The Robster

Robbie, Colin, and Ryan. The three handsomest boys around…

While Robbie’s early childhood was different from Colin and Ryan’s, it was no less challenging. Robbie was born about a month early due to some complications during Sara’s pregnancy. He was in the NICU for several days before he was allowed to come home. He has been thriving ever since.

The main thing I worry about with Robbie is the kid is so smart. He hasn’t been tested, but this kid must read somewhere close to a 5th grade level at 5 years old. Because his birthday is in early September, he barely missed the cutoff to go to kindergarten last year, so Sara and I opted to put him in a Private-K class since it cost us the same to send him there as it would regular daycare. We are pretty sure we are going to try to get him tested into first grade next school year, because otherwise, he will have to go through kinder again, and that is just a recipe for disaster.

This school year isn’t over yet, and he is already able to help Colin and Ryan with THEIR homework (and they are both almost finished with first grade). Like most ultra-bright kids, Robbie very bored, very quickly because he has mastered whatever lesson his teacher is giving while the other kids have just finished reading the directions. This causes some behavioral issues because the kid is still only 5 after all. Every teacher says the same thing: incredibly bright kid, but very “distractable”.

The worry I have with Robbie is similar to that of a lawyer with a client he knows is innocent. I am scared to death I will screw this up. There is so much potential in him. He really is the smartest kid I have ever known. He is going to do such great things. Every parent looks at their child, and sees a future POTUSA, or Supreme Court Justice, or Heisman Trophy winner, or Academy Award winner, or whatever. But let’s be honest, every kid doesn’t have that potential. Most kids, I think we just hope they can become a productive member of society.

With Robbie, it really is different. His potential is limitless. And, to be completely honest, that scares the shit out of me. What if I’m not up to the task of being his dad? What if I can’t challenge him enough, and he just gives up out of sheer boredom? What if I push him too hard, too soon, and he gives up because he thinks he can’t do it? I know Sara has those same fears.

When I used to go to church (yes, I DID go to church fairly regularly for a long time, stop snickering), the pastor said he used to say a prayer every night. I went something like this, “Please, Lord, don’t let the damage I did to my children today be permanent.” I think every parent can relate to that prayer.

Ryan’s Story

Me and Ryan

Telling Ryan’s story is not easy. Not that his start was any harder or easier than Colin’s, but it is more…complicated. He was born to a mother who had been in and out of jail several times. She had two daughters that were removed by CPS and adopted by another family, but they were an older couple who did not wish to “start over” with a new baby. The fact that Ryan’s half sisters had already been removed by CPS is the main reason placing him in care when he was born. Ryan was originally placed with a different foster family who intended to adopt him. That family was later shut down for reasons of which we were not made aware.  

At the beginning of that year (2006), I told my wife that I was going to give foster parenting one more year, but at the end of ’06, I wanted out. We wanted to adopt one more child, but if it didn’t happen by the end of that year, I was prepared to move on. Wendy had begun getting sicker, and the emotional toll of bringing children into our home only to lose them later was beginning to weigh heavily on both of us (especially Wendy). Colin was our 18th child in 4 years. Ryan would be number 23 in 5 years.

The Friday before Colin turned 2, we got a call from our family caseworker, Regina (not her real name). She knew we had an opening, so she said, “Hey, I’ve got a little football player for you!”

Regina knew how much I loved football and she knew we were getting near our breaking point as foster parents. Ryan was a stocky little 1.5 yr old with the biggest brown eyes you’d ever seen. He was just a really cute kid; still is, actually. She told us CPS was about to close down Ryan’s current foster family. She said they needed a placement for him fast, and that he would more than likely be adoptable (though you never know with CPS). That was the clincher for Wendy. We took Ryan in to our home (at the time, his foster family was calling him Jeremy, but his birth mother originally named him Brendon). We didn’t like any of those names, so we changed it to Ryan (he looks more like a Ryan anyway).

For about the first month he was with us, we weren’t sure that Ryan could speak at all. He mostly just grunted and made other noises with his mouth. Turns out, he had a pretty severe speech delay (that he has almost completely overcome now, with the help of speech therapy). He also wasn’t the happiest of all children. Who could blame him? In 1.5 years, he had been in three different families (birth, and two different foster families, counting us). The poor kiddo didn’t really know what it meant to have a “stable” home life. Literally 6 months and 2 days later (a foster child has to be in your home for 6 months to be eligible for adoption), we adopted Ryan on National Adoption Day 2006.

