Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Remember the Kayak

Carrie Cariello and her husband, Joe, live in New Hampshire. The have five children; four boys and one girl. Their second son, Jack, has autism. (No, their daughter, Rose, is not the youngest. The youngest is Henry, a child born nine months after the urologist canceled Joe’s appointment.)

“Saturday. Saturday is Miss Jennifer’s wedding.”

“I know Jack,” I said. “It’s going to be on a lake so we have to be extra careful—”

“She is a favorite person. To me.”

Usually when people say they want our five to come to formal events, I smile and shrug my shoulders and say politely, “Really, don’t feel pressure to invite them. It’s okay.” But inside I’m shrieking, “Are you crazy? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!”

If we do get invited to a wedding en masse, I try to make excuses as to why the kids can’t make it. “Oh, they’re all busy! Baseball and soccer and stuff. Henry joined the Peace Corps so he’ll be abroad. But put Joe and I down for the tenderloin. And what kind of cake are you going to have?”

But this time, I made an exception, because Miss Jennifer was getting married.

We met her six years ago at Picture People, and right away she started to babysit for us. She cleaned up messes and helped potty train Henry and read The Chocolate Surprise during her weekly visits. She was amazing, and eventually, Joe stole her to work at his office.

But she remains a special part of our family, especially for our son Jack.

I always want us to look together for these things. I bought the matching plaid shirts and we combed the matching hair, but somehow, someway, on the ride there, the hair started to stick up in weird places and the plaid shirts crumpled and untucked.

(Except for five-year old Henry. His pants wouldn’t button so we had to leave his shirt untucked anyway.)

As we pulled into the lake house, we gave the talk; the instructions for the day. Keep quiet during the ceremony, do not touch the bride or her dress, and no fingers on the cake.

We did not, however, have the prudence—the foresight—to warn about a kayak.

(Note: this is called foreshadowing. It’s meant to keep you excited and engaged throughout my narrative.)

Jack’s been really tough for us lately. I’m not even sure how to describe his behavior. He’s impulsive and determined and a little belligerent. He has this new independent streak going on, but not a lot of judgment to temper it.

Basically, he’s a 10-year old boy with autism.

And he tends to look, well, how shall I put it? He looks very special in these situations. I feel bad saying that but it’s true. Those of you with non-special children may find that inappropriate, and those of you with special kiddos in your life may be offended, but I don’t know any other way to describe it.

For one thing, he can’t seem to control his body. The excitement of the day takes over; so much to touch and see and smell and do! He stims and grunts and zooms around, yelling out weird phrases he picks up from the lovely and educational Cartoon Network, like, “This is so disturbing!”

Trust me when I say that we are not embarrassed by him. If anything, his stimming is part of my background noise, the tympani of my day. But I am mindful that other people may or may not want their wedding vows punctuated by a ten-year old boy shouting something he heard Sponge Bob Square Pants say.

We got through the ceremony okay. Henry’s pants stayed up and our eight-year-old son Charlie dropped the frog he caught just before the music started. Jack rocked a few times but otherwise remained quiet, and tween Joey didn’t roll his eyes once. Our six-year old daughter, Rose, stood in awe, as the bride walked down the aisle in her long white gown.

Afterwards, we filed into the reception area to admire the decorations and décor; the bride and groom’s initials in bright yellow, flowers tied with ribbons and candles in glass bowls. The personal touches! The details! Weddings like this make mine look as though we got married in a big box store under fluorescent lighting.

There was a little basket full of coasters made from wood, and guests were asked to leave pieces of advice for the newlyweds. I caught a glimpse of what other people wrote, sweet things like never go to bed angry and the couple who prays together stays together. In his big loopy handwriting, Jack wrote, “I met your sister Donna today.”

This wouldn’t have been so bad, given the circumstances, except her sister’s name is Dawn.

And the cake! Please, the cake. The cake was set in the middle of the dance floor during lunch, all three yummy tiers of it. For the rest of the meal we yelled at Jack to get away from it, because nothing says “Congratulations! You’re married!” quite like a boy with autism stimming into the wedding cake and knocking it to the floor.

Then there was a wooden bench that the groom made by hand. It was beautiful. It was symbolic of family, strength, and everlasting love, and after lunch the bride’s brother announced that everyone should write a special message and sign their name.

On the bench.

Armed with black Sharpies, all five of my kids raced over to the aforementioned bench. But I have no idea what they wrote because I was too scared to look. I just prayed they spelled their own names right and no one drew anything that looked like this:


[Picture Inserted Here]


Henry drew this because he was mad I wouldn’t let him have more Cheez-Its.

When the dances were finished, everyone headed outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. The men took off their ties and loaded kids into paddle boards and canoes for a quick trip around the lake. I sat on the boathouse with Rose in my lap, soaking in the sun and talking about what kind of wedding she’d like to have.

I looked towards shore and saw Jack pulling a kayak off of the sand. “Jack? No buddy, we aren’t going to take that out. Those tip really easily.” He looked up and nodded, and satisfied that he’d understood my answer, I turned back to Rose.

“So, I don’t have a sister but maybe Daddy could be my maid of honor?”

“Well, um, usually—“

Mid-sentence, I was interrupted by a high-pitched shriek I’d recognize anywhere. I looked back to the shore to see Jack standing—drenched—in two feet of water, screaming in front of fifty-plus people with the kayak tipped over by his side.

And I was, excuse my language, pissed. Seeing red pissed. As in I’d-better-sit-here-for-a-moment-and-collect-myself kind of pissed. I took a deep breath, stood up, and made my way over to him. With one hand on his shoulder, I propelled him onto the sand. “Jack,” I whispered-screamed. “You disobeyed me. I am very angry.”

(Note: “Whisper-scream” is a tactic I use to appear as though I’m calm (whisper) but I’m really, really mad (scream). It involves screwing your face up like an alien.)

At the end of the reception, after the top of the cake had been preserved for the first anniversary and the last picture taken, the bride and groom climbed into a rowboat and paddled off into the sunset.

(Watching their silhouettes on the water, I paused for a moment to reflect once more on my own wedding, and how my mother’s date at the time, a man named Al, ate the top of my cake on the car ride home. Apparently, Al was hungry.)

The next morning I caught Jack trying to plug the waffle iron in after I told him to wait for my help. I curled my lips around my teeth and hissed, “Remember the KAYAK!” and he jumped back, startled by the memory. “I tipted it over,” he remembered sadly.

Huh, I thought to myself. Maybe he learned something. Maybe the memory of the kayak sliding out from underneath him and the cold rush of water and wet pants will help keep his impulses at bay. For now, anyway.

That night Joe and I watched the video he took of the bride and groom sailing off on the lake. And we almost fell off the couch laughing. Because standing on the boathouse in the background is none other than Jack himself, white towel clutched around his waist, black dress socks pulled to his bony knees, waving his little heart out to his favorite person in the world.

It was as special as special can be.


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