IMG_6509He was a spinning, rocking, stacking, non-verbal, notoriously clever escape artist.  He refused to be in the company of strangers, fled when crowds appeared and reacted to change with uncontrollable fits of animalistic rage.  They certainly didn’t cover that in ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’!

Never wanting children, I wasn’t one to dream of raising the valedictorian, prom king, or captain of the football team.  When I surprisingly found myself in the throes of motherhood, I’ll admit that a smile passed my lips at the thought of raising a musician, artist or actor though.  But after Jett’s autism diagnosis, those wishes felt a million miles away.  Until yesterday…

A friend told me about a casting call for Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, ‘How to Catch a Monster’.  They were looking for a boy, a non-actor, with an expressive personality, living in a creative world of their own making.  How could I resist?

I immediately sent off a few of Jett’s photos and a brief description of ‘The Magnificent World of Jett’.  He had been through years of therapy and had come a miraculously long way.  Jett’s silent, singular existence had morphed into a sensitive soul; filled with creative genius and the unstoppable energy to make his every dream come true.

A few days later the casting company responded with a request for a videotaped audition.  As a proud, filmmaking mom I was all too happy to comply.  Soon after they asked if we would travel to NYC to audition in person.  My heart skipped a beat.

It was all fun and games when Jett didn’t have to leave the house.  Mommy was the director, the house was controlled, the shoot was closed, the judgment was low, the room was quiet…

But oddly enough, Jett said yes!  I had begged him for years (to no avail) to be in one of my films.  And there we were, two days later, heading to Harrisburg to catch a train to New York City!

His Grandy and I were nervous, more for him than about him.  We had seen enough over the past six years to know that things could go very wrong VERY quickly.  We held our breath and drove on.

An hour later, after two detours and a road closing, we finally made it to Harrisburg.  We arrived at the train platform just in time for my mom in law to notice that I had accidentally, but not surprisingly, booked our return for the following day!  Instead of panicking we made our way to the train resolved to either fix my mistake or brave it in the big city overnight.  No sense panicking about it now!

Jett watched with enthusiasm as the train whistle blew and we headed out of the station.  He didn’t even plug his ears.  Loud noises often triggered extreme behavior.  Today he seemed virtually unaffected.

He was able to wait until we made it to Penn Station before going to the bathroom and actually waited in line to use the new fangled mega hand dryer, the one that even scares the pants off of me (literally if you get too close)!  Two years ago that would have set him off.  Today it seemed to set him free.

Swarms of people buzzed about the Station.  Jett stayed close but held my hand gently as his eyes searched the walls, focused on the obviously effective, colorful advertisements hanging high above his head.

We made our way onto the chilly street, directly in front of Madison Square Garden, where we were wrangled into a cab line a hundred people long.  Jett waited patiently at his Grandy’s side searching the sky to find the tippy top of the skyscrapers dancing above.

When our turn came we jumped into the awaiting taxi as Jett enthusiastically announced to the cab driver “This is my first time in New York City!”

Horns honked, brakes squealed, people shouted, and the television inside the taxi blared.  The input was endless.  Jett’s excitement and patience seemed to be as well.  Grandy and I exchanged relieved and overjoyed looks.

We found the building with 45 minutes to spare and hurriedly made our way to an idyllic Italian eatery just a few doors down.  The fashion-forward hostess sat us in the corner, right in front of the window.

Jett, once devastatingly shy and non-verbal, leaned into her and said, ”My name is Jett Ufema.  I am from Lewistown, PA.  I am four feet tall.  And I like your shirt.”  She smiled.

We really wanted Jett to eat something, anything, before his audition but eating was NEVER his strong suit.  It had to be beige.  It had to be familiar.  And it had to be quick!  On this special day we were OK with ginger ale and french fries but knew it was still a long shot.

The waitress returned with our food.  Jett’s eyes grew wide.  The ginger ale was gone before his plate hit the table.  He lunged at the fries and wolfed them down, proudly stating that he was done and had finished them all.  Short on time, I was relieved that there would be no struggle to get through a meal.  Grandy and I exchanged looks of relief once again.

