Silent Jack's birthday grace

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At the park, the party is well underway. Teenagers are chasing balls, a toddler weaves between them wielding a striped umbrella, people stand around under big eucalypts — undeterred by light rain. An hour earlier the sun brightened and warmed, but soon the guests will seek shelter. None of them are quite clad for the cooler-than-expected breezes.

Boy in hoodieJack's mother welcomes me with a little hiccup of surprise. Her beaming smile is all the reward I could want for making the journey. As I return her hug I can feel the slightness of her frame. Her face is mobile and expressive underneath a crown of twisting dreadlocks that sit atop her close-shaved head and soft pink-coloured fringe. She leads me to Jack, whose 15th birthday we are here to celebrate.

Jack has been out in the park with his dad and they've come under the rotunda to put on another layer of clothing. I haven't seen Jack for months. I notice how the young man he will be is written into his firm jawline and strong eyebrows — his upturned curving nose an impish tweak to his dark good looks.

My friend touches her son's arm and says, 'Jack this is Julie, she has come to wish you a happy birthday.' Jack turns his head and briefly his eyes settle on me before he turns away again. He doesn't have his headphones on yet. He's wearing a light grey hoodie which will cover his ears when the wind comes up.

Jack's cousins leap about outside, tall, athletic, confident, calling over distance for the soccer ball. Jack does not join them, ball sports hold no magic for him. He is a walker, hiking and camping with his parents.

A circle of family and friends stand within and around the rotunda. They gather to wish a happy birthday to the boy-now-young-man who does not speak and whose hearing and seeing are easily overloaded. The headphones now over his hoodie are designed to cut sound out not to bring it in.

Even before his diagnosis of severe autism at 18 months, Jack's parents were translating the world to him. Since then they've been translating him back to the world — Jack's movements and gestures, the nuances of his facial expressions, a careful reading of the language of his body.

 

"What other 15-year-old boy would deliberate over one careful bite?"

 

When Jack is overwhelmed by the too-much of the moment, his father leads him away to a quieter space under the trees. Later his close-cropped, close-bearded dad does a do-ci-do swap with Jack's mother, who will tenderly lean her forehead in to touch Jack's. Head-to-head they will stand silently until she speaks quiet words of reassurance to him in low tones.

And now a ritual. Jack's mother calls us in for cake. There is a cake-maker who has baked a birthday cake for Jack almost every year of his life since she knew him as a baby, before she had her own children. She is here again now, and carefully lifts the large Tupperware lid that covers the towering chocolate cake with its crowning jostling layer of red and white jelly sweets that are Jack's current favourite. Long chocolate matchstick biscuits (who knew you could still buy them?) make a ring around the edge like a picket fence.

Jack watches the unveiling and candle-lighting intently, earphones off and hoodie down, his dark hair curling over his forehead as he leans forward slightly. His father moves aside to take photos. Jack's face is intent with a calm surety that knows what this is and what will happen next.

As the lit candles begin to waver, the circle tightens to act as a windbreak, and then, low and sweet and surprisingly melodic, we sing 'Happy Birthday'. I notice the lack of yipping and hoopla, everyone is watching Jack, who leans over the bright flames and pauses. He is not in the right position to blow out the candles. He is offered a chair so that he is directly in front of the cake. In one long streaming slow breath he extinguishes the candles. There is one he has missed so he applies a fresh huff and everyone claps their hands —softly — still with their eyes on Jack. His face cracks into a huge smile and cameras flash to catch the widening joy.

Soon the riches of this cake will be divided up, its frosting and its trimmings — but first Jack's mother says, 'Jack you can eat the lollies now, you can take some.' His dark brown eyes are fixed on the cake but when his hands do not move towards it, she pulls a couple of jelly sweets off the pile and gives them to him. Jack puts one lolly between his finger and thumb and takes a bite out of it, neatly holding the second half while he savours the first. What other 15-year-old boy would deliberate over one careful bite? There are sweet flickers of gladness as we huddle around this wordless young man. This is Jack's moment, it is his birthday.

Jack's parents show no wounds of shame or self-pity that their only child dwells in the world in unusual ways. He inhales sights and sounds on trajectories that are occasionally alarming. The noise and patterns of his environment are managed with a tender, gracious, hard-won understanding. There is sorrow sometimes and of course weariness at the high visibility task of shepherding their son through life. But right now, Jack's equilibrium and grinning pleasure are a nod to the absolute rightness of the elements that glow and whisper close around him.

 

 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.

Main image: stock photo

Topic tags: Julie Perrin, autism


 

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Existing comments

What a glorious piece. Thanks.
Peter Goers | 14 February 2018


Beautifully written - so expressive and compassionate, introducing wonderful parents who are surrounded by loving family and friends who help them on their journey with their extraordinary son. A compelling and uplifting story. Thank you.
Alison Corke | 14 February 2018


And what a joy to read on Valentine’s Day. True love is hidden in the depths of being.
Veronica Biddle | 14 February 2018


this has moved me to tears through the beautiful description of a boy with such disability, surrounded by the love of parents and extended family and friends. what an amazing family. and an amazing writer.
Helen Kane | 14 February 2018


Thank you for sharing this beautiful reflection of love that conquers all. God bless Jack and his parents and all those families who struggle daily with disability. Please God the ND IS will soon come to full fruition so that families like Jack's can get the support they need and deserve
Margaret Lamb | 14 February 2018


Beautiful, Julie, full of grace and respect.
Judy Rigby | 14 February 2018


Beautifully written and perceived, this is a candle of hope for parents raising an autistic child, thank you so much for writing it.
Steve Biddulph | 14 February 2018


So affirming for the presence of villages growing our children. Thank you Julie.
John Rogers | 14 February 2018


Ahh, thanks Julie... Reminding me that everyone has something to give, to teach, to enrich us with... Thanks for helping us see Jack, and how central he is to so many, even though people with disabilities can be so overlooked in our community. Credit to his family and friends, who help us all learn.
Meg Moorhouse | 14 February 2018


I pray for Jack’s parents, that their faith will sustain them. And if they have no faith, I pray that God will grant them that gift. As the parent of an autistic young man, I know exactly what they are experiencing in supporting Jack.
Frank S | 14 February 2018


Relationships of grace, divinely expressed
Janet | 15 February 2018


A beautifully crafted story bringing warmth and contributing insight, understanding and respect for those whose lives are challenged by the daily journey of living with severe autism. Beauty comes in many different forms. Julie's story is a lovely example - thankyou Julie!
Alison Langmead | 15 February 2018


Beautiful and moving - thank you !
Barry G | 15 February 2018


I found myself almost holding my breath so as not to bring 'noise' into this quiet story space. Thank you for sharing Jack's Birthday with us.
Mary | 15 February 2018


As usual, a beautifully written piece highlighting the continuity of family love over so many years. Thank you.
Dorothy | 15 February 2018


This brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful family. I can only imagine what a gorgeous boy Jack is.
Debbie | 17 February 2018


I loved this piece. And I so appreciated Julie's words: Jack's parents show no wounds of shame or self-pity that their only child dwells in the world in unusual ways. Thank you.
Christine Carolan | 21 February 2018


You have shown us the beauty and healing of human love while at the same time shown its roots are not in sentimentality but in self-giving love and costly grace. A gem of a story in the midst of so much in the media that is contrary to its brilliance.
Rod | 23 February 2018


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