This is where things got even more complicated. It’s hard enough to explain it to myself, or Ryan, let alone a stranger reading this blog. In his young life, Ryan lost his biological mother, a foster family, and an adoptive mom all within the span of less than 3 years. At the time, the only “stable” adult in his life, me, was overcome with grief and depression. Ryan did pretty much the only thing he could do in the situation. He started acting out.

The only other kid in his life that he was able to use as a role model was Colin. Since Colin was such a handful, I had to spend most of my time just making sure he wasn’t doing something he wasn’t supposed to (like leaving the house while I was asleep-another story for another time). Ryan learned that the best way to get attention was to follow Colin’s lead. By the time I met Sara, Ryan was having a lot of behavioral issues. He was probably very close to being diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. He had a real mean streak to him sometimes, and he just flat out refused to follow directions when he didn’t feel like doing something.

Credit Sara for really sticking it out with Ryan. Today, about 2 years after coming into our lives, Sara has helped Ryan become a completely different child. He has really started maturing and growing into a great young man who is making A’s and B’s in school, and rarely ever has less than a “green” (or good) day at school. He recently became the first kid in his class to pass the reading portion of a standardized test the district gives. I am so very proud of him, and the turnaround he has made, but really, Sara should get most of the credit here.

Now, in mid-2012, our little family is beginning to blossom beautifully. We are pretty much the definition of “blended family”. Sara and I are both on our 2nd marriage, Colin and Ryan were both adopted, and Robbie is my step-son (who I will adopt sometime soon, hopefully). Ryan also has half-sisters who we keep in touch with pretty regularly, plus I keep in close touch with my first wife’s family (they absolutely adore Sara and Robbie). I don’t think we would have it any other way.

Colin Stories Pt. 1 (with a lot more to come)

People ask me a lot to tell them my favorite story about Colin. It’s hard to pick one because it seems like there’s a new one every day. Whether it be a new obsession (he has run the gamut from fireworks, to tornadoes, to the game Perfection, to sprinklers, to car washes, and his latest, Animusic), or something he has said (the good day pickle story, for example), or something he has done, Colin is a walking, talking, “you’ll-never-guess-what-happened-THIS-time” kind of story.

The story I like to tell most often about Colin, though, is how he helped me get through my grief and depression after my first wife passed away. Wendy was a wonderful woman. She was very caring, intelligent, and funny, and I loved her dearly. We had a great marriage. She was, however, very ill for the last several years of our life together. She was diabetic, and had most likely been diabetic for at least 10-15 years before she was diagnosed.

She passed away on November 3rd, 2007, not quite a year after we adopted our second son, Ryan (a little more than 2 years after we adopted Colin). Colin and Ryan were 3 and 2, respectively, and I was lost. I had been taking care of Wendy and the boys by myself for well over a year before she passed away due to the complications of her disease, but being totally without her was not something for which I was prepared.

I did what countless single parents have done in my situation. I sucked it up as best I could (oftentimes failing to do so), and tried to get on with our lives. There were times, though, that my grief and depression just overwhelmed me. There were times, and I’m not proud of this, I would literally sit on the floor and cry my eyes out, not knowing how I would get through another minute, let alone another day. Sometimes, I was able to hide it all from my boys, but often, I was not. Every time I would break down, and I mean EVERY time, Colin would see me, he’d sit down with me, and look me right in the eye (something he rarely does because of his autism), and he would just say, “It’s ok, daddy. I love you.”

Colin with a disco ball given to him by his teacher for Christmas

A “special” child

It’s hard to know where to start with something like this. I want to tell my and my family’s story, plus I want to make it interesting for someone who comes across this page, but I also don’t believe I need to tell EVERYTHING about my life up to this point (it would take too long anyway. I’m 41 years old, for goodness sakes).

Since I want to kind of focus on a lot of the challenges my wife and I face with raising our three diverse children, I’ll start with the child that is our focus for oh, around 80-90% of our day: Colin.

