For those of you who don’t know him, I would like to introduce you to my 11 year-old son, John Francis Duffy, aka Jack. Since it’s Father’s Day and he is the person I think about more than any other person, I figure it’s fitting that I dedicate a post to him early in the game here. 99% of the time when I’m writing on the big, bad Internet, I refer to him only as “The Dude”, and that will be his name here on duffyscreek.com. The obvious reference is to “The Big Lebowski”, a movie I love dearly. My Dude doesn’t drink white russians, but he has none of the baggage you acquire from trying to be an adult for years and years, so compared to me, he’s a wild, free spirit, and he really thinks his rug ties the whole room together, hence the “Lebowski” reference. But he’s also “The Dude” because there’s nobody else remotely like him, so it’s sort of like calling him “The Man.” I know other father’s think the same way about their children, so I guess it’s my job in this post to prove that in fact, there is nobody else remotely like “The Dude.” Piece of cake.
Let’s start way before the beginning. In 1992, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. If you know me personally and you’re wondering why I never told you that, ask yourself why the hell I would. The point is that the chemotherapy made my guys stop swimming, and there were obviously half as many guys. It would be seven long years of wandering around the world like a friendly stray dog until I met my beautiful wife, Trisha. She knew exactly what she was getting into, and we figured we would have to go to fertility clinics and talk to well-meaning, earnest people with sad eyes if we were ever going to be able to start a family. Well, we got married in August of 2001 and through what we could only figure was a little divine intervention, we conceived a child in June of 2003. Jack was born at 3:59 pm on February 19, 2004, seven pounds, fourteen ounces and twenty-one inches long. Aren’t those nice numbers?
In the beginning, we thought for sure we would have two. Irish twins and all that. But it just didn’t happen, and as time marched forward we were too wrapped up in Jack to go to fertility clinics and talk to well-meaning, earnest people with sad eyes. Trisha is the youngest of ten and I’m the youngest of five, so the idea of an only child was a little outside our reference points. But her father, the great Jack McCloskey and my mother, the equally great Joan Duffy, were both only children. Seen through that lens, it started to make sense.The Dude is an only child because God knew we were too inept to handle two children. And that was that.
From the time he was about two, it became obvious that The Dude was drawn to the mechanical things in life. You could hold him next to a light switch and he would instruct you to turn it on and off about twenty times and never get tired of it. There was a stretch of time when I had to take him down into our crawl space/ cellar on a regular basis so he could gaze in awe at “the pipes that go und-der the house.” Any toy we gave him, he’d somehow manage to turn it into something else. He’s the only kid you know who got PVC piping from the Home Depot when he was four so he could turn his backyard playhouse into a experimental hydraulics laboratory. Anywhere you took him, or take him to this day, he immediately takes in every facet of the infrastructure, from alarm systems to cameras to conveyor belts to ventilation ducts. When I brought home a mac book from work, The Dude was immediately smitten. He set up two cookie sheets, one leaning up against the refrigerator, one flat on the kitchen floor, and said, “look, Dad, it’s a Mac Book.” And that was before they started making them in silver metallic. He told me at age five that when I get mad, he gets mad, because we’re connected, but “it’s a wireless connection.” One of his bests quotes was explaining how he was able to retain everything he’d ever learned (and he does). Quoth The Dude: “I have unlimited memory, unlike a phone.”
And when he started going to day care and then to school, they ruined everything, as they do so well. The Dude was too distracted, too cognizant of the voices in his own head and too damn naturally smart to just suck it up and follow orders. So naturally they said he was autistic. With a little research it became clear that The Dude exhibited the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, complete with the meltdowns, eating issues, sensory sensitivity, obsessive compulsiveness and occasional violent reactions that go along with it.
