For many people in our society, high school graduation is one major academic accomplishment along the road of several major accomplishments in life. The culmination of 12+ years of education is truly something to celebrate. But it will be followed in a few more years with graduating college, then perhaps graduate school (for some, at multiple degree levels).
But for someone like my son, Ian, a high school graduation is not merely one scholastic achievement among many. For him, most likely, it IS the high point of his academic career.
So we celebrated the occasion in style and with great excitement.
My whole family flew in from California to be a part of the great day, along with Kirsten's mom from Missouri.
We had our usual 'Friday Pizza Night' out on the town at the best pizza place in Missoula, Biga Pizza.
We arrived early and got primo seats for the graduation ceremony.
We arrived early and got primo seats for the graduation ceremony.
We opened our home to friends from all aspects of Ian's life to come by and congratulate him that afternoon...school, church, work, neighborhood.
We went out for a family dinner that evening at our favorite restaurant in town (which only happens to be one block from our house, Caffe Dolce).
And then, as the 'icing' on the big 'cake', Ian and i embarked on what i unofficially entitled 'Graduate Jim's Grand Adventure', a week-long party train that traveled to all of Ian's favorite places in San Diego and Orange County, CA.
Flying on Allegiant Air? Check.
Staying with my folks at 'Grandma and Grandpa's Hotel'? Check.
Riding the trolleys? Check.
Sea World? Check.
Giant Dipper at Mission Beach? Check.
Coronado Bridge and Beach? Check.
Giants game at Petco Park? Check.
In-N-Out Burger and Wienerschnitzel (multiple times)? Check.
Staying with Dan and Jeanine at 'Camp Erickson'? Check.
Pizza night with Uncle Rog, Aunt Lynda and the cousins? Check.
Going to 'Trintity' Church? Check.
Irvine Park for the OC Zoo and Train ride? Check.
From one person, place, thing, experience to the next, Ian took it all in SO fully, with even more joyous rapture than he usually exudes, savoring each and every moment for the great gift that it was.
But once we arrived at Irvine Park, something in his countenance changed.
We made our way the Zoo, which he started visiting as an infant. And as we made our way around to see all the different animals, Ian didn't just give them a 'cheer' and move on as he usually did.
At one point, in the petting zoo, Ian went over to chicken and rooster coop. Initially, he did what he usually does...pointing out which animals are which. But then he just stopped and stared into the fenced-in area for about 10 minutes. He didn't say anything. It was as if he wasn't just looking at the animals. He was somehow looking through them to another time, another space, another place.
Then we headed over to the train, always a favorite for him. And we got in the very back seat, as is his custom. And as the train whistle sounded, which is usually his cue to start 'cheering' and bouncing up and down in his seat, and we lurched backwards (for us), it was once again like Ian was traveling back in time to a place he knows and loves so uniquely and so well.
And it dawned on me that he was recognizing in these moments, at these places that hold such a special place in his heart from his earliest years, that while he will always love engaging in these kinds of childlike experiences, he is no longer merely that 'Little Boy Blue' that celebrates the simplicity of an airplane flying overhead or a motorcycle zooming by like the Kingdom of God is coming into our midst.
He is now a young man. And his life is changing.
As we sat in the back of that train and rumbled past all the familiar sites of the park in silence, i realized that my son, perhaps for the first time in his life, was doing something he had never really done before in this particular way.
He was remembering.
He was ruminating.
He was reflecting upon his life.
For many people, taking time to pause and reflect upon life experiences is just a natural part of processing and trying to understand the ways that these experiences add to the mosaic that is our life's journey.
But for someone like Ian, a young man with autism, this is an incredibly rare occurrence.
Autism tends to form a kind of neurological, psychological and sociological 'bubble' around the person that isolates them from others, and severely impairs their abilities to be self-aware and self-reflective. The fact that, at times, Ian has felt no shame whatsoever answering the front door straight from out of the shower, in his 'birthday suit', is a poignant and very real example not only of his innate innocence, but also of those times when his self-awareness is practically nonexistent. In those moments, it doesn't even occur to him to put some clothes on. The doorbell has rang, and it needs to be answered. (We have since taught him, over time, to at least wrap a towel around his waist when he comes out of the shower, whether he's answering the door or not ;)
So, for Ian to be in a familiar place ripe with powerful, life-giving memories, and to not merely celebrate the joy of returning to that place, but to pause and reflect upon it, is something beyond extraordinary.
It is miraculous.
It is an example of how my boy doesn't simply embody his condition, but also transcends it.
Jesus once said to his first followers that one day, they would not only do the incredible, incarnational, love-giving and life-changing things that they saw him do. They would also do 'greater works than these.'
They would live in such a way that they not only more fully embodied their human condition, but also transcended it.
Ian embodies this reality almost every day of his life. He exceeds our limited expectations of what is humanly 'possible' for someone with autism.
Making eye contact with others in connection.
Hugging people and showing affection.
Learning to talk. And read. And write.
And swim. And ski. And ride a bike.
(And as of TODAY, DRIVING A CAR! And GETTING HIS LEARNER'S PERMIT!!!)
Working a job. Serving and giving.
Graduating high school.
Loving and living.
And as i reflect this day on my own journey, and how so many of my dreams seem to be dying, and my desires appear to be diminishing, and my emotional malignancies feel like they're multiplying, and my expectations are slowly extinguishing...i look at my 'man-cub', my amazing young man with the heart of a child, growing into a maturity that doesn't forsake innocence, but rather, integrates it into an increasing wholeness of being, 'Joyful Jim' living with miraculous awareness of self and others, the Spirit within him and around him...and i see a beauty through tears in my eyes and joy in my heart of one who truly lives and does 'greater works than these'.
And i wonder if that phrase, that promise, that reality, isn't just true for Ian, but maybe for me, too.