Sunday, June 5, 2022

High School Graduation

Kai's graduation was last week. Graduations are always huge milestones, but for us it was especially meaningful due to the challenges that Kai overcame to get to this point. Throughout the time that Kai was in elementary and then middle school, he had attended therapeutic schools. Getting to attend our community's high school was always the dream, but it often seemed unlikely that Kai would make it.

But four years ago, we were surprised and happy when Kai was allowed to attend our local high school. He was very grateful for the opportunity, and was motivated to succeed.

Going from a small therapeutic school to a large mainstream school was definitely an adjustment, but Kai seemed to do okay through the first two years, albeit with a lot of ups and downs, and with the support of the wonderful special ed staff.

But toward the end of his sophomore year, the pandemic hit and remote learning was especially difficult for Kai. His junior year was very challenging and when he got off to a rough start in his senior year, we thought that he might have to return to a therapeautic school.

But Kai was able to overcome his anxieties and other challenges, again supported by the staff at school. He matured. And persevered. And had his best year at school.

And so this graduation day was symbolic of not just a passage of time, or a coming of age, but of overcoming adversity and hope for a brighter future.

* * * * *

For a while, we were not sure that my wife would be able to attend this momentous occasion.

She had to go to Japan following her father's passing. With no siblings, it was all her responsibility to settle her father's estate as well as to find a place for her mother to live where she would be supported. To do this while stricken with grief is never easy, and being away from her family added to the stress.

My wife wasn't sure how long it would take to accomplish everything she needed to do. Settling legal matters can take time in Japan and for a while it looked like she could be there for three months. But she was able to get things done quicker than first expected, and made it home seven weeks after she left, and just short of two weeks before Kai's graduation.

Kai and I managed at home but it was a happy day when Mom finally came home and we were reunited.
The graduation ceremony was held at Ravinia, an outdoor concert venue in our community. The forecast had called for rain but it turned out to be a beautiful day.
It was exciting when the graduates made their entrance and we saw Kai among them. We enjoyed all of the pomp... the school orchestra and chorale sounded good and the speeches were nice (and not too long).

But, of course, the moment we waited for was for the graduates names to be called and for them to walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.

It was nice for us that Kai was one of the first names called.

The rest of the ceremony was a bit of a blur. We caught up with Kai afterward.

I was wondering what his mood would be. Would he have gotten agitated that the ceremony was long? Did he think it was meaningful?

It was so nice to see that he was as happy and proud as we were. He had understood all that he had overcome to get to here and it meant so much to him.

We are not sure what the future will bring. But at this time, we enjoyed marking this most significant milestone.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Remembering Jiji

We were in New Orleans when we received word.

It was Kai's Spring Break and we were on our first spring trip since before the pandemic. We wanted to enjoy warmer weather, good food, and the unique qualities of New Orleans.

Earlier that evening, we had ventured out for dinner, timing our walk to the restaurant to avoid an approaching storm. From the weather radar, it looked like the worst of the storm would pass well north and west of us. We made it to the restaurant safely and just finished our meal when the rain really picked up and the power went out. The festive patrons in the restaurant cheered in the dark, and then several minutes later, gave a bigger cheer when power was restored. By the time we paid our bill, the storm had passed and we were able to walk back to our hotel.

We turned on the television and were shocked to learn that a devasting tornado had ripped through the city just five miles away. Kai got very upset at how close we were to the destruction.

We tried to calm him but thought the best idea would be to turn out the lights and try to sleep. A few minutes later, in the dark of our hotel room, Kai asked why Mom's phone kept lighting up. I figured it was more weather alerts and told Kai to go to sleep.

In the middle of the night, my wife woke me to say that she thought that something had happened to her dad. She had gotten up to use the bathroom and noticed that there had been repeated calls for her from several different people in Japan. At first her phone wouldn't make a call to Japan, but when she finally connected, she learned that her dad had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

My wife wailed in grief, and Kai awoke and asked what was going on. I told him that Jiji had passed away.

