Happy Anniversary

Neil:

I have been blogging for a little over two years. I’ve logged some 325 posts.

Much has changed in that time. My views on autism continue to evolve as I learn more about what it means to have a child on the spectrum, and how quickly your opinion can change when that child begins to express himself about the subject. I have picked up new insights from this wonderful digital community of autism self-advocates and parents.

My son is much different today than he was two years ago. He continues to find his way through his middle school years, making progress according to a timeline that is all his own. Much, too, is the same. Hockey still plays a dominant role in our lives.

But most importantly, marrying Veronica, 16 years ago today, continues to be the single best decision I have ever made.

Happy anniversary, my love.

Originally posted on Pucks and Puzzle Pieces:

Wedding Rings

Fourteen years ago today, I made the best decision of my life when I married Veronica.

I knew from the first day we met how compatible we were. We met in a sports bar during the NCAA tournament, and one of our first trips together was to see a Michigan football game. We honeymooned in New Orleans, where she accompanied me on a tour of the Superdome and tolerated me checking in on the Capitals during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A few weeks after we were married, we took a weekend trip to Washington for a playoff game. We saw the Capitals clinch their second-round series, and I saw my wife become a hockey fan. I caught a puck that was about to nail Veronica. That puck, and the ticket stub, sits in a case on my desk to this day. Little did either of us…

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Memories Are What Matter

Marty waves goodbye

Our view of Martin Bredeur’s probably New Jersey farewell

I hate endings. Hate ‘em. It gets all dusty up in the room any time there’s a graduation, a season-ending game, a championship, heck even “One Shining Moment” gets me. But we’ve made a habit of attending the last New Jersey Devils home game each year, and once again, I’m glad we did.

Way back in 2011, we treated ourselves to good seats in the lower bowl for the last game of the year against Boston. It was a lousy year for New Jersey, the first time the team had missed the playoffs in seemingly forever. The crowd was mostly listless until the last minute, when it rose as one to cheer the Devils off the ice and into the offseason. As we stood to clap, the finality of it bothered me — but not just because we were facing six months without hockey.

No, back then I was worried about something else. I saw the clock racing towards zero, and with it, I saw all the family togetherness we enjoyed at games — all the delicious normalcy, all the delightful engagement — coming to an end. And three years ago I wasn’t sure if Ryan would still care about hockey when October rolled around again. The tears started flowing. I turned to the side, hoping to not get caught by my wife or children, but it was too late. I was busted. Veronica asked why I was so upset — and I get upset again just thinking about it — and I told her. She nodded and embraced me and told me not to worry. And soon Ryan was mocking me, because apparently me worrying about him not loving hockey was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard of.

He was, of course, correct.

The next year, we were rewarded with an incredible playoff run, the season ending only when the Devils fell to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Our family’s final memory of that remarkable season was being together at Game 5, a New Jersey win.

Last year was more like 2013. The Devils made a late run towards a playoff spot but ultimately fell short, turning the last game into a bittersweet goodbye party. It was difficult for many reasons. We stayed away from the arena for more than a month during the season due to Ryan’s anxiety, an unwelcome visitor that stole his enjoyment of his favorite thing and turned games from a joyous occasion into something to be endured. By the end of the season, we felt we had things under control enough to attend the last game, despite it being a weekday night. We got through it, but the feeling was not the same. And the worst of Ryan’s anxiety was yet to come.

That brings us to 2014, and I’m happy to report that I shed no tears over fears of Ryan’s losing interest in hockey. I’m happy too to report that this season — well, the regular season, anyway — passed without a major shots-on-goal anxiety-induced meltdown. In fact, when the Devils, playing against a Boston team with nothing to play for and resting most of its regulars, were on pace to surpass one of Ryan’s triggers, he was able to joke about it.

Veronica and I exchanged a look, neither of us ready to put words to the thought we shared — could it be that this issue, one of the biggest challenges we faced in the last year, is in the past?

That’s not to say there were dry eyes Sunday. It was a tough day for Riley, pound-for-pound perhaps Martin Brodeur’s biggest fan. Marty has played for the Devils for 20 years, won three Stanley Cups, and holds every significant career goaltending record. He also turns 42 next month and does not have a contract for next year. All signs pointed to this being his final game with the Devils — or anywhere.

