When my husband and I first discussed moving into my parents’ home, my 71-year-old father was less than enthusiastic about the idea. My parents no longer needed (or were able to care for) such a large home. As they got older, I wanted to be able to cook for them and help around the house. My mother did not want to live in a retirement community, but my father wanted privacy and time to relax in his retirement — and my three kids have never been quiet, respectful of closed doors, or good at taking it easy.
My mom saw this as a great opportunity to dive more fully into the role of “Nana.” When she finally convinced my dad (a man who fixed broken toilets and raked leaves but rarely discussed his feelings), I was pretty worried it would cause him to withdraw further… and honestly, maybe get a little grumpier.
Once we moved in, though, a startling change took place. My dad started hanging out with the kids more often, breaking up arguments or cajoling my youngest out of her tantrums with his famous “Tickle Monster.” If he ever heard me lose my temper, he’d hand me a much-needed break simply by poking his head into our side of the house and asking “Anyone want to play Uno?”
However, the most significant change was in his relationship with my autistic 11-year-old son. My dad struggled to connect with him throughout his life. My son’s meltdowns were tricky to navigate, and far outside Dad’s comfort zone. When they occurred, my dad would silently back away and leave me to soothe and redirect my struggling kid. Around the time we moved in, my son hit a developmental milestone. He began to search for adults besides his parents with whom to connect. He yearned for independence, yet was often plagued with severe anxiety about his ability to interact with the world.
So my dad became someone my son could confide in or just sit with in quiet comfort. Their relationship grew stronger each day.
Now when a hard day is too much for my son, he seeks out his grandfather. His autistic brain is both remarkable and easily short-circuited. At times, his amazing intellect and sense of humor can be overshadowed by frustration and distress. This was evident most recently after a disagreement with his dad over screen time. When the anger set in, he stomped over to the door at the side of our dining room and knocked.
“Pop Pop?” he called to my dad. “Can I come over?”
“Sure!” a voice called back from down the stairs.
“Hmpf,” he said over his shoulder to us, as he not-so-gently closed the door behind him. He hollered a greeting, all ills forgotten, as though someone had rebooted him by pressing control-alt-delete on his brain.
Half an hour later I found the two of them in the TV room, watching Judge Judy. “Dinner’s ready, guys!”
“Coming, Pop Pop?” my son asked, and they followed me up the stairs. He sat by his grandfather at the table and bravely attempted to eat one, then two pieces of pasta with sauce. Though he wasn’t too fond of the dish, it seemed like he felt good about his “no thank you” bites.
To me, that was a family dinner success.
It has been a year since our family moved in with my parents. My son often escapes into his grandparents’ side of the house for a quiet game of chess to soothe his overstimulated brain. He loves to join Pop Pop in a game on the Kindle or to read comics at their tiny breakfast nook. I sneak peeks at the two of them, noting my son breathes a little easier when it’s just them.
My mom notices that my dad seems to breathe a little easier, too. He smiles more now. He listens to my son’s stories from school, laughs at his jokes, and jokes right back along. My once oh-so-serious father gets down on the floor to help find a stray LEGO piece, triumphantly holding it up as my son cheers. He patiently demonstrates how to replace the batteries in his grandson’s favorite toy or how to hold the leaf blower just right.
Because my husband routinely travels for work, my dad finds himself stepping in to help quite a lot. He is new to retirement, and I sense it’s a relief for him to know how much we love and need him. We’re grateful for so much more than just the babysitting he provides: We love the unique and important role he plays in our family, especially in my autistic son’s routine.
When life is too loud and hard for my son to bear, Pop Pop makes it all OK.
This post was written by Hannah Grieco.