We headed straight to the audition.

The front door was flanked by two hulking men, who remained silent in spite of my most sincere Midwestern smile.  We rushed up the steep and narrow stairway.  We squeezed past the myriad of construction workers and plastic sheeting draped against the entire left wall of the space.  Jack hammers and chop saws buzzed and thumped at a decibel level that could compete with the infield at the Indy 500.  Other kids were crying at the noise but Jett seemed not to notice!

We signed in, took a seat, and chatted up the other hopefuls.  A dozen or so kids filled the room, reverently staying near their mother’s while practicing their ‘faces’, having their clothes straightened and hair brushed.  It became instantly obvious that Jett was the only ‘non-actor’ in the room.

Jett grabbed his IPad and after complimenting a waiting Mother on her gorgeous turquoise necklace, sat quietly, playing a game.  His hair was disheveled, there was ketchup on his shirt and I didn’t have the heart to make him ‘practice’ in the midst of such chaos.

“It is what it is.” I thought to myself and relaxed – for only but a moment.

The casting assistant called the first boy.  His mother stood up.  He told her to stay seated, that the kids needed to go in alone.  My heart hit my throat.  But off her son went, all three years of him with a confidence you don’t normally find in a two foot toddler.  I watched with eyes the size of saucers.  Grandy and I exchanged a silent panicked look.

“Jett, you’ll be going in alone, OK?” I put as frankly as possible.

“No way!” He snapped.  “I won’t do it.”

Tick, tick, tick…  an eternity passed.

The three year old triumphantly returned – the casting director called Jett’s name.  I picked up his photo, dropped it into his hands and said, “You’re up.  Go get em’.”

Jett grabbed the photo and casually walked, without incident, down the long hallway into the back room.  The door closed, with a thud, behind him.

Grandy and I exchanged a look I’ve never seen or had before.  We were riddled with fear and hope.  I held my breath as I sat there, skin on inside out, nerve endings exposed to the cold chill of the clueless world.  No one had any idea what could have happened at that moment and no one knew what would happen next.

The door opened again, and Jett came running out.  We stared at his face, dreading the worst and hoping for the best.

He was laughing.  He smiled and hugged me telling us what fun he had.  We let out the breath we had taken when the door first closed and headed back down the long narrow steps.

We made it to Penn Station in the middle of Friday Rush Hour.  What seemed like thousands of people before felt like millions of people now.  We rewarded Jett with a giant chocolate chip cookie, found a quiet post to lean against and made a protective camp to hunker down in for the next 45 minutes.  Jett instead asked to go ‘exploring’ and eagerly lead me through the tidal wave of commuters rushing from platform to platform.

His enthusiasm knew no bounds.

When the time came we climbed back on the train and took our seats.  We assumed that Jett would be fast asleep by departure, but no chance.  He was wide-awake and raring to go.  As the train pulled away from the station the conductors voice rang out, “Welcome to Amtrack service to Harrisburg, you are in the ‘quiet car’ so we ask that you use headphones on all electronic devices and refrain from loud conversation or using your cell phones.”

IMG_6638Grandy and I exchanged horrified looks yet again.  That would be as hard for me as it would for Jett (maybe harder).  Two years earlier we would have high tailed it out of there but today felt different.  We held our ground.  Jett made the three-hour ride with only a ‘hush’ or two.

The train pulled into the station and the conductor announced that this was the last stop.  Jett looked at the two of us.  “Hey Guys.” He said, “Thanks for such a great day.”

Jett went on just a few steps ahead.  We exchanged looks again.  Tears welled up in my eyes.  The realization of what had happened that day washed over this exhausted and emotionally spent Momma.

I leaned into Jen.  “Jett must have done 100 things today that the experts told us he’d probably never do.”

“Yep.”  Jen smiled.  “And you should really write that down.”