An Au‑some New Year
When I was a teenager and into my twenties, the months leading up to New Year’s Eve brought so much anticipation. It was the one evening of the year that we were allowed to stay out all night and party until dawn; for those 24 hours, we were young and free, and the world was ours. We buzzed with excitement, with uncertainty: Which party would we be invited to? What would we wear? Would we be kissed at midnight? Anyone who grew up in the 80s in Bombay will remember a host of “traditions” from this time, one of my favourites being no matter which party you got invited to, in the end we would all meet for breakfast at the shamiana at The Taj Hotel and watch the sun rise over the New Year in a golden moment together at The Gateway of India.
A lifetime later, I must admit that the allure and importance that I gave to 31 December has dimmed. The arrival of our son, Tristan, seven years ago and the ensuing sleepless nights left me sleep deprived and annoyed with the concept of staying up until 12 or being awakened by fireworks. Other holidays dulled, too. Tristan didn’t react well to having people, even family and friends, in his home for Christmas dinners and brunches. We learned to adapt, downplay and downsize our family festive spirit. But one thing that didn’t change was the uncertainty of the holidays; if anything, it amplified as we raised a boy who found the rearrangement of furniture unsettling and twinkling lights and fireworks frightening.
With each passing year, Tristan grew and changed in ways we could not have imagined. We learned to experiment, to accept that everything was going to be about trial and error. There was no way to predict the kind of night he would have, the mood he would be in, or his reaction to something he had been disinterested in or anxious about the previous year. We realized we had to challenge the very concept of tradition, of celebrating in the same way each year, in order to raise our son.
It was a daunting prospect; for most people, ourselves included, holidays were about tradition. There may be variations on a theme, but there’s a continuity that ties the years, the generations together. But it was also thrilling, in a way. Cut loose from expectations and custom, we were filled with the spirit of adventure, and my love of surprises was constantly fed.
We decided we were going to try everything.
We started with aisle seats at movie theatres and musicals, in case we needed to leave, then we advanced to Disney on Ice, a two-hour show that Tristan loved and sang and danced to. In 2015, we took him to Universal Studios in Singapore, where he went on his first roller coaster, dragging me on repeat rides before he told me he had had enough. On another holiday, the boy who previoulsy couldn’t bear having goggles or a snorkel on his face made me stand in a long queue to go snorkelling. This was a surprise I wasn’t thrilled with. In fact, I was panicked, warning all the lifeguards that my son had autism and please help if we needed it. But Tristan snorkelled without a problem, right next to me, while I cried into my mask with pride.
It has left us with a new, unexpected holiday tradition: trust. Trust that everything will be the way it’s meant to be, and — good or bad — we will deal with it together. I have virtually retired the word “expectations” from my vocabulary and have replaced it with “surprises.” I give credit to my son for this realisation; when I expect, I am almost always disappointed. When I don’t expect, when I trust instead, I am always surprised in a good and positive way.
Last year, Tristan started waking up to be with us on New Year’s, to sing along with whatever countdown television show happened to be on or cuddle and doze before watching the fireworks from inside our home.
This year was the first time we actually left our home together.Tristan had his ear warmers on and stood between his grandmother and me while his father set off a beautiful fireworks display on our street. It was the first time he didn’t panic. Instead, he gave his father a verbal countdown for every firework that was lit. We were surprised.
Oprah calls moments like these her “Aha” moments; I refer to mine as my “Haha” moments because my son has shown me how much fun a revelation and a surprise can be. When you don’t take yourself too seriously and remember we’re works in progress, autistic or not, it becomes easier to embrace the unexpected. We may not have holiday traditions like most people, but we have them all the same, and they are precious. So, we keep pushing boundaries; sometimes, we try the same thing every year and hope for a different reaction from Tristan. As Ellen Notbohm said, “When you lapse into thinking of all the things your child with autism cannot do, remember to add ‘yet.'” You never know what will happen next year.