Last year around this time, a young, nonverbal autistic boy – much like my own Lil D – disappeared on a family walk at a national battlefield park a half an hour away from where I live. As one day stretched into two, the police opened up their search to community volunteers, and thousands poured out to help search for the boy. For parents like me who have children with autism and know the agony of how quickly they can get away from us and how they do not respond when they are being called, we ached with the family of the lost boy. We saw our children lost. Our worst fears were coming true.
Then, a miracle happened.
Six days after he wandered off and was lost, six days after thousands of volunteers (including myself and other dear friends) formed search grids and combed through ravines, wall-to-wall thorny bushes, muddy bogs, high grasslands, dense woods, and other intimidating terrain, six days where the temperature dropped at night and on the sixth day snow was threatening to fall – the boy was found.
Let me say that again. He was found – curled up in the fetal position, scared, cold, malnourished, with a tear his esophagus, but otherwise safe.
In a world where we read too many stories about our children with autism wandering away, drowning, dying – this was that happy ending we so desperately needed.
That day in October, 2011 when he was found was the first day of Dhul Hijjah – the last month in the Islamic calendar. It’s the month when Muslims celebrate our second major holiday, Eid ul Adha, which coincides with the annual Hajj pilgrimage. The first nine days of Dhul Hijjah leading up to Eid ul Adha are especially holy days. Muslims are encouraged to take time for more worship, to fast (not obligatory, as in Ramadan, but strongly encouraged), to read more Quran, and to reflect upon God more. Pray hard, we are told. God will answer your prayers, in ways that you may not understand. Your good deeds, God willing, will be rewarded.
So, on that first day of Dhul Hijjah last year, I prayed for the boy — that boy who could’ve been my son — to be found. I prayed for my son, my other children, and all the children. And he was found. Forget being Muslim or not. Forget if you’re religiously inclined or not. Forget everything but the recognition of that miracle before us.
I am thinking about that day last year, and I’m thinking about the prayers I made for Lil D and the downward spiral that engulfed him and our lives in the coming months. The last twelve months made for a tough, tough year by the Islamic calendar for us — one of the toughest years of our lives.
I’m thinking about how much Lil D hurt himself last year; about the full-force slaps to his face and bites to his arms; about how he banged his head against the floor and walls and pulled chunks of his hair out; about how he would bite and kick us if we tried to stop him; about trying to make sure his siblings didn’t see him when he was having meltdowns; about the months Lil D spent hidden in his room; about how he began wandering off, and we had to put high-reaching chain locks on all the doors; about all meetings I had with his school; about all the sleepless nights of trying to figure out what was wrong; about beseeching God and getting angry at Him; about the strain on our marriage; about trying to give our other children attention and keep them even-keeled in the stormy waters; about how helpless we felt through it all; and about how much I hated what autism did to him last year.
And, I’m thinking about how I’m still praying; about how my in-laws came back from India and loved us and were there for us in every way; about my family, who sent us to Toronto for a wedding and stayed here with Lil D during one of his toughest weekends so we could get a break; about his teachers and administrators, who went to bat for him and did right by him; about the blessing that was Lil D’s fifth grade graduation; about how our other children kept moving forward and living their lives; about his therapists who came day after day though they were often on the receiving end of Lil D’s aggression; about hosting Hamza’s Bismillah during that tough time; about my husband, who poured his strength into this family; about our pediatrician, who pulled strings to get us quick appointments with every specialist we wanted to see; and about the connections and friendships I made with other autism parents, who understood our triumphs and sorrows like no one else and helped me figure out things to investigate and medical therapies to pursue.
My prayers of last Dhul Hijjah weren’t answered. But, they also were answered, in obvious ways and ways that I’ll never understand.
So here we are again, one year later. The holy days of Dhul Hijjah is upon us, Eid ul Adha is around the corner and this Islamic year of 1433 is almost done. I make no resolutions for the next year but this – with His help, I will not give up.