These past few weeks have brought a few firsts for Martin. Actually, for me, Martin, and Adrian. Here come three posts on firsts.
Since Martin’s diagnosis three-and-a-half years ago, we have not used any babysitters other than Samara, the nanny who’s cared for Martin since he was a baby; Janine, a special-education graduate student who worked with Martin through Early Intervention and whom we subsequently hired privately; and family members. Having a kid with autism made me skittish to rely on the neighborhood teenagers for babysitting. Having a kid recovering from autism only added complications. Who wants to explain food restrictions, homeopathic drops, and supplements?
Shortly after we moved to our new suburban home, a 14-year-old neighbor named Justin rang our doorbell, introduced himself, and volunteered that he would be happy to babysit anytime. He seemed a respectable and well-spoken young man.
Still, I didn’t go for it.
At least, not until nine months later, when circumstances intervened. Samara needed to return to her country of origin for six weeks. Adrian and I had a Friday evening dinner date in the City, scheduled months earlier, with old friends. Because of a calendar mix-up and (Adrian’s) work travel, we’d had to cancel two dates in a row with this couple, and I was determined not to miss a third. Janine works elsewhere on Fridays.
(Justin, coincidentally, stopped by a second time and offered his services.)
What to do, what to do?
I waited until a Tuesday afternoon when I knew Justin would be at school, then slipped next door to speak with his mother. I presented a brief outline of Martin’s challenges (“speech and language delays, and something like Asperger’s syndrome, depending on which highly paid expert we consult”) and asked whether she thought Justin would be up to the task.
Justin’s mother listened. She posed a few relevant questions. She said, “I think Justin can handle it. And he’s a pretty honest kid. If he’s in over his head, he’ll say something.” Then she asked where Martin goes to kindergarten. When I told her—Martin attends a private institution for children with speech and language delays—she responded, “I know that school. We considered at it for my younger son. He’s speech-delayed.” And what evening did we want Justin to babysit? Friday? Friday would work well. “My husband and I will both be home all night,” she said, “so if Justin needs help, we could come over.”
Oh? Oh? Justin has a younger brother with speech delays? Justin parents will be next door the entire time, ready to spring into action if problems arise?
Even I had to admit that, if we were ever going to use a neighborhood babysitter, this set-up was darn close to perfect.
Arrangements were made. Martin was informed that “Justin the teenager” would “come over to play with him” on Friday. Subsequently Martin was informed that Mommy and Daddy would go out to eat while Justin the teenager was here playing with him. Finally Martin was informed that Justin the teenager would be helping him with bedtime while Mommy and Daddy were out to eat.
To my surprise, Martin appeared unfazed by these revelations. Friday morning, he boarded the school bus with a smile, excited that a teenager was coming to play with him.
I spent all day Friday getting ready for Justin’s 5:00 pm arrival. The house was spotless. All laundry was washed and folded. Martin’s bed had fresh linens. The family room was ordered. (I couldn’t bear to have the neighbors think we’re slobs.) Martin’s dinner, dessert, and evening snack were prepared. Martin arrived home from school at 3:45 pm. Immediately I ushered him to the kitchen table for dinner. I reminded him that Justin was coming, that I was leaving to meet Daddy in the City, and that Justin would help him with bedtime. I added that, while Daddy and I were out, Justin would be in charge. Martin ate his dinner with no objection. By 4:45 pm, dinner, evening supplements, and the essential bedtime supplements—those that I consider non-essential, I decided to skip—were in Martin’s tummy.
Justin arrived. Martin ran away and hid his face, then showed up and waved hello, then fled again. I told Justin the following (note that supplements and recovery protocol never came up):
* Martin has “food allergies,” so please feed him only what I’ve specifically left for him. (Here, Justin conscientiously asked, “Does that extend to scent allergies? Will it be okay if I order dinner delivery?”)
* Martin should go to bed around 7:30 pm, but it is not the end of the world if he doesn’t, or if he doesn’t go to sleep. (Here, Justin conscientiously asked, “Does he brush his own teeth? Will I need to help him? Does he like to hear a story?”)
* I expect Martin to become upset, maybe throw a tantrum, when I leave. Don’t worry. He’ll calm down.
* We will be home by 11:00, and if when we get home Martin is alive, then we’ll consider the evening a success. The rest is icing on the cake.
At this point, I asked Justin to make sure that he had both my phone number and Adrian’s, and Justin pulled out a mobile phone in a New York Rangers case. When I asked if he is a fan, Justin responded that he babysits because he’s saving up for his own New York Rangers mini-plan, i.e., quarter-season tickets.
Plainly I had selected the world’s best 14-year-old to watch Martin.
It was time for me to leave. I kissed Martin goodbye and waited for him to wage his protest.
Only—he didn’t. He said ’bye and wandered into the family room with Justin.
I headed to Manhattan. I drove, instead of taking the train, just in case some emergency arose and I had to return home quickly. I told our dinner companions that Martin was at home with a teenage babysitter. They asked if I wanted to text Justin to check the situation at home. Adrian saw that I was nervous, and asked if I wanted to text Justin to check on the situation at home.
No, I said. I’m good. I’m going to let this run and see what happens. I left my phone on the table, next to my plate.
Under the table, I fidgeted.
In my head, I prayed.
Superficially, I chatted. And dinner elapsed.
Adrian and I arrived home at 10:40 pm. I entered the house tentatively. Would Justin be crying? Would Martin be running amok? Perhaps something would be on fire? We came in through the garage. I tiptoed into the kitchen and peeked—I’m serious: I peeked, and not without trepidation—into the family room.
Justin was doing some schoolwork he’d brought. He had the Rangers game on the television.
The rest of the house was peaceful.
No screaming. No blood stains, ambulances, or fire trucks.
“It went fine,” Justin reported with a shrug. A shrug! “He’s been sleeping since about 8:30.”
Adrian and I looked at each other. Had it really been that easy?
Apparently it had. I asked Justin how much we owed him, paid, and watched him walk next door.
That was that.
With Samara the nanny still away, Justin has babysat Martin two more evenings. Each visit requires hours of preparation. Supplements and exercises done in advance. Martin pre-fed. The household perfected.
And each hour of preparation has been exquisitely worthwhile, for Adrian and I have finally been able to enjoy what parents of typically developing kids might take for granted: the neighborhood teenage babysitter.