Illnesses, tragedies lead dad to faith, unconditional love

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Today's title is one of the most compelling books I've read since I started my review column nearly a year ago.

"The Unbreakable Boy: A Father's Fear, A Son's Courage, and A Story of Unconditional Love" will strike a chord with nearly anyone who reads it. The primary author is Scott LeRette, on whose family the memoir is based, and award-winning co-author Susy Flory, writer of the New York Times bestseller "Thunder Dog." Nelson Books is the publisher.

With the dual diagnoses of autism and brittle-bone disease facing the LeRette family's eldest son Austin, it would be easy to pigeon-hole this book as an illness memoir. But it's oh, so much more.

There are several story arcs in the book outside of the medical components.

Any parent experiencing the soul-wrenching agony of struggling to love a child will relate with LeRette's candid recounting of the times, early in his journey, that he just needed to hide in the closet from his son, who was nearly always in hyper-active mode -- unless he was in super sleep mode at the most inopportune times. Don't judge LeRette. An introvert and new parent myself, I know the need to find some "me time." My wife and I sometimes just have to operate as a tag team to give one person a break.

Austin turned 20 last month, LeRette told me. He was first diagnosed with autism in the days when not much was known about the disease. He is doing things that were never anticipated for him, including attending a school for the deaf and going part-time to a community college culinary program, where he is near the top of the class. Austin is extremely outgoing, which is not common for people who are autistic.

"We didn't even know if he would go to college," his father said. "He's blowing away expectations. Before he turned 20, I said, 'How many 19-year-olds can say they are actually living their dream?' Austin dreams of becoming a chef."

In the book, LeRette is extremely open in listing his own growing pains as a man, father, husband and eventual Christian, as well as his acceptance of God's grace. His past shortcomings included a selfish attitude, a reliance on alcohol that could have killed his sons and himself when he drove drunk once, and early in his marriage being very involved in his hobbies. Oh, and the time that LeRette was playing on a swing and crashed into Austin, breaking his brittle son's back. And the times that Austin wandered off under his supervision.

LeRette and his wife, Teresa, just celebrated their 20th anniversary last week. His wife has described their early days together as like that of the Odd Couple: they were roommates.

"For years we put ourselves into the situation where we didn't know each other," he said. "It's only been the last eight or nine years that things have changed drastically in our relationship. I had my priorities so upside down, inside out."

Now, his priorities are right side up. Although Austin is living away from home except for weekends, and younger son Logan is nearing graduation, he does not anticipate facing the stereotypical "empty nester" syndrome.

"Parenting is more important" at this stage, he said. "Your young adult has some independence, but still, you are a huge component of their lives. We may not be 24-7, but our roles in their lives are probably more important than ever."

And, in his memoir, LeRette describes how Austin (who loves to wear a particular bright jester hat) taught him to be comfortable in his own skin.

To refer back to my lead paragraph, "The Unbreakable Boy" is compelling. LeRette said he has repeatedly received the comment that the book is hard to put down, which he has been told is the best compliment for a book.

"And I'm not a traditional writer," he said. "I wrote in notebooks, then a blog, then short stories. Prior to my agent, I had 36 stories." The agent helped him wrap the 36 stories into one book. He especially hated to relive the stories where he broke Austin's spine and the aftermath of his drunken driving. The latter, however, was a crucial turning point in which he came to true faith in Christ and cleaned up his life.

LeRette said Nelson Books told him that his story had "cross marketability."

"Fathers, youths, single people have read the book," he said. "It's one of the most humbling things when they say the book helped them. Or when you hear a dad say it's affected the way he looks at his role as a father and how to deal with children."

People who do not know anyone with autism may not always be able to relate to the challenges that a family faces when a loved one has it, he said. He kept thinking, early on, that Austin would grow out of it. Austin did not, of course, but he is maturing and changing and learning how to integrate with and be part of society.

And LeRette still hides -- upon occasion. A couple of weeks ago, when Austin visited for the weekend and was trying to find his parents, they hid on the far side of the bed, he said.

"We could see his feet," he said. "It's funny, but respite is something that caregivers need. Anyone in a family with special needs knows. We spent everything on Austin. We know it affected Logan (their youngest son). But we always erred on the side of caution. Even if there were two of us going somewhere, we took both boys. It took us forever to learn to just go. Someone else can watch them."

-- Jason Reynolds is a staff writer for the Times-Gazette. Email him at jreynolds@t-g.com. Follow him on Twitter at @reynoldsjason.

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