Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cowboy & Wills

A couple months ago, right before all the assorted major Jaymes issues, I got an email asking if I would like a copy of a book written by the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, and would I write a review. I generally really like doing reviews, because I love to read, although sometimes those reviews feel a little like I’ve sold out my blog for a free book.

This was, however, not the case! I got my copy of Cowboy & Wills, written by Monica Holloway, and decided to start skimming through the first chapter to see if I was going to like it. The book really grabbed me immediately, and I found myself wanting to read more and more. No, I did not want to stop to eat dinner. Nope, didn’t want to stop reading at night, despite it being two o’clock in the morning. I found myself cursing my uncooperative eyelids for having the audacity to keep closing when I wanted to know what happened next.

I’ve read quite a few books written from the perspective of the mother of a child on the spectrum. The biggest issue I’ve had in the past is feeling like so many of these books seem to exaggerate the seriousness of the assortment of behaviors the author’s child might be displaying. Things that to me, seem trivial. I’m not saying that is fair, but I am only human and it can be frustrating to read about a child who is so much more mildly afflicted with autism than my own child, who seems to struggle with everyday basics. The really special thing about Cowboy & Wills is the fact that the author really managed to illustrate the challenges Wills was facing, without eliciting that irritated response so many books bring out in me. She managed to make her son’s challenges so very vivid, with such relatable detail, and in describing her own thoughts, feelings, insecurities was able to make the connection other book’s authors have failed to make.

As I read, I actually found myself understanding a concept that (obviously ) I should have understood to begin with. It is very hard to keep in mind that while other people’s children can do things my own child cannot, those kids have their own difficulties and obstacles to overcome that are every bit as complicated, unnerving, and frustrating as any of Jaymes’ issues. True, Wills was able to read, write, talk, understand- all things Jaymes still cannot even begin to do understandably at almost seven years old. True, Wills did not smear poo on the walls or bite the dog’s ears or yank out his own teeth. But the way Wills’ mother described her son’s autistic behaviors, along with her own feelings of fear, sorrow, and inadequacy really hit it home for me. So many books just talk about these horrendous behaviors, while failing to really show the reader the big picture and the human emotions behind those behaviors. This book did it.

I’ve never fully understood what people living with the higher functioning autism went through. Whether this was through my own ignorance, or because I only really “got” what I saw at home I’ll never know. But for the first time, I actually read a book that described a child and mother living with autism that was hugely different from my own personal experience and I “got” it. One hundred and ten percent. It sounds silly, but this really was an incredible realization for me. I obviously knew that anyone dealing with autism deserved a TON of respect for the trials they and their children went through, but I could not fully appreciate it in many cases. Cowboy & Wills did it for me. I am incredibly grateful for the fresh perspective I gained after reading.

I enjoyed the way that the book began, it was almost like two separate stories (Wills story and Cowboy’s story) that eventually converged into one. In reading, I got to go along on Monica’s pet buying sprees, which were certainly not too far from my own. Apparently a pet buying obsession early on after diagnosis isn’t entirely unusual! I feel so much less insane. We too went through rabbits, cats, dogs, lizards, hedgehogs, gerbils… Though after awhile it became evident that Jaymes did not care one bit for those critters. It was only when we finally got to horses that Jaymes showed an interest. A bony, starved old gelding named Buddy turned out to be our “Cowboy.” And like Cowboy, Buddy was with us a much shorter time than he should have been.

It was such fun to “see” Wills’ transformation due to his wonderful dog, and really, one has to read the book twice to fully appreciate all the little things that Cowboy brought out in her boy. I love the creativity and the little oddities in the ways both Cowboy and Monica managed to bring out the best in Wills. Bringing Cowboy to school, using her as a connection to jump start conversation between Wills and his classmates, or to set up play dates… A bit unconventional, but really, genius. I especially enjoyed the way Monica and Cowboy would sit outside at appointments with the psychiatrist, even in the pouring rain, simply so Wills could look out the window and see them there. Little things like that are things that reach in and grab me, because I understand it. I’m the weirdo who walks slowly through the Target parking lot in the middle of a torrential downpour, while everyone around me is dashing to or from their cars in an effort to avoid getting any wetter the necessary. I ignore the funny looks from other people as we drip through the store aisles. I do this because Jaymes loves the rain. He giggles and laughs and is just so happy when we’re meandering into the store or back to the car and getting soaked in the process. We, as mothers of special needs children, do what needs to be done. And if that includes sitting with a dog on a stump in the rain, or passionately kissing a filthy stuffed jellyfish in a public place (don’t ask!)… Well, that’s just what we’ll do.

I will admit that the book ended, for me, in tears. Very sad ending, on one hand, but very uplifting on the other. I’ll let you readers see for yourself, rather than spoil it for you. So all in all, this is honestly the best autism book I have ever read. Expect to laugh, expect to cry, expect to learn a lot. Expect to read it twice, three times, maybe more. Expect to be eager to share this with your friends, to blog about it, to send it to someone you love. The story is heartwarming, compelling, and real. Whether you’re the parent of a child on the spectrum or a teacher, or just someone who thought the cover looked cute, this book will be worth the read. I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts.

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