I have to interject something here. I have read some blogs where people write about their autistic children. I hate them. Our philosophy from the start has been that we acknowledge the reality of it, but it’s not something you should dwell on. And fortunately, with high-functioning autism, you can find portals for helping the child make his way in this world within the context of his or her challenges. I know that many people with autistic children really suffer, and I would never make light of that. But we here at Duffy’s Creek only play the cards we are dealt. The answer to the question: “What do you do to help a kid with Asperger’s?” is :”You work like hell at it.” And if something doesn’t work, you try something else. In many of these parent blogs, I got the sense that it was more about the parent’s / writer’s ego, and how wonderful they themselves are for putting up with a lot of stress and how they are tireless advocates for their poor fucked-up children. I can’t fall into that trap. I am convinced that if The Dude had show the same proclivities if he was in first grade when I was, in 1969, they would have called him what they still call me, “Quirky.”
The Dude is quirky. He’s original. He may or may not be autistic. Who knows and who cares. But I can tell you about something we did for him that helped a lot: When he was seven, we adopted three cats to eventually take the place of the three aging cats Trisha had when we first met. (She was planning on becoming an officially crazy cat lady until we met and I screwed that up). Later that year, we brought home a big, happy yellow lab to be his best friend. We named him Mookie. You’ll meet Mookie in the next post. Mookie and the three cats, Lyle, Sunny and Allie, have combined to do more to help Jack’s “condition” than all the psychologists, counselors, prescription medications, special programs and accommodations combined. And the fact is, all those people and programs and pills have helped him immensly. There are people who I am indebted to forever for how they helped my son in the course of doing their jobs. But to me, the cats and the dog have helped just as much, as have swimming pools, trips upstate and curling up on the couch together to watch Curious George. Everything helps. The real problem is that everyone who has helped who isn’t a dog or a cat or his mother or his father have by and large had to do so within the context of the is common core, zero-tolerance, life-sucking school system that constantly suggests to my son that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. As we say here in Valley Stream, fuck that shit. There, rant finished, story continues.
In the last few years, The Dude has started to specialize in electricity, and we have slowly learned not to be scared to death of that. He has also fixed air conditioners, dishwashers, space heaters, air purifiers, wet/dry vacuum cleaners, fans and other small appliances, but electricity is his first love. One day when he was about six, the sales associate at the Ace Hardware store was impressed by his knowledge of electrical equipment. He asked The Dude if he was going to be an electrician when he grows up. He replied, impatiently, that he already was an electrician, he just didn’t have his license yet. He has immersed himself in instructional you tube videos. His hero is Scott Caron, the electrician on This Old House. Mind you, his Daddy can’t turn a screw without using the expletive, “faaa.”
Today, The Dude changed his third outlet from a two-prong to a three-prong in his ongoing quest to update our electrical service. He’s planning on hard-wiring a doorbell this summer, and we’re planning on letting him. We have no doubt that The Dude will be successful as an adult. At the very least, he will be a proud brother of the IBEW, or a happy guy with his name on the side of a white Econoline van. At the very most he will be Nikoli Tesla with a little more common sense. Unfortunately, he has to be a kid, then a teenager first, and that is our challenge: Hey Dude, be a kid once in awhile. He manages.
Our job as parents, as we see it, is to foster his interests while showing him that there’s other things around to be interested in. Otherwise, he obsesses on electricity and can think of nothing else. He played little league baseball for two years but we agreed that he would hang up his spikes after the ’12 season because he thought it was getting too difficult and I was convinced that he was going to be killed by a line drive to the head. He takes piano lessons and will perform at his second recital next week. We spend a lot of time with the dogs at the dog park. He’s catching on to absurdist humor like Monty Python and he himself is naturally funny as hell.
You get into this Daddy thing and you keep an open mind. If you don’t, you get frustrated. But you get frustrated only when you make it about yourself. You love your children for what they are, and you call them out when they need calling out. You share the things you love with them, and listen to them when they talk, in The Dude’s case on and on and on, about the things they love. You cherish the miracle as much as your spirit will allow. That’s what I’ve learned in eleven years of being The Dude’s Father. I’ll be writing plenty more about him in the future, God willing, but for now, I’ll leave you with a Happy Father’s Day. It’s a day I don’t take for granted.