3: The Soul of Independence Day

3: The Soul of Independence Day

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

The Soul of Independence Day

In childhood the daylight always fails too soon — except when there are going to be fireworks; and then the sun dawdles intolerably on the threshold like a tedious guest.

~Jan Struther

My son Nicholas is autistic. He is very sensitive to noise, so we avoided Independence Day celebrations throughout his early years. It wasn’t just about the fireworks, but the full scope of chaos, crowds, waiting, and the traffic afterward.

I couldn’t escape the feeling that my son was missing out on something extraordinary, though. For me, July 4th brings to mind happy memories of growing up in California. My family would come over to gorge on potluck fare, set off fireworks, and then from the front yard watch the big aerial show at the high school a mile away.

I had talked to Nicholas about the reason for the holiday. The facts were the easy part for him. He can memorize anything. He knows all fifty states and their capitals, the major dates in our nation’s history, and even has the Presidents memorized by number. What I really wanted was for him to create his own beautiful memories of a day that meant so much to me.

Finally, when Nicholas was seven, my husband was able to take off the first week of July. We made the trip to my hometown so that Nicholas could fully experience Independence Day for the first time.

I kept thinking about the potluck and the fireworks. The big stuff. The climax of the day. My mom, though, knew to start with something even more important.

“Nicholas? Come here and get your sandals on,” she called.

He set down the road atlas he was studying and ran over. “What is it?”

“You’re going to help us put up the flag.”

That was a task I used to help with at that age, too. I always felt like a big kid, carrying out that flag on its pole, standing on tiptoes to place it in its bracket.

My mom helped Nicholas lift the flag to its berth. My dad made sure it was angled just right.

“Fifty stars. Thirteen stripes,” Nicholas said as he nodded in satisfaction. With him, everything came back to numbers. This was the kid who could recite every highway and exit number we had driven days before on our long drive from Arizona.

A few hours later, Nicholas went with my dad to buy a family pack of fireworks at a nearby fundraising stand. Evening came, and with it the potluck. Our numbers were few compared to the big celebrations of my youth — most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins are now scattered across the country — but one aunt and my grandma joined us. Nicholas’s sensory issues keep him from touching or trying most foods, but he was excited that his grandma had bought his favorite potato chips.

As darkness fell, we sat in our customary chairs at the front of the house. I reminded Nicholas that if everything became too much, he could go inside, but that wasn’t necessary. He wore his noise-canceling headphones and stared slack-jawed at the fireworks. Each blast of light illuminated the smile on his face.

“Wow,” he said.

I stared at him, living vicariously through his delight.

We haven’t been able to make it back to my parents’ house every 4th of July since then, but we try. To Nicholas, that is where the holiday belongs. He knows the route there, and the alternate routes, too. He knows his favorite potato chips await him. He knows that he goes with his grandpa to choose the fireworks to set off on the lawn. He also knows he has a very important job to do on Independence Day morning.

On our most recent visit, Nicholas was a lanky ten-year-old. I stood there with my camera, ready to preserve the moment. He was hesitant to smile for the camera — a precursor of the teenage years to come. However, when the flag came out, he couldn’t help but grin. My parents praised him as he set the pole at the right angle. Nicholas was tall enough to almost do it on his own. Morning light rippled along the flag and cast dancing shadows over Nicholas’s head and shoulders.

“There!” he said. “Now it’s the Fourth of July.” His eyes suddenly clouded with tears. “On July 5th, we drive 538 miles back to Arizona. I’m going to miss my grandparents.”

At that, he started to cry.

I gave him a tight hug. “I know. I’m going to miss them too, but we’re here now. It’s still July 4th. It’s a happy day.”

“Yes,” he said, wiping his eyes behind his glasses. “A very happy day.” The flag fluttered and ruffled his hair.

Nicholas could recite all the facts of our nation’s birth, but now he understood the soul of the 4th of July, too. It was about family, joy, and togetherness, all bound together by red, white, and blue.

~Beth Cato

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