Colin’s life started in a very rough way. True to his form, though, he proved himself to be a real fighter. He was born to a biological mother who was a prostitute, and I believe, hooked on drugs. Colin was put into the foster care system after a CPS worker found him, at five weeks old, in an apartment with no electricity (it was June, in Dallas, TX). His bio-mom rarely changed his diaper despite neighbors giving the young woman free diapers, and when he would cry because he was hungry, she would stuff peanut butter in his mouth to make him stop. This was despite the fact that the same neighbors who gave her diapers, also gave her formula. She just refused to take care of him, and left him in a car seat with no cover or padding.

So, at five weeks old, a severely malnourished, but seemingly happy, Colin (then known as Jessie-father unknown, by the way), was delivered to me and my first wife, Wendy. Soon after, Colin’s bio-mom was never seen, or heard from, again.

We noticed fairly early on that Colin was having some developmental delays. He did not sit up unassisted until he was almost a year old. He would not, or could not, sit up to drink a bottle. In fact, feeding issues dogged Colin for the first few years of his life because as a newborn, he learned that if something solid was in his mouth (like the peanut butter his bio-mom stuffed in his mouth), then he better not swallow it because he could choke to death. He was smart (and a survivor) even then.

So, with the help some wonderful therapists from Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), and another group called Therapy 2000, Colin was hitting most of his developmental goals by the age of 2. Even then, he showed a great talent for memorization by mastering matching games and putting together puzzles that were designed for older kids. I remember asking his therapists and doctors (mainly because of his receptive speech delays) if they thought he could be autistic, but they answered they didn’t think so because a) he was pretty verbal (in fact, he rarely stopped talking), and b) he did not do the stimming so many people associate with autism.

To her credit, one of my good friends, Amy (a school psychologist) said she thought he might be autistic and tried to push me to get him tested. By that time, though, I was dealing with the death of my first wife (more on that later), and I decided that I would listen to Colin’s doctors and therapists. Besides, who wants to hear their child is autistic, especially while in the grips of depression and grief?

Not long after I met Sara, she really started pushing me to get Colin more testing (he had already been diagnosed with pretty severe ADHD). We ended up taking him to a Developmental Pediatrician who confirmed the autism diagnosis in August of 2010. It was a pretty big blow at the time. All of a sudden I started picturing all of my hopes and dreams for Colin (baseball star, academic excellence, grand children) going down the drain. It really hit me like a ton of bricks, despite it being something I already knew in the back of my mind anyway.

The truth of the matter is that none of those things were lost, and the diagnosis of autism did not change who Colin is as a child. He is still the lovable, goofy, smart, sensitive, frustrating, kid he has always been (and always will be).

What’s in a Name?

My oldest son, Colin, is ADHD and Autistic (“on the spectrum” as they say). Although I hate using those terms to “define” him. He is so much more than those terms.

He is a very challenging, and very special, little boy. My wife and I are very lucky, as far as parents of  children on the autisim spectrum go. Colin is VERY verbal. That’s not to say he communicates easily, but he basically talks nonstop. He is not really able to have what one would call a “normal” conversation. Colin’s coversation skills basically equate to constant questions. Even questions he knows the answers to. ESPECIALLY questions he knows the answers to, actually. Plus, like a lot of other autistic children, Colin repeats words and phases he has heard from other people. Whether he knows what they mean (or even if YOU know what the mean) or not. This is called echolalia.

So, I don’t know exactly where the phrase “good day pickle” came from, but I can give it an educated guess. I’m pretty sure it started with one of his teachers telling Colin, “You’re a pickle”. Since Colin doesn’t really understand something like that, he thought it was hilarious that someone thought he was a pickle. He started calling people that all the time. Even upon first meeting someone, he would say, “Hi! I’m Colin. You’re a pickle!” The fact that this would usually elicit laughter (even nervous laughter from strangers) just encouraged it.

When Colin would go off to school every morning, I would call after him, “Have a good day!” He managed to turn that into “You’re a good day pickle, daddy”.

When I started dating Sara (who would become my wife about 8 months after we met), she thought it was pretty funny, too, so it soon became a catch phrase between the two of us as a way to kind of put a smile on each other’s face whenever Colin was being “difficult”.