Riley and Marty

This photo from last year is, hands down, one of my favorite pictures I have ever taken.

We also went on Friday night, when Marty was announced as the somewhat surprise starter. There were plenty of extra cheers,but it didn’t have the same aura of finality as Sunday.

Saturday, the Devils confirmed it. Marty would be in goal for the season-ender. Of course Riley wanted to be there, but she wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I talked to her about how she would always remember being at this game. That in time, the sadness would turn to a treasured memory. She asked about my favorite players and seeing them retire. I related some stories from childhood, but I was never attached to a single player the way she has been to Brodeur, ever since her first game as a three-year old.

When we realized our Sunday tickets were worth something due to the Marty factor, I offered her to keep the extra money if we sold them. The offer wasn’t really authentic, more like a test. But I was thrilled when she looked at me like I had two heads. I recalled a similar story my dad told me about attending a Brooklyn Dodgers playoff game as a kid. It must be in the DNA — they both made the right call.

It’s the proper decision because there is no price that can be put on memories, something that has become more clear to me over the years. These days my wants are less material and more about creating experiences and memories.

And so we went Sunday, and we cheered for Marty and we poured all the love and affection we could out in his direction. Even Ryan, who has long since declared the Sharks his favorite team, went out of his way to cheer every Brodeur save. I told Riley it was his way of showing he cares about her.

We were treated to some vintage saves and a 3-2 New Jersey win. After the Devils did the traditional stick salute to the fans, the team sent Marty on a brief victory lap by himself. He waved, and all over the crowd, the tears flowed. Riley leaned on Veronica for support.

Riley and Marty

Riley finally met her idol back in October.

There was one last honor. Marty was named the game’s first star, and returned to the ice for a television interview. He was drowned out by the crowd chanting his name. Afterwards, we walked slowly from the arena, saddened, but I was lifted by the knowledge that we had created one more memory.

Thank-You Notes, Ryan Style

Ryan and S.J. Sharkie

Ryan with his newest Sharks good-luck charm

Last week I heard from an old work colleague on Facebook. We haven’t worked together for nearly a decade, but have kept in touch over social media. R is a reader and occasional commenter on the blog, a talented writer, a dad to two beautiful girls, and a “hockey person.”

In these parts, “hockey person” is synonymous with all-around terrific human. People like Ryan’s former peewee hockey coach, my friend at the Sharks and the team PR director, Ryan’s current street hockey coach, and so many more.

R fits the bill. After my recent post about Ryan’s visit with the Sharks, he sent me a message saying he had something for Ryan. R had once written a big package on NHL mascots and many had sent him mementos. He asked for our address.

A few days later, a package showed up addressed to Ryan. He tore it open to find a hand puppet of S.J. Sharkie, the team mascot. Even better was a personal note from R, written from one hockey fan to another.

R told Ryan that, as the biggest Sharks fan he knew, he wanted Ryan to have Sharkie.

Ryan loved it. Veronica texted me a picture at the top of this post right away.

Sharkie has taken up residence in Ryan’s bed, alongside his cousin, the Sharks Pillow Pet. He’s become a key good-luck charm on the nights of big games. I suspect we’ll see a lot of him during San Jose’s upcoming first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings.

We told Ryan he needed to send a thank you note to R. Of course he did it in his own unique style.

Thank you note

Ryan’s thank you note has a style all his own

Dear [R],
Thank you for my stuffed Sharkie. I love him. Now, let’s beat the living crap out of the Kings.
From,
[Ryan]

Hey, at least he didn’t curse.

Today’s Post Is Brought to You by the Letter F

Brought to you by the letter F

Can’t believe Cookie Monster hasn’t eaten it yet.

I’m short on sleep, and time, this morning. I was up late playing hockey last night, and awoken early by Ryan, who informed me that “the Internet is broken” at exactly 6 a.m.

