When Kalyn Falk was explaining to a reporter why her son jumped in the river, beginning with “our house burned down six weeks ago, and we’ve had a lot of stress,” she realized her family’s story wouldn’t fit in a sound bite. The result is Mother of the Year and Other Elusive Awards, an honest look at the humour and heartbreak of raising a child with profound autism.
My fear with biographies by autism parents is that they’ll be dark (“I wish he’d never been born,”), sappy (“Autism is God’s greatest gift”) or false (“You too can cure your child”). Mother of the Year is none of these. Falk’s tone is tender and playful – at times raw – and whether her son is painting the dog or sighing in his sleep, Noah is never objectified, never disrespected.
As a mother of two on the spectrum, I felt déjà vu as I read many of Falk’s experiences: being cursed by passing bikers, finding bodies smothered in Vaseline, walking to the park without knowing if you’ll make it back. I resonated with the way autism “turns you into a traitor” because when you want to champion your child, you “must be persistent in pointing out [his] flaws” to gain the support and funding he needs. Falk’s admission that, though children with autism need a rigid schedule, (like me) she’s bad at maintaining structure was freeing.
Falk debunks the perception that parents of high need children are “special.” We worry about our weight, we wish we hadn’t let our husbands pick out the toiletries, and some days, we just feel like swearing. Falk’s self-deprecating humour and vulnerability endear her to her readers.
It’s the everyday details in the middle of traumatic events that make the story come alive: the ill-fitting items she purchased under pressure the night of the fire, the dark humour of a neighbour ringing the doorbell to ask, “Is Noah supposed to be on the roof?”
The self-published book reads as a series of short, mostly chronological articles, each with its own theme: warning signs, siblings, service dogs, the gifts of autism and the costs. Some shifts from third to second person and from past to present were distracting, and references to events before their full stories were told detracted from their impact, but on the whole, the structure made for a clear, engaging read with plenty of (needed) emotional breaks.
A spiritual director in Winnipeg, Falk brings her reflective wisdom to bear on her own experiences: “The act of admitting to the public that I could not handle my son on my own…was the first step in what I initially would call ‘my breakdown’ and would later term ‘getting over myself.’ An ongoing battle.” Though she admits her stories “aren’t really icebreakers, they’re anvils,” it’s apparent she’s filtered painful events through prayer, leaving the reader feeling enriched, never dumped on. She trusts her readers with difficult questions: “Should we put ‘Goodbye Fear’ on the calendar?” “How do you differentiate between waiting and wishful thinking?” and resists the temptation to offer answers.
While she doesn’t go into detail about how her faith shapes her parenting, Falk does comment on where her Mennonite upbringing intersects with life: “Some debts cannot be paid back. The no-nonsense Mennonite part of me cannot accept this. We are raised to be givers, not receivers.” And she’s often inspired by the liturgy, supportive Christian community, and authors of faith like Madeleine L’Engle and Annie Dillard.
My only caution is Don’t read this in public. It’s almost impossible to read without reacting audibly: I laughed, I gasped, I snorted.
At the Winnipeg launch, when Falk read, “Either my dignity has been permanently scarred, or I have finally come to the understanding that there is no need to apologize for my boy being who he is,” the theatre broke into spontaneous applause. After reading her story of Noah’s acceptance at school, I too “have hope that we are, in small ways, learning to become human.”
Falk’s freedom to not push herself physically is a fitting metaphor for parenting a high needs child: “I am still not running. Sometimes I saunter. Usually it’s just a plain old chubby, middle-aged lady walk.” Her next words (worth the price of the book alone) have become my motto: “I have to remind myself daily that this is kindness, not failure.”
Through her own vulnerability, Falk offers parents of all stripes permission to be imperfect. The award for most liberating book of 2013 goes to Mother of the Year.