Like many with autism, Kai does not do well with unexpected events and this was the worst kind of surprise. His grandfather in Japan was the closest person he ever lost.

When Kai was very young, before I had come into his and his mother's lives, Jiji visited often from Japan to help raise him. Jiji was always thinking of Kai, his only grandchild. He brought fun gifts and loved to spend time with Kai.

Through the years, though they did not speak each others languages, they shared a bond like none other. Kai was always talking to Jiji, who did not understand most of Kai's words, but understood that Kai was enjoying being with him.

When he got older, Jiji stopped coming to the U.S. but we were able to visit him in Japan. Jiji still had plenty of energy to go around the country with us, but his favorite moments were seeing Kai laugh and enjoy himself.

Jiji always saw the best in Kai. He was never disappointed in Kai. No one adored Kai more than Jiji did. I think that will be my most enduring memory of him.

Jiji enjoyed painting, and his favorite subject was Kai. We have a mini gallery of his paintings of Kai.

In our last video Skype with him, Jiji showed us the latest painting of Kai that he had just completed.

Of course, Jiji's passing is most difficult for my wife. They had the best father-daughter relationship. He was always supportive and the most dependable father a girl could want.

Kai has been upset since we got the news. I think part of it is his own grief, but he has also has been upset to see Mom cry and grieve. Too often he has gotten angry, and seemingly made the whole thing about him. Being empathetic does not come easily to Kai. Still, there have been times when he has shown that he understands the grief that Mom is feeling.

I know that Kai may also be worried about what happens next. Mom will travel to Japan for several weeks to settle matters and support her mother. We will have to make do without Mom while she is away.

In the coming weeks, when Kai lets his anxiety come out in negative ways, I will have to do my best to channel Jiji and see the best in Kai. Every good person deserves to have someone who loves them unconditionally. Kai just lost one of his best supporters. I will have to make sure he knows that Jiji wasn't the only one.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Summer Program for Kai in Minneapolis

As Kai is rapidly approaching adulthood - he will be starting his senior year of high school in the fall - we have been feeling more and more stress about what he will do after he completes high school. It is becoming increasingly likely that Kai will not attend college. He has gotten good grades in high school and did well enough on the SAT (average in verbal, above average in math), but through remote learning this past year I got to see firsthand how he can get derailed and the amount of support needed to get back on track. It's hard to see him navigating college with these challenges.

And so we have been exploring other post secondary options for Kai.

We found a number of programs that provide supports for young adults with disabilities and teaches them life skills and provides vocational and job preparation training. One of those programs is located in Minneapolis and that is where we found ourselves this week.

In addition to the full-time program, MICC has a summer program where teens can get a small taste of what the full-time program would be like. Normally the summer program requires participants to live on campus (without parents) for two weeks but with the pandemic, this year they ran a one-week day program instead. So we rented a house in Minneapolis for the week and Kai attended the summer program during the day and came home in the late afternoon.

As with many things with Kai, he developed huge anxiety ahead of our trip. In the weeks prior, he started to dread coming up here and was convinced that it would be an awful experience.

On the first morning of the program, my wife and I stayed for a brief orientation. The staff seemed very friendly and energetic.

My wife and I got a private tour of their little campus including a look at a student apartment, classrooms, and community areas. We liked what we saw and thought this could be a good post high school option for Kai.

When Kai came home after the first day, he said that it wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. The summer program is a mix of learning about different vocational careers, a small amount of training for getting a job such as resume preparation and mock interviews, a bit of life skills education, and afternoons of fun activities.

Kai seems to have enjoyed all of the fun stuff, from miniature golf and laser tag to swimming in the pool.

By the end of the week, he acknowledged that the week was mostly good. He liked all of the staff and said the other students were okay, too.

I'm not sure how he will feel if we want him to come here on his own for the 3-year full-time program, but this was a start.

While here, we also went out and saw some of Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was fun with many interesting sculptures.

