‘My daily dose of joy’

Reading a memoir, readers often surmise that there must be some part of the tale that the author left out, some additional material that was taken out to serve the larger point. A few times lately, interviewers—or, sometimes, acquaintances— have mentioned that I must have opted not to include some of the more difficult moments of raising Ezra. Perhaps, they suggest, I omitted painful parts of my experience to serve the narrative?

In writing Following Ezra, it was important to me to be true to my family’s real experience. I knew (or hoped) parents of children with autism would read my book, and I did not want to give them false hope. That’s one reason that the book’s final chapter, the climactic passage about Ezra’s bar mitzvah, begins with some of the more difficult moments that preceded that day: the conversation in which he was stuck fixating on a particular gift, and a shopping excursion that showed he still had some very significant challenges. I wanted it to be clear that Ezra at 13 wasn’t “cured.” He still had autism. (There is no cure for autism.) But he had evolved and matured.

One thing hadn’t changed—and still hasn’t. Ezra is still one of the most joyful people I know. There’s something to be said for knowing what you like, for being in touch with your passions. Ezra loves animals and animated movies, and when he is at the zoo or the dog park, or watching a Pixar movie, or even thinking about one, he has a big smile on his face. He cannot contain his glee.

He’s 15 years old now, an age when it’s easy (and common) for kids to become jaded, to take on an affect of disinterest. He doesn’t seem to know that, so he keeps smiling unselfconsciously at the things that make him happy. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his moments. Just the other day, informed that there was a limit to the number of Cheez-Its a person may consume in one sitting, he reacted with more than mild displeasure. (Later, remarkably, he apologized, unprompted.)

But his essential joy shines through, and he continues to express enthusiasm in ways that delight the people who encounter him.

I know he’s like that when I’m with him, but it’s more difficult to get a sense of how he interacts with the world when I’m not around. So I was delighted when Shawn and I received an e-mail a few days ago from a teacher who had taught him in her English class two years ago.  The subject line itself made my day: “My daily dose of joy comes from Ezra.”

She explained that last year, when she was no longer his teacher but encountered Ezra in the halls of school, he had rarely paused to chat. But more recently, he has made a point of stopping to share with her his memories from his time in her classroom: “You were very nice and said I was a good writer. I did a comic strip for a project from that book. I worked very hard on it and got an ‘A’. I felt proud.” Sometimes he reminds the teacher the date of her birthday. Sometimes he stops to tell her current students what a nice teacher she is.

Here’s what she wrote:

“When I’m having a tough day…I really rely on these visits. [Another teacher] and I say that when we think of Ezra, we smile without realizing we’re doing so. I feel very joyous when he’s around. I see so many positive changes, but he retains that special ability…bringing a sense of wonder and reminding me why I’m doing this work.”

There. The unvarnished truth.

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