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America.

The land of the free and the home of the brave.

Amber waves of grain waving under the spacious skies.

Purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.

From sea to shining sea.

This land that we love is what we celebrate every July 4th with hot dogs, hamburgers, watermelon, Coca-Cola (or Pepsi or IBC Root Beer), waving American flags hung from flag poles around the country,  houses or standing proud in clever centerpieces; lighting sparklers and only slightly illegal fireworks shot off at home; huddled together on a blanket on the National Mall or with the rest of the town at a local field oohing and aahing together at the exploding colors in the twilight sky. Feeling the boom of the finale and staring in wonder with maybe a tear or two remembering how we came to be where we are. Remembering the sacrifices of those who have gone before, celebrating our loved ones who fought for our freedom.

Five years ago, our family went to Union Station in Kansas City for a big July 4th American festival complete with a fireworks show that matched the booming canons fired during Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. We were excited to gather together and stand with our children watching the big show. But Samuel was having none of it. We did not yet have a diagnosis so we didn’t fully realize all of the difficulties he had then. He screamed incessantly, hating the whole event. We were frustrated, feeling a bit gipped as we looked around watching other parents with children on their shoulders, or in their parents’ arms smiling and laughing with glee.

Fast forward two years when he was four. We spent the 4th at the local polo fields where the whole town gathers for a big show. Families bring their blankets and coolers and stake out their spot, but there’s really not a bad place to sit. The kids had a blast running around with their friends, buying popsicles that melted way too fast in the heat thus creating a majorly sticky-hands mess (thank goodness for wipes!). The show started at 9pm, and a few of us church families found each other and sat together. Brightly raining rainbows filled the night sky as we pointed and tried to show Sam that it really was fun and exciting to watch. He was not convinced. He shrieked with every boom, covering his ears and crying that only became louder and longer, headed fast toward outright screaming. Friends tried to tell him it was okay, but he was long gone. Kyle and I looked at each other with a look that you autism parents know well – the one that says, “Well, we tried and it didn’t work. Guess we should have known. Let’s leave before everyone here hates us.” I stayed with Benjamin and Joshua since they were loving it, and Kyle took Sam to the van since he was screaming in utter terror. After the finale, I found Kyle in the crowded parking lot (thank goodness for cell phones) and we all piled in the van. He had the most dejected look on his face. Sam’s face was red and streaked with tears.We were exhausted.

For the last two years, we refrained from taking Sam and Josh to the big show since Josh developed a fear of the loud noises too. One year Kyle and Ben walked to the polo fields to watch and last year they took the metro into DC for the show at the Capitol on the National Mall. We watched the show on T.V. and I had to keep Samuel calm as he heard all the noise from the local show just down the road but was hidden from view. When he gets scared, he asks a million questions. “Will the fireworks hurt us? What will happen if a firework lands in our yard? What if there’s fire in the sky? Is the power going to go out? Is it going to be dark? Will the fireworks get on our house?” On and on they went. It took hours for him to go to sleep.

July 4th has brought nothing but tension, fear, and terrible anxiety not only for Samuel, but for us too. We know what’s coming and try to prepare ourselves for the worst. This year, we spent the day at my parents’ house. They had bought several fireworks to shoot off in the driveway (they live in a spacious cul de sac with a long gravel driveway) along with a few boxes of sparklers. All three boys were excited about it getting dark and Sam kept asking when were we going to do fireworks. Finally, we all went outside; Kyle and my dad set up the fireworks in the driveway and my brother Matt set up his camera on the tripod in the grass. My mom (Gran) had the lighter and opened the box of sparklers. One at a time, the boys held their sparkler and waited for Gran to light it. Sam anxiously held the bottom, asking questions about getting hurt, what would happen if fire got on him, or what would happen if he threw it on the ground, etc. Excitement lit his eyes as the sparkler fizzed in his hand. He waved it around and held it as far away from his body as possible, asking with an elevated voice what was going to happen. After seeing it just went out on its own, he ran back for another. And another and another and another.

The men had their assorted pyrotechnics set up and ready to light so we all stood back and watched the cute little fountain of lights that sprang up from the candles on the ground. As more and more were lit, smoke blew into the yard, and all the boys ran towards it. I watched them run in the yard, their hands out to their sides, shirts flapping in the wind as they ran, and tears filled my eyes. I stood next to my mom and noted how two years ago, this would not have been possible – holding sparklers and standing within 50 feet of fireworks being lit and going off. I said for the very first time, “It feels like a ‘normal’ Fourth of July.” She put her arm around me and said, “Yes, it IS a normal Fourth of July. He’s come so far. God is good, all the time.”

This year, Samuel held sparklers and I was able to watch the reflection of the bright light in his sweet awe-filled eyes. This year, Samuel smiled and laughed with glee, clapping his hands and yelling, “Happy fourth of July!” after every display died down. This year, he wore his earphones that helps with noise but took them off because he didn’t need them. This year, he still asked a thousand questions about what would happen if…? This year, Samuel still has autism. But this year, I loved my son with autism in the middle of a fireworks show at home. I didn’t cry out of exasperation and resentment that autism makes this experience different than everyone else’s. I cried out of joy because of the grace of God in the life of my son and our family, and especially in my own heart towards Samuel.

Next year, there will be fireworks to watch on the Fourth of July. Next year, there will be sparklers to hold and wave around. Next year, there might still be earphones and questions. Next year, I’ll still have my son with autism. But next year, I’ll love him more than I do this year. Next year, we will have had another 365 days behind us. Next year, I’ll watch all my sons’ red, white and blue shirts flap in the wind as they run, reminding me of the red, white and blue flag that waves in the wind at the top of the flag pole that stands for the freedom we have that we celebrate with fireworks. And next year, Lord willing, I’ll cry again in thankfulness for the grace of God for bringing us through another year in this great land that we love.

Happy birthday, America. Here’s to another year.

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