Photo: Elizabeth North

As a child, did you ever wake early with anticipation? Were you one of the children who rushed to see exactly what was under the tree? I was. Patience was never a strong suit and surprises are something I am still not a fan of. In fact, Christmas memories are some of my favorite from my childhood.

My mom, her sisters, sometimes her brothers, their spouses, and up to 11 kids crammed into one home for up to a week celebrating not only the magic of Christmas but the blessing of life, of family. We had some crazy times, from almost losing a child in the snow to my all-time favorite memory waking early to meet my cousin face to face crawling around long before we were “allowed” to be up. As we faced off under a pile of gifts we both startled and then gulped in as much air as possible to keep from blowing our cover. The belly laughs and joy we held within continues to resonate in my mind nearly 30 years later.   

The excitement of Christmas and preparing our hearts and mind for the holiday season could be compared to the preparation for parenthood, for the dreams you create for the children you expect. Sometimes, however, you receive the unexpected. In those moments, emotions swell. Perhaps you’re weighed down by disappointment, fear, anxiety, pain, sadness. Perhaps you wonder how you will feel strength or find a way to be thankful for a life you didn’t anticipate? In those moments, however, if you take a deep breath and step back you may begin to see it, to feel it, and to understand the gift is so much more than what you actually wanted it was in fact what you actually needed.   

Autism is like that. The last five years have changed almost everything in our lives. While it has taken so much, in the end, I choose to look at what it has given me. Today, I reflect and see how much I have grown, how much this wasn’t supposed to be a journey but my destiny to challenge, change myself and walk beside a child who was intended for me.   

In dark moments, I have found what matters. People who care have come out of places I never expected. True friends have stuck around and I have been blessed to meet people in my life I never would have encountered if it weren’t for autism. Autism has taught me patience. It taught me to be present, to acknowledge the small moments of growth. It has taught me that unwrapping the most precious gift may not look like what I wanted or expected but in the end, it’s better than I could have ever imagined.   

As this holiday season is upon us, I could choose to be sad, to be mad, to be angry for what could have been or what I wanted—I spent too many years like that. Instead, I can choose to seek the joy in what is, in the moments that matter, and cherish what we have because reality is, there is a gift when you choose to unwrap it.