And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

On September 12, 2010, Michael, Olivia and I spent a sunny afternoon at Mount Mary University’s annual outdoor festival, the Starving Artists show. Olivia was a month shy of ten years old. She was agog over everything, the people, the art, the food, the music, the sunshine. As we walked through, I kept a watchful eye on a young girl who was still compulsive, zipping everywhere her attention blipped, talking with strangers, reaching out to touch. Just wanting to embrace everything.

We were seven years in with dealing with an autism diagnosis. In seven years’ time, we whiplashed from devastated to outright amazed at our daughter’s abilities, versatility, persistence, and determination. At three years old, when we were given the diagnosis, Olivia was basically nonverbal, filled with expressive sounds and syllables that were words to her, but not to us. Then she went into a parrot phase, where she memorized complete scripts from television shows and commercials and attempted to use them in everyday conversation. On the day of the art show, she was fully verbal and had the vocabulary of a college kid. There were challenges, so many challenges. Body language, facial cues, social interaction remained as foreign to Olivia as words used to be.

But oh, did she want to learn. Unlike what you typically hear about autistic kids, Olivia threw herself into social activities and groups. As harried parents, we often lost her in a crowd, chasing after the streak that was our daughter, only to find her deep in conversation with a stranger or a group of strangers. Once, at an antique show, we found her with her head in the lap of an old gentleman, who gently stroked her hair. “He’s a grandpa,” Olivia said. “I wanted to see what a grandpa was.” Both of her grandfathers passed away before she was born. The man smiled at us and gave her a hug before we moved on.

Olivia has a knack for finding generous, genuine people.

On the day of the art festival, we finished our shopping and went in search of a labyrinth I’d been told was on the grounds. I love labyrinths and walk them wherever I find them, and often use them as a teaching tool. We found the labyrinth in a quiet spot by some trees. Michael stayed in the car, but Olivia and I got out to walk.

I usually encourage quiet and introspective walks on a labyrinth, but for Olivia, the curving certain path just meant joy. She danced and sang her way in, sat quietly with her head bowed in the middle for all of five minutes, then danced her way out. I took photos of her and at one point, teared up when my camera lens caught her in a refracted sun shower. She was just aglow. When I posted these photos in an album on Facebook, these are the captions I wrote:

Olivia, of course, is not one for quiet and thoughtful walking. Her journey is joy. Her dance is delighted.

Most children would probably jump the stones, head straight toward the goal of the benches and the exit. But Livvy finds joy in the journey and she follows it through. I don’t know what she offered up when she reached the benches. That’s for her to know, and for Whomever was listening.

Livvy skips through the labyrinth, calling, “I can make it, Mama! I can make it!” Oh, yes, she can.

I remember whispering that final sentence out loud in the labyrinth as she called to me. Oh, yes, you can, Olivia. Yes, you can. It was a prayer. It was a promise.

I didn’t take a photo of the moment Olivia suddenly spun toward me, flung both her hands in the air, and sang, “I’m going to college here, Mama! I’m going to college!”

But I remember saying again, Oh, yes, you can.

Olivia is now 18 years old. She is a senior in high school. She applied to four colleges, one of them Mount Mary University. She was accepted at all four, offered scholarships at all four. She wants to be an art therapist. She wants to help others. One of her college essays was about a shirt she wears. On the front, it says, “I can and I will.” On the back, “Watch me.”

I’ve watched. I still watch. I will always watch. With so much belief in this child in my heart that at times, I am sure it will burst.

This past Tuesday, Olivia made it official. We took a final tour of Mount Mary. And that’s where she’s chosen to go.

I’m going to college here, Mama! I’m going to college!

I looked out the window at one point during the tour, and I believe I found the labyrinth, buried under the snow. On August 21st, 2019, after helping Olivia move into her dorm room, I am going to take her by the hand and we will walk out to that labyrinth. We will walk it together.

And then I will let her go. It is at that point, I believe, that my heart will finally burst. With pride for this young woman. With joy, with love. With the full understanding of the supreme blessing she is in my life.

Oh, yes, you can, Olivia.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Olivia on September 12, 2010, dancing in a sun shower at the Mount Mary labyrinth.
2/26/19 Mount Mary University welcomes Olivia.
So proud of our girl.
Mount Mary bound! (photo taken by Waukesha North High School)

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