And we made the obligatory visit to Mall of America. We rode a couple of roller coasters and played miniature golf.
It was really crowded so we had to wait to putt on every hole. It was a unique but difficult course with many uphill putts. Kai got frustrated at many holes and so I was surprised when, as we were leaving, he said "That was fun!"

The area where we stayed is near a couple of lakes and so we took in a beach on multiple days. Kai always loves getting in the water.
We were very pleasantly surprised to find that Minneapolis has a great diversity of restaurants and we tried several different ones over the course of the week. A few highlights included:

The 5-8 Club, home of the Juicy Lucy, a cheese-filled burger.
It was really good!
Vo's Vietnamese restaurant.
Revival, a Southern restaurant that serves yummy fried chicken.
And Kyatchi, our favorite Japanese restaurant.
On several days we had Japaneses-style crepes for dessert at Ichigo Tokyo Crepes.
On our last night, we went to a Venezuelan restaurant, Hola Arepa. We had a couple of small plates for appetizers: plantains tostones and shrimp aguachile.
And then arepas (cornmeal griddle cake sandwiches) for the main course.
The food there was good. This restaurant, like several others we went to this week, was walking distance from where we were staying. We really enjoyed staying in the city and having so many fun choices for dinner.

All in all, it was a successful week. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed Minneapolis. We also learned that Minnesota has good programs and supports for people with autism, much better than our home state of Illinois, so it might make sense to move here after Kai completes high school.

Now if only the winters weren't so bad...

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Pacific Northwest Vacation - Day 11: Portland

On out last 'real' day of vacation, we explored Portland.

We started out by getting breakfast from a Portland original, Voodoo Doughnuts.
There was a line but the wait wasn't too long - about 15 minutes. We got some of their unusual flavors including Voodoo Doll, Vicious Hibiscus, and Dirt.
And then we went to the Portland Japanese Garden.
It felt like being in Japan.
As it was a very hot day, we especially appreciated the many shady areas.
The following rock garden reminded us of a place we went to in Kyoto.
After going to the Japanese garden in Seattle a week ago, it is hard to say which one is better. They are both very good. It was probably more crowded here but otherwise would have been as serene as it was in Seattle.
One thing they have here in Portland are very colorful, and large, koi.
It was one of our favorite spots in the garden, or would have been if it wasn't so hot in the sun!
I also liked the following... not sure what it is called but the bamboo pipe fills with water then tips, and the bamboo makes a nice soothing sound as it bangs against the rock.
Right next to the Japanese Garden is the International Rose Test Garden.
My wife was tired and feeling overwhelmed by the heat so she sat on a bench in the shade while Kai and I looked at the roses.
Kai loved that there were so many different colors of roses.
My favorite was this pink climbing rose.
We weren't sure they were roses as the flowers are so small, but the thorns confirmed that they were.
Kai took pictures of each different color of rose. I like that he takes interest in what we are seeing and that he wants pictures of everything.
We then checked out the Portland Saturday market which is a weekly art and craft fair. It wasn't much different than our local fairs back home though I did enjoy seeing the photos of professional photographers who captured many of the places we went to on this vacation.

And then we got lunch in an air conditioned restaurant. Besides the relief from the heat, it was our last chance to eat oysters. My wife said that eating oysters gave her the most pleasure on this vacation.
In the afternoon we went to the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium, an odd little museum that had a number of freaky, peculiar, creepy exhibits.
Here Kai took photos of everything.
Big Foot was present.
But Big Foot was relatively normal compared to other oddities like this burning chair.
I can't even begin to describe the following.
Or this one:
Afterward we went to Salt and Straw, another Portland original, to have ice cream and meet up with a friend of mine who happened to also be traveling through Portland.

By then the temperature had gone over 100.
And we had enough of being out and about. We returned to our hotel so my wife could relax and recover while Kai and I went to the swimming pool.

For dinner we went to a Thai restaurant. Kai loved his coconut water.
And his green curry.
It was a very good last dinner.

Tomorrow we only have time to head to the airport and fly home. Kai is happy now and I think he enjoyed the vast majority of the vacation. So hopefully he will have pleasant memories.
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