By Donna Lund
The human brain fascinates me. The information stored in our memory bank is quite remarkable and the triggers that cause memories to be retrieved with such accuracy is even more amazing. I experienced one of those triggers the other day as I read in school news that kindergarten registration is coming up. I felt this uncomfortable feeling in my stomach and my heart started to race a little. Kindergarten registration was an exciting time for my 2 girls thankfully. My boys on the other hand, not at all. The memories surrounding my boys starting kindergarten bring back to life the most traumatic school transitions we ever faced. Memories that still are as vivid as the actual events. Honestly, I'd give anything for them to just fade away.
When Donny was set to start kindergarten we did not know he was on the spectrum. We knew something was different certainly, but not exactly what. Nikki was thriving in a Catholic School but we knew Donny needed the resources of our public school district so we decided to uproot her and start both kids in our neighborhood elementary school. Family is everything to us and our kids needed to be in the same school. So during the spring of 2002, a few weeks after Cathy died, I enrolled our children in a new school for the upcoming school year. I remember so well entering the office of Baker Elementary School. I asked to talk to the principal who was retiring that year and I told him something was different about my son and he directed me to the guidance counselor. There I sat in her office. Exhausted, grief stricken and terrified. The tears began to flow as I told her about Donny, Nikki and the cancer ordeal that we had just lived through. I was so fragile during this time I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As I left the building I saw moms talking and laughing and I thought to myself that this school truly is the beginning of a brand new life for me. I was now sister-less and in a few months I would learn I am an autism mom. I felt like I was being tormented and was yearning for inner peace. Everything I knew was gone.
Donny's orientation to kindergarten was even more fun! Not. As the new students were filling into the school with their moms Donny would not get out of the car. There were a few moms who I was friends with that saw me struggling and they tried to coax him out of he car, even the principal came out to our car but Donny was too stressed and overwhelmed to pull it together. These were the kinds of things Donny would do that made people misunderstand him. I'm not sure how it happened but finally we made it into the building. That's where the details get blurry.
What I do know and will never forget is how remarkable and special those years were for Donny and I. His teacher was so gifted and confident and seemed to make everything ok. She was responsible for Donny's encouraging development and for giving me a game plan for how to deal autism. Donny and I were both learning and adjusting and the fog that felt suffocating was beginning to lift. In many ways I was her student too. I never knew how much a teacher could mean to our family and how that special little school would become a cornerstone in my life. At the most fragile time in my life the staff at that school was exactly what I needed as I began a new life.
Brian's kindergarten registration was completely different than Donny's in that he was already diagnosed and he had attended a special needs preschool. His needs were much different but I was eager, actually excited for him to have the same excellent teacher Donny had. I wasn't adjusting to being a special needs mom anymore and I already knew the players. It was round 2 and I was much more prepared. Of course I was heartbroken, that goes without saying, but I was used to it by now. An autism mom was who I was and probably what defines me in our community. Amazing how times change. In 2002 I could hardly say the word autism without breaking down. 15 years later I'm writing about it and own an autism mom t-shirt! I guess we are all capable of adapting even when we think we can't reinforcing why our brains are so fascinating and powerful.
Sadly, Brian going to Baker for kindergarten was not in the cards. We were informed that he would not be attending the elementary school his siblings attended. We were crestfallen that Brian would not attend the school that felt like family to us and have the wonderful teacher Donny was blessed with. I definitely was not wanting to start over and put down roots in another school. Just as I was gaining some confidence the rug was pulled out from under me and I was back to square one. It was a devastating time but we were determined to adjust and put our best foot forward. Again, as it was when Donny started kindergarten, everything I knew was gone. I have absolutely no recollection of Brian's orientation day. I'm not even sure we went.
Moments are fleeting but memories are permanent. They are a very powerful thing. Some are joyous while others are very painful. I think we share our favorite memories so they do not fade away. That notion is probably why I mention my sister a lot. They keep us connected to the past whether we want to be connected or not. The memories that are stored in our brain; the good, the bad and the ugly create our story and are a reflection of our short time on this earth. They are reminders of what we have lived through and who touched our lives both positively and negatively. I'm grateful for all of them because it means I've had an array of experiences. No one ever said life was supposed to be easy or is promised anything and I'm happy and thankful for each day.
Happy 2020 my friends...….it's time to create some new memories and I wish you all the very best!!
Donna is a wife, mother of four, and loving advocate from Pittsburgh, PA. Both of her sons have ASD. Her contribution to the autism community in her early years focused on fundraising both at the national and local level. In 2011, the Lund family was featured in a documentary, The Family Next Door. The film’s mission was to illustrate the emotional impact of autism on families, and its influence has led to speaking engagements that focus on Donna’s message of compassion. She has been invited to speak at local universities with special education teachers as well as at high schools (including annually at Mt. Lebanon School District as part of their curriculum) to promote professional development. Donna was a speaker at the Robert Morris University Educational Conference and a guest panelist for Representative Dan Miller’s Disability Summit. In 2018, she launched her blog, Labeled to Lunderful. Most recently she was a coauthor for the book collaboration You Are Not Alone. Find out more at http://www.labeledtolunderful.com/