Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Making of a Godmother to Autism

I remember a day when I was seventeen--a lifetime ago now--when my parents called me out of the sanctuary of my teenage bedroom and asked me to join them downstairs. Join them. In the family room.

I was nervous.

What did I do? I didn't think I had done anything wrong. I was basically a good girl. Well, even good girls find trouble some of the time. However, on the whole, I was a good girl, darn it!

Dutifully, I went downstairs.

My parents sat very seriously in their chairs. I stood before them because I had no idea what else I was supposed to do.

"An exchange student is in need of a home, " my mother told me.  "Your father and I would like for her to live with us. But before we agree to do so, we wanted to ask how you felt about it."

Avid Rotarians, my parents had always participated in the student exchange program. We housed many during my formative years. The exposure was normal to me and yet always felt a bit awkward.

I thought exchange students were dorks.

That year, my father was participating as the district governor, the highest position of office one can take within a given Rotary district.  If there were any programs that demonstrated needs, he was sure to hear about it.

Enter Hanna Suomalainin from Lohja, Finland.

Hanna needed a home, and my parents wanted to give her ours. It was my senior year in high school. It was supposed to be the best year of my life. Soon, I would be on an airplane myself to spend a year as an exchange student in Australia. Did I really have to spend my last few months in high school with an exchange student in tow?

Forever a people pleaser, I told my parents that I did not mind. Sure, another exchange student would be fine. It was all fine. I was FINE.

I was also a big, fat liar.

"Man! My parents just told me that we have to get an exchange student!" I complained to my BFF at the time.I had run to my room to call her as soon as the conversation with my parents was finished.

"Aw, man!" my friend responded.  "She doesn't have to hang out with us or anything, does she?"

We grumbled about our teenage angst for a while, and then I hung up the phone. I'll mix no words. All I could think was that this was going to suck.

Hanna came to our house looking shy and defeated. Her head hang low, and she didn't smile much. It was obvious that she was not enjoying her exchange. I wondered if she missed her home.

It was a genuine feeling of sympathy that I felt for her, but it was short-lived.  As soon as I could, I excused myself to my room. The youngest of four children, I was enjoying the absence of my siblings, who were in college or living and working away from home. The upstairs of the house was my domain. I had even lost the art of closing my bedroom door for privacy.

Enter once again Hanna Suomalainin from Lohja, Finland.

She just walked right into my room. What the heck? She walked right in and started talking. Phhht. This was small town America. People our age didn't really DO that sort of thing. I thought she was being awfully bold.

She walked into my bedroom that night, and in retrospect, that was the day that she officially walked into my life.  She opened my eyes to the world, and, most importantly, she believed in me. She liked me. She didn't judge me. She encouraged and supported me.

We spent our days in cold hard labor: aerobics and lying out by the pool at the Country Club. By night, we would enjoy the countless parties that high school seniors enjoy as they are about to embark on the world.

Those were the days of wine coolers, talking about boys and sneaking out on the roof of my home so that she could teach me to smoke (an experiment that did not stick with me but felt rebellious and fun).

 In a matter of weeks, Hanna Suomalainen from Lohja, Finland,  had become the most important person to me in the world. She had transformed me (I lost 30-40 pounds thanks to her support), and she had transformed my life.

When Hanna returned to Finland, my heart broke. To this day, I can say that I was more heartbroken over that than I had been by the breakup of any boyfriend in my youth. It was the day that I felt as though I had lost my sister.

Less than a month later, I was on an airplane, embarking on my year of Rotary Youth Exchange to Surfer's Paradise, Australia,  thus beginning my long distance relationship with the best friend I had ever known.

During the next ten years, we wrote to each other faithfully. Those were the days before e-mail. Before Facebook. All we had were pencils and air mail paper.
We wrote about school, life, casual boyfriends and serious boyfriends. There was even a moral discussion or two regarding what each thought officially constituted "cheating" on those boyfriends. (Oh, my!)

We talked about our wine coolers. We talked about parties. We talked about our philosophies on life. Always, we were plotting the next trip for us to see one another. Quickly, we grew up. The cursing and the partying died down. We experienced the divorce of her parents, death of various family members, weddings, pregnancies and life as mothers.

