Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Remembering My Grandparents, or What a Good Ally Looks Like

I started writing about a myriad of topics for this month. I started pieces on accommodations, on learning autism-specific terms, on the troubles of labeling, special interests, etc. I didn't quite know what to put up on the blog so I began writing almost anything I could think of. (Don't worry, those pieces will see the light of day - I promise.)

Then at the beginning of January, my paternal grandfather died.

This wasn't exactly a shock to me. Zadie (said grandfather) hadn't been in great health for the past year. And he had been in hospice for almost two months, so it really was just a matter of time before he made that trip to the Spirit in the Sky.(TM) And I had made many a visit where I told him how much I loved him, said my goodbyes, and he was able to respond, telling me he loved me back and always would.

I knew that his departure day was coming. I just wasn't prepared for it.

There are many articles about autism and grief. The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism has a particularly good one worth checking out. But this post isn't going to talk about the psychology or mechanics of how autistic people grieve or face loss. I don't feel that I have any real authority on that, as grief and loss manifests itself differently in people, even across the autism spectrum. No two autistic people are the same.

What I want to talk about is my grandparents' unwavering support for me as an autistic person.

My Bobbie and Zadie have historically taken the lead in my autistic journey. They were the first people in my family to notice I wasn't hitting certain developmental milestones (learning to talk, engaging with other humans at every opportunity, self-isolated play). They were the ones who found my first play therapist. Through friends in the education field, they also helped find resources so that I could be fully mainstreamed in elementary and middle school.

But most of what Bobbie and Zadie did was unconditionally love and believe in me.

I've never had great trust in people. Being different means noticing people's reactions to you and often noticing that they may not like you. No matter how many times people have told me they like me over the years, I’m never quite sure whether to believe it. I could always tell that my parents were endlessly frustrated by my outbursts, my friends didn't quite understand me, my teachers either made great efforts to either accommodate me or actively isolate me, and I felt my fellow classmates either shunned, teased or pitied me. Even now, when I have a much greater understanding of the complexities of social interaction, I sometimes doubt that people are being genuine when they show kindness to me.

Bobbie and Zadie were the exception to that rule. They were always exceptionally loving and caring people. They adored their grandchildren, were always happy to see us (which was often, given we all lived in West Los Angeles),and took great interest in us as people. Aside from showering us with kisses and hugs, they asked about and listened to us talk about our lives, our interests, our hopes and dreams.

Most of all they encouraged me to follow my passions and supported me every step of the way. I always loved history, so they took me to museums and we traveled to every historical site we could. Just within the US we went history hunting in New York, Boston, Washington DC, Williamsburg, Virginia, San Francisco and Santa Fe. They knew I loved art and drama, so we went to galleries, theaters and films. Whenever I did a stage show they came to support me, even when I was an assistant stage manager for a play in college and wasn’t even onstage. And when I decided to go to graduate school for social work, they couldn't have been more thrilled - they long fostered my need to reach out and help others, and I worked alongside them in raising awareness for Ethiopian Jewry, serving meals to HIV and AIDS patients, and organizing community services projects as part of my temple's youth group. They taught me empathy and thus made me the person I am now.

I never doubted my grandparents did or felt anything to me out of a sense of duty. They were honest people to a fault, so when they said they loved me I believed it. When I would see their eyes light up when they saw me, I knew it was real. Every hug was warm, every kiss was sweet, and I could feel in my gut that they enjoyed their time with me as much as I enjoyed theirs. No matter what challenges I had, they always had faith in me. I am exceptionally lucky for their love and support.

I particularly remember one day during my college years visiting and walking around the UC Berkeley campus with Bobbie and Zadie. Zadie was telling me about how he had had dyslexia as a child and that he had spent most of his life putting in a lot of hard work to become a successful businessman so that he could give his children a greater quality of life and opportunities than he had enjoyed himself. I asked him whether I was simply privileged by proxy or if would have to work harder than most on account of my autism. Zadie said that while I did have many privileges, I would have to work harder but that he had no doubt I would succeed because I had drive, character and his love. He smiled at me, and I immediately knew that what he said was true.

I know what true love looks like because my grandparents gave it to me. It has shaped me as a person and it pushes me to be the kind of girl they would want me to be. They make me want to make an impact and I know they'llalways be there to cheer me on from the beyond.

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