-Sean and Annette Hughes are the founders of Care For Us, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping special needs parents and their kids be the best they can be. This is Part-3 of a series chronicling their story. For previous posts click here.
When I got home, my parents were anxiously waiting for me. I quickly told them what the assessor had told me, handed Aidan to one of them and ran upstairs. I don’t even remember if I acknowledged my other children. I remember hearing my father tell my mother not to follow me. I sat alone on my bed in an exhausted haze. I was sobbing and felt sick to my stomach.
I knew. I had known for eight months. How could I have let eight months go by! The average diagnosis for autism is well over three. Aidan was still two months away from his third birthday, by most standards I was early. So why was I feeling so guilty? I know now that it was the grieving process, a very real phase that all parents of special needs children go through. But at the time, I just felt like I had let him down.
I first learned about Autism on Oprah and was instantly fascinated and confused by it. Every child acted differently. I couldn’t make sense of it at all. But the epidemic was on the rise and we teachers and older parents were being told to be on the watch for it. And now it happened to us. To my son. Aidan was now a statistic.
As I sat there in that dark state, I had what I can only describe as an out of body experience. I felt like the air was sucked out of the room. I could hear wind but there was none. Then I felt an overwhelming calm and peace. I heard the words, from somewhere.
Everything is going to be OK.
I have always been a believer, grounded in my faith. I had felt this feeling of calm before in dark times. I was feeling it again.
Aidan is going to be fine, you are going to be fine, I am with you.
In that moment, my darkest moment, I felt peace. I believed it.
All of Aidan’s life I had been worried about him. We got pregnant with him when his older brother was just nine months old. Because I was older, in my late 30’s and the pregnancies were so close together, I was considered high risk. We were poked and prodded all the way through it. The entire pregnancy Aidan measured small and had low movement. At 20 weeks we had advanced genetic testing done and it was nerve wracking. On the car ride to get the results, I told Sean that I didn’t care what the tests were we are keeping this baby. He was less sure but it was clear the entire notion seemed to panic him. But it forced the thought. I believe to this day that the process was God’s way of planting the seed in us.
So there I was, three years later and for the first time in Aidan’s life, I felt that I was not going to lose him. Not in the way I feared, not in any way. After Aidan was born I had panic attacks brought on by the overwhelming feeling that something horrible was going to happen to him. I never told anyone. I chalked it up to postpartum emotions. But it never completely went away. I was always watching over him too closely and holding him too tight. I would have dreams of him getting cancer or getting in a car accident. I was in a constant fear that I kept all to myself.
But on that day, the day when I should have been feeling that my worst fears had come true, I felt peace. I felt the Lord tell me that this is what He had been preparing me for.
You are not going to lose him. I am with you.
Within minutes of that realization, the phone rang. It was Sean. He told me everything was going to be OK, and that Aidan was still our beautiful little boy, and that he was coming home to us.
It took me a few hours to work up the courage to tell someone. I didn’t know what to say. Or how to start the conversation. All I knew was that I needed to get home because I didn’t think that there was going to be a home to get to if I didn’t. But I didn’t know how to ask. And I didn’t know how I felt about leaving my guys. I wasn’t vain enough to think that they couldn’t do it without me. They could. That’s the kind of troop we built. But I also knew, that if I left, and anything happened to any of them, I don’t know if I would ever get over it.
That morning after the mission spun down I found myself alone with the operations officer in our shared office. He was technically my boss but he was the same rank as I was and had graduated just a year ahead of me at Annapolis. We’d become friends over the last three months. But still I struggled to find the words. So I just blurted them out.
“I talked to Annette today. Aidan was diagnosed with autism.”
He wasn’t married. And he didn’t have any kids. And the last time he was out there he’d lost some of his platoon and got shot up pretty bad himself. I had no idea what he was going to say. He’d sacrificed much for this war and somehow I felt lesser for asking him what I felt like I needed to ask him. For what seemed like an eternity he just sat there.
“I’m sorry to hear that Sean.” he said in the direct, clear way he spoke to everyone in just about every circumstance. Then he asked me the question I didn’t have the courage to answer.
“What do you need?”
I couldn’t get the words out. But he knew. And he never made me ask it.
“Let’s go talk to the skipper.”
Standing in my commanding officer’s office, I told him what Annette had told me. Without hesitation he looked up from his stack of papers and told me I needed to go home. He didn’t ask.
I responded apologetically. “Just a week, maybe two, just to help set everything up for his treatment and the medical crap.” .
“So you’ll be back the middle of December?” he asked.
“That’s the plan.” I said.
“That’s a stupid plan.” he said and then he paused and looked me square in the eye and said something that I know now, probably saved my family.
“Don’t come back until after Christmas. Go take care of your family Sean. We need you. But we need you right. And I don’t want you here if you’re not. We’ll be fine until then.”
And that was it. He drafted a release letter to get me out of the war. And our air planner got me a flight out, scheduled a week later. I called Annette and let her know and told her that everything was going to be OK. And that no matter what, we’d get through it. I didn’t believe it. But it was my script. Over the last fifteen years or so I learned to deliver it through other times that didn’t end up OK either. So I did it one more time.
Over the next few days, the shutdown began. When I wasn’t at my desk or in the planning room working, I was locked in my trailer sitting in the dark. Thanksgiving came and my guys knocked on the door and asked if I was going to eat. I sat there silently and waited for them to leave. A dark rage began to grow inside me and all I wanted to do was feed it. It felt good. It was consuming and it helped me focus. If I let it wane, my thoughts would scatter and the sadness would come.
When the day came for my flight, I sent a two line email to my lieutenants telling them that I was heading home for a few weeks and why. That night we kicked off a heavy operation sweeping through the desert rolling up known terrorists, our largest of the deployment. I worked the plan all the way until my ride took me to the helo and out of Iraq. The last thing I saw on the screen in the ops center was an overhead view of multiple tactical units moving on targets. I was bathing in anger, secretly hoping for violence. And then I was gone.
Two helicopter flights, a C-130 and then a commercial flight out of Kuwait and in less than 36 hours I was on a plain touching down at Lindbergh field in San Diego. I still had the Jazirah Desert dust on me as I walked through the airport. And then they were there. My wife and my three boys. It was night, way past their bed times, but she had gotten them dressed and brought them. They looked so different. Ben was huge. Ryan, just an infant when I left, was unrecognizable. And then there was Aidan. He had a distant gaze that fixed on me as soon as I knelt down to hug him.
“Daddy’s home” he said.