Autism entered my life painfully. And, while over the years I have learned the beauty that comes along with the disorder, I also experienced great pain to see both of my children become debilitated and disabled in life.  They are fantastic kids with bright futures, but, in the beginning, I couldn't see the future. All I saw were the young and untamed behaviors of two little boys. What would be her role as a Godmother to our older son?  I didn't even know what the autism rate was in Finland. Would she understand any of this--really, really understand?  How can it be that someone who was born and reared in another country with such a vastly different life from ours relate to a life of special needs?

 As it turned out, I know that I could not have made a better choice.

 Just last week as  Hanna and I were texting each other when she said something that made me pause and think, truly, how many stages of life this friendship has seen!

There must be a book in this.

 An accomplished writer, herself, Hanna has just published a wildly successful BOOK in Finland on becoming the caretaker for her father the summer his life succomed to Alzheimer's.  She has a web page that can be found HERE.  This link to her blog displays a discussion on our friendship.
The text for all of this is in Finnish but can be plugged into any translating program (i.e. Google Translate) for a rough interpretation.

That's when I remembered it.

In my basement, I had a box that contained memories of my youth, and in that box was a notebook of every letter Hanna had written to me. The letters are dated from 1988-1995.  After that, e-mail became available to both of us. I have a couple letters in 1996 and our first few e-mails.

I ran down after our conversation and retrieved that folder.  Hanna did not know about it.

Is there a book in this? We think so. She suggested that we each post to our blogs about it; however, I'm feeling terribly inadequate. Her web page got 25,000 hits last month.  The Mom Cave gets 3,000 hits a month. Compared to us here in the Cave, she's a total rock star.

To me, she always has been.

Those letters are a look into her youth. She's not so sure about reading them. I've read them, and I have laughed until I cried.  And, I also think of the special sort of individual who we, as parents,  choose--and they accept--to play an integral role in the lives of our special needs children.

Did I know that day  when Hanna Suomalainen boldly walked into my teenage bedroom that she would one day be that person? No. Of course not. But, even at that young age, her spirit was so bright that I knew I could never let it go.

Today, we are asking our faithful readers:  What do you think we should do with ten years of letters? 


Hanna Suomalainen Jensen, her husband, and  their two daughters live in Helsinki, Finland.


  1. Print, print, print. Letters touch a cord in all of us. (I have ten years of letters back and froth between my mom and I that I cherish and am actually thinking of using them for the A-Z April challenge. Seriously - work with her and publish that wonderful bit of history!

    1. Thank you, Amy. This would be a challenge, but it is also very exciting!!

  2. I think the letters just might make for a very entertaining (and great selling!) book. I think the first step after Hanna reads them again is to choose a sampling representative of the bunch and send copies to a few trusted readers.

    Choose people who are book readers and also willing and able to be fully forthright with you. This isn't a job for someone who isn't able to look you in the eye and shake their head no. In general, you don't want your mom, sister, of best friend to be your beta-reader or if/when the time comes, your editor (definitely not your editor!).

    A friend like Hanna is a rare gift. Being in possession of a living history of your friendship is dazzlingly wonderful. I think most women treasure at least one friendship in our lives--the bond we share with someone who has seen us at our worst and hasn't run screaming into the night--so your potential book would surely strike a chord with many people.

    Good luck with this, Amy! I hope it turns out to be something you and Hanna decide to pursue.

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. You are forever my mentor! :)

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  4. What a beautiful story of friendship. Yes, yes, yes write that book!

  5. What a beautiful story of friendship. Yes, yes, yes write that book!

  6. What a beautiful story of friendship. Yes, yes, yes write that book!

  7. It would be redundant to just say yes write it, so I'm gonna echo Beth a bit here. Start it and send it off to a couple of honest and not timid readers that aren't family and get your style and sequence set up and then draft it on!

    It will be so much fun for both of you and I truly feel with your talent and this subject matter, it will sell very well.


    1. So, Jo, are you volunteering? :) I think you and Beth are perfect for that job!

  8. I would not be able to improve on Beth's advice. My own friendships have meant more to me than all my ill-starred romantic entanglements. I say go for it!