Autism: I am your child

Feb 25, 2013 at 11:00 a.m. ET

Urban Dictionary, that bastion of dubious knowledge, defines “Fanilow” thusly: 1) A Barry Manilow fan. Thus, Fanilow; and 2) A woman, usually 40+ years of age, who is… obsessed with Barry Manilow.” Unabashedly and unapologetically guilty as charged.

Barry Manilow

In a move that some Neanderthal men — who feel Barry Manilow’s music is somehow an affront to their masculinity — might construe as child abuse, I proudly took Ethan, my piano prodigy son who happens to be on the autism spectrum, to see “Manilow on Broadway” at New York City’s St. James Theatre.

While Ethan was, by several decades, the newest and youngest Fanilow in attendance (Ethan can play Barry’s entire songbook, and in my humble mother’s opinion, “out-Barry’s Barry” on the piano) he danced, clapped and smiled, moved by Mr. Manilow’s timeless melodies and harmonies that helped define my youth.

Grandpa Joe

Barry Manilow

In the early part of the show, Barry talked with love and respect about his Grandfather Joseph, a Russian immigrant. Grandpa Joe was the first person to recognize Barry’s ability for music, and in turn, nurtured his ability, so much so that Grandpa Joe would take young Barry to Times Square on weekends, where for 25 cents, he encouraged Barry to sing and record himself, albeit on a scratchy, flimsy record.

Barry’s story struck a chord (poor pun, but stay with me), because my own Grandpa Joe, an Austrian immigrant, discovered and nurtured his son’s (my father) love and ability for music, and my dad also became a professional musician. In a somewhat parallel and fortuitous replay of Barry’s history, it was my father Jerry (my son’s grandfather) who — along with professional musician, producer and dear friend Billy Mann and his wife Gena — first recognized his grandson’s musical abilities, and encouraged us to foster and nurture Ethan’s G-d given talent.

Through kismet, I find myself the genetic musical link between two generations of incredible musicians and human beings: My dad Jerry, one on the cusp of 89 years old (trumpet and vocals), and my son Ethan, one 7-year-old (piano and vocals). To my husband’s credit, Ethan inherited his good looks and intelligence; I was just a “womb with a tune.”

Like Barry’s Grandpa Joe and my Grandpa Joe, and Ethan’s Grandpa Jerry, my husband and I fully embrace and nurture Ethan’s musical passion.

Not a fan of "Mandy"?

While “my date” and I delighted in Barry’s performance, two moments gave Ethan and I pause. Ethan’s moment came when Barry projected his “Mandy” video from the show “Midnight Special.” Ethan leaned over and said, “I want to go home now; I don’t like this video.”

In the circa 1970s video, Barry sat at the piano in a powder blue (most likely) highly-flammable polyester shirt with an exceedingly high rhinestone count, supplemented by tight white (most likely highly-flammable) polyester pants. As the audience knowingly laughed at the fashion of the time, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the song “Mandy” that Ethan disliked… no, it was Barry’s 1970s ensemble that he found aesthetically offensive.

My moment arrived as Ethan and I sat, our hands intertwined on his lap, and him hugging me close enough so that my head rested on his shoulder, and I could intermittently kiss his cheek. As if on cue, Barry began to play “I am Your Child.” At that moment, all the love and pride I felt/feel, both as my father’s child and as mother to two perfect children, burst forth, and tears of gratitude and appreciation began to stream down my face.

“I Am Your Child”

Ethan Walmark at Barry Manilow concert

(by Barry Manilow and Marty Panzer)

Wherever you go
You take me too
Whatever I know
I learned from you

Whatever I do
You taught me to do
I am your child
And I am your chance

Whatever will come
Will come from me
Tomorrow is won
By winning me

Whatever I am
You taught me to be
I am your hope
I am your chance
I am your child

Whatever I am
You taught me to be
I am your hope
I am your chance
I am your child

One day, perhaps Ethan will find me worthy enough to sing “Whatever I am, you taught me to be... ” Until then, a debt of gratitude to the grandpas: Ethan's Grandpa Jerry, and the Grandpa Joes — both the one from Russia and the one from Austria. Because of them, a child with autism has hope. He has a chance. He is my child.

Barry Manilow image credit: Joel Ginsburg/

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