the ocean, driving a little boat by himself, walking the shores at night, and attending a live band performance. We had a blast.

Every single moment has the potential to become a memory or an opportunity lost: That’s what I’m trying to help him learn and appreciate.

The hardest lesson of all

But even as he’s made such giant strides in the last year, my little guy has a ways to go yet. And the hardest lesson of all is that we don’t live in a world that is specially constructed to serve our every wish and desire. He lives in a world, as do I, with other grandchildren whom we both love, and they have lessons best learned at Nana’s knee, too. So I’ve promised to keep a Patrick-and-Nana vacation option open for this summer again, and to keep the first weekend day and night sacred, but in return, he’s to share the second day and night with Alex.

Even though we won’t use it this weekend, I’m going to back up that deal with the purchase of a bunk bed set. That is my birthday gift to Patrick and to Alex this year. Patrick will get to pick out the set and his own mattress (he’s happy about that, at least) and then we’ll work on the idea of a little somebody special actually spending a night in his room with him.

Meanwhile, I’m coaching Patrick on why NOT to tell Alex about the food chain and all the ways that animals eat one another. I’d like the little chap to actually be able to sleep in the new bed.

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