I flopped back on the pillow for a moment before climbing out of bed to go reset the cable modem. Checking NHL scores and stats first thing in the morning is part of Ryan’s routine, so I knew I needed to act. Besides, he was calm and asked nicely, so I wanted to recognize that and go see what I could do about the problem.

A reset did the trick — it’s amazing how many electronic issues can be repaired by pulling the plug for 15 seconds — and we were back to our morning routine.

Ryan quickly moved on to studying for today’s chemistry test. His notes were spread all over the kitchen table and he was reading them aloud, quizzing himself.

Something or other annoyed him and he was soon distracted from his studies, and angry. He snuck in a curse word — a favorite habit. When I reminded him about it, he complied — by substituting the letter “F” for his favorite four-letter word.

This is a scene that has repeated itself hundreds of times. I reminded him that using a proxy for a curse word, especially when you direct it at your parents or sister, is not acceptable.

Ryan has never accepted this premise. It’s a literal thing for him — he did not actually say a curse word, so how could there be an issue?

He soon resumed his studies, but with a sly grin. I know that look — the one that says “I’ve thought of something clever and you may not like it but it’s funny and I’m going to say it anyway.”

I finished my morning routine and headed upstairs to shower and dress. As I did, I heard Ryan saying his chemistry definitions out loud.

“… and it is re-lective …”

“Ryan, I think you mean ‘reflective,’” I told him.

“Dad, you told me not to say ‘F,’ so I’m not saying ‘F.’”

All right kid, you win this round.

The Drop-Off

With Ryan on our way to MSG.

I love being your Dad AND your friend. But about that second role? I’m happy to step aside.

Today we celebrate another small victory, another small sign of progress that might have otherwise slipped past unnoticed, were it not for the lens that I have learned to use to view such things.

Where to begin?

Because there are no Little Things, let me count all the bits of awesomeness this weekend included. Ryan was invited to a bar mitzvah. He attended said bar mitzvah. He had a great time. He brought a friend home afterwards to watch the Devils game.

Oh, and we dropped him off at the party, like it was nothing.

Each of those represents a win, a mile marker on the trail that marks Ryan’s progress. Being invited. Wanting to go. Willing to be dropped off. Enjoying himself. Hanging out with the other boys he knew at the event. Coming up with a plan to have one of them to come over to watch a hockey game.

There’s something particular about the drop-off, and it’s more about us than Ryan. I noted his willingness to be dropped off, but he’s long past caring about that. It’s us — we needed to get over the hump and grow comfortable with leaving him somewhere, confident that he would be OK, or contact us if he wasn’t.

This wasn’t a tough decision, it was a party surrounded by classmates, neighbors and most of the boys he considers friends.

But there was still an unspoken acknowledgement between Veronica and I that this was indeed a Big Deal. Ryan’s independence is growing, in dozens of little ways that added together paint a picture of a boy who is growing increasingly comfortable in his world and with his ability to navigate it.

We didn’t really worry, and yet when I went to pick him up I was thrilled that he came running out not to tell me how great it was (although he got to that part eventually) but to ask if another friend could come over to watch the hockey game. They’d already asked his friend’s parents, all I had to do was say yes.

This was new territory. Ryan’s evening game-watching is very regimented. He watches, and flips between games, and disappears to check stats between periods. He usually shows himself to bed right around 9 p.m., before the earliest evening games are over.

But this was different. Ryan was genuinely invested in watching THIS game WITH his friend. There was no channel surfing. There was no running off to his room to type stats. There was no going to bed early. They remained engaged throughout, cheering the Devils to a critical victory from the basement.

When Ryan’s friend was picked up shortly after the game ended, only then did Ryan revert to the comfort of his routines. I looked at the clock. It was nearly 10 p.m. Veronica had taken him to the bar mitzvah six-plus hours earlier. In all that time he had been engaged with friends and peers, enjoying himself, with only the most minimal interaction with us.

When Ryan struggled to make friends, I resolved to fill the role of his best friend. It’s something I’m sure many parents in our position do. When he began to express frustration about his struggles, it only made me more determined to act as a replacement for the friends he didn’t have. I love the time we spend together, going to or watching games, or playing one of our backyard hockey series.

But on Saturday, I did not mind be pushed aside. Not one little bit.