Autism Awareness Month

Unclutter My Heart

The impossible task of getting rid of my kids' stuff.

I will be the first to admit I am something of a pack rat. My husband likes to throw around the word “hoarder,” but as we are not living among stacks of broken microwaves and families of raccoons, I feel the term “pack rat” is a better descriptor.

I have always been this way. Sentimental and a saver of things. Living in a shoebox-sized Brooklyn apartment (as I have for most of my adult life) can make this a troublesome habit. My husband and I have one of those bed frames that has huge storage drawers underneath, drawers that I am sure were intended for things like bed linens nestled in sachets of lavender, but into which I have crammed photos, my son’s artwork, old letters, my high school journals, and Playbills. We sleep, quite literally, on a bed of my memories, and it’s a wonder my husband’s dreams aren’t twisted visions of Oklahoma!, finger-paintings, and lovesick poems about Travis Cox, “the hottest senior boy ever.”

So recently, when my husband decided it was time we update our son’s room and replace his long, ornate baby dresser with a “big boy dresser,” I could feel myself resist. Even though I knew he was right. The old dresser had initially been selected so it could also double as an infant changing table. Considering our son is now 10 and five feet tall, he is in fact well beyond a “big boy.”

Parenting can feel like witnessing one of the weirdest, most surreal, slow motion magic tricks on earth.

When I finally forced myself to go pull his Star Wars t-shirts and Spongebob sweatshirts out of the dresser, I discovered a flash card jammed at the back of a drawer. The card showed a photograph of a cupcake. I stared at it, and for a moment, I was lost in a memory of my son as a toddler receiving Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. I remembered how much he delighted in the picture of the cupcake — and how much we delighted in him learning the word “cupcake.”

I felt a tug in my chest, as if a fishing line had become hooked on my heart, and someone had given it a yank. I gazed at the long-forgotten card, then at the dresser, now not wanting to part with either.

Many parents feel attached to baby items, I think partly because parenting can feel like witnessing one of the weirdest, most surreal, slow motion magic tricks on earth. One minute you’re nursing your newborn at 3 a.m., the next you’re clutching that child’s hand as they climb onto the school bus. It can feel like a trick of both the mind and the eye: How am I washing a youth medium Minecraft hoodie, when it feels like only yesterday I was pairing socks the size of cotton balls?

For some of us, holding on to baby items can feel like trying to hold on to a moment in time, especially those big, milestone moments. The little booties your son was wearing when he took his first steps. The plastic bulldozer he was clutching when he first said, “I love you.”

And if your child struggles to meet certain milestones, as my son did, well, this stuff can have even bigger, heart-thrumming feelings attached to it. A cupcake flashcard can become so much more than a stock photo of a pastry with sprinkles.

Having a child with autism was sometimes incredibly difficult and confusing, but the flip side of that was that every achievement also felt like a call for fireworks and champagne.

My son was diagnosed with autism at 19 months, and much of his toddlerhood was filled with therapy. Therapies that were tremendously helpful, and that were conducted by kind, skilled therapists whom my son adored. We remain immensely grateful for this, as we are all too aware of how many families struggle not just to find decent therapists, but to get any therapy at all. That said, weekly rounds of ABA, Speech, OT, and PT was not how I had imagined my son’s early years. If typical parenting was like simply walking into a room, our entrance felt more Floor Is Lava — lots of frenzied leaps, slipping and occasionally landing hard, while grabbing wildly at whatever might prove useful.

It was sometimes incredibly difficult and confusing, but the flip side of that was that every achievement also felt like a call for fireworks and champagne. Every new word, every lifting of a spoon, a cause for elation. Which I think is part of the reason it’s so emotional for me to let go of my son’s old toys, tiny clothes, and baby furniture. A cord of intense memory feels tied from every object directly to my gut.

One of the most difficult things I ever got rid of was my son’s tiny, paint-splattered toddler table. As a small child, he’d sat there learning how to say duck and purple, struggling to properly pinch a crayon in a tripod grasp. But by five he’d long outgrown it, his long, grasshopper legs barely fitting underneath. So I placed the table on the curb with its matching chairs, knowing someone would pick it up the second I turned my back. And they would never know how my son's tiny finger had traced the letter A in shaving cream onto its surface, over and over and over again. I stood at the door and stared at that little IKEA table for several minutes. I snapped a photo of it with my phone. I felt ridiculous, but it felt hard to let go.

The photo I snapped of my son’s Ikea table, left on the sidewalk in Brooklyn for another famiy to claim.Courtesy of the author.

But let go I did. And do. I let go of the baby dresser. And the toy monkey that hooted, the one the speech therapist thought encouraged vocal play. And the red rubber disc my son sat on that was supposed to help him focus, but that we ended up using as a kind of makeshift frisbee. Over the years I’ve let go of an endless stream of things. And not just because of a lack of storage or the groans of my husband, but because it’s the right thing to do. Other people have children who can use the furniture, and wear the onesies, and play with the puzzles.

Watching my son grow and learn and teach us about who he is as a person has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. But as he’s gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the story of his life (and the story of my own journey as a mother) these things are forever unfolding, one moment to the next. And these moments — the difficult times, the frustrating ones, the ecstatic ones, the moments of pure gut-busting joy — they are all braided together. But that braid isn’t connected to any one object; it is with me always, connected to the past, but also constantly spooling its way onwards.

There are some things I will not part with: The Freddie Mercury costume my mom made my son for Halloween when he was four, with the arm tassels that keep getting caught in the closet door. The cupcake flashcard. The other day when our bed shifted, a ticket stub from Lillith Fair slid beneath my foot. It was from 1998, and cost $13. And I swear for a moment I could smell a waft of patchouli, could feel the ghost of a cheap choker encircling my throat. I would say it most definitely sparked joy. Or at the very least, the lyrics to Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession.” (Listen as the wind blows…)

I tucked it back into the storage drawer.