Thoughts on Motherhood & Autism 2008
We’d reached the end of another crippling day. Alex was edgy, vulnerable, by evening, he’d reached the point of rising rabidity. On the couch, the boys leaned against each other like dominoes, while Alex complained that Spencer was sitting in his spot, andLogan kept reaching into the bowl for popcorn every time he wanted to reach into the bowl His low moans, like birth pains, come at regular intervals, his breathing staccato gasps, the panicked need to hold onto control, but when Logan abruptly changed the channel, Alex snapped, sprang forward like a jack-in-the-box , grabbed the remote and hurled it against the wall; a silver grenade. His brothers dived and rolled for cover, with arms over their heads, waiting for the artillery of batteries to rain down.
In the end, I didn’t tell him to go to his room; I didn’t tell him anything. I was momentarily rendered catatonic, my silence startling. The absence of emotion and jolting Alex waited, transfixed, for me to rush to his brothers. Waited for me to sigh, to frown, to crease my brows, slump my shoulders–to give him some indication that I was mad. My shocked stance offered no clues the unpredictable quiet (his brothers still cowering) unhinged him from where he’d stood rooted to the ground.
“FINE!” He yelled, “I’m going to bed since NO ONE WANTS ME HERE ANYWAY!” He knocked the popcorn off the couch as he blustered past, skittering it across the floor. Taking the quaking stairs two at a time, he slammed his door wildly, sending aftershocks through the floorboards.
His brothers came out cautiously, pausing by the popcorn bowl, looking skittish. Like deer at the side of the road they waited, ears perked, to see if he’d reappear. It was only when they heard the water running in the tub upstairs that Spencer bent to pick up the metal bowl and Logan crossed the room to turn the TV back on.
I put Spencer and Logan to bed early. Upstairs, I crawled into bed without brushing my teeth. Russ was working late and still wasn’t home so I lay in the center of the mattress, bracing myself for the solitude to splinter. Iinstead, silence settled as heavy as humidity. Then, just as I was drifting off, I heard Alex’s tenuous approach. He paused by the side of the bed, hesitant, then climbed in next to me, lowered himself laboriously, and sunk into the mattress, sighing deeply, like he’d never really rested before. In the dark he leaned his head, still damp with bathwater, against mine. “I’m sorry” he said into my shoulder. “I know.” I whispered back.
Autism, like formaldehyde, has seeped through his foamy bones, leaving him living in a state of functioning rigor mortis. He’s unable to relax the way others relax (to lean against someone, to mold himself to them, to seek heat). He longs for the comfort of human contact. But knowing how to approach it is puzzling, knowing what to do with it disarming. In the dark he gropes for the remote, flips between channels, and stops on Animal Planet. He casts me a furtive glance, then pulls the striped blanket around us both. I’m surprised by our legs touching until he starts to tuck the blanket around him, seal himself off from me like a mummy in a tomb.
I know he’s come with the brittle hope of reconciliation, and I soften. cautiously raise a hand to his face, stroking the side of his cheek revives a limp memory of nights we spent reading together when he was a baby. Alex was my firstborn, and Russ worked the swing shift while finishing school, so Alex was my date each night. And oh, how much I loved that boy. He’d climb into bed and settle against me with his little blond head angled towards mine. I remember breathing in the intoxicating scent of baby shampoo and how one fleeced foot would always tap the mattress methodically like a metronome. We’d lain together, night after night, reading a stack of books as tall as he was. I’d turn the pages to make him happy, while he’d point to the pictures –biting the nipple of his bottle between his teeth to hold it in place–he’d say, “Race car” or “triangle” and then turn to look at me, react to my praise, “Yes, Alex! That’s right! Triangle! Such a smart boy!” And I remember a night when he turned his whole body to face mine, his bottle dangling from his yielding wrist, dripping on the duvet, and flashed me that crooked milk smile before leaning his head against my chest, his eyes widening in surprise when he detected the steady beating of my heart. He fell asleep with his head still cradled against me. And even though it was late, I never moved him away. I kept him close, kissed his dimpled hands, his downy head.
Somehow, my baby grew to be eleven years old; his thick blond hair grew shaggy, unkempt. I’m not sure the catalyst for change in his increasingly relaxed frame–the dark room, the soft bed, the quiet, the end of the day, the knowing sleeping is next on the list of what to do? I’d like to think it had something to do with the back of my hand against his face, and the way he didn’t pull away when I slowly rubbed it up and down his cheek. He curled towards me, almost in a fetal position; I ran my fingers through his damp, unruly hair. “Oh! I didn’t realize a hippo could impale a person on its teeth.” He exclaimed, fascinated. I nodded. He fell asleep during a commercial and, unconscious, was completely relaxed.
Asleep he was uninhibited, kicking off the binding covers and wrapping himself around me like one of those monkeys with velcro hands. He tangled his limbs with mine, limp and supple, his head against my chest in no time, as if my heart was the steady rhythm he needed to dream. And it was in sleep that I saw that same little boy I had all those years ago, seeking me, easy with affection, needing my arms around him. It was as if the folds of his brain had relaxed a little, forgotten to send those commanding messages: “Flinch! Stand back! Be on alert! You don’t know what’s coming next!”
Asleep, he was easy with affection. Face to face, I searched again for signs he was the same boy I read to all those years back, the same one I’d held in the hospital, overcome with the startling intensity of gratitude I felt while I’d cradled himI had searched his big blue eyes, and in my heart prayed the simple words, “If You never bless me with another blessing again, this is enough.” In the dark, with Alex curved towards me, arms and legs around me, I indulged in reprieve as we both enjoyed connection, warmth, touch, contact.
It has been three years since Alex came to my bed seeking comfort.
Unlike his brothers, who demand and accept love unabashedly, Alex struggles, parched, unable to relieve his thirst on his own. He holds back, panting. He needs love, as much if not more than his brothers, and we both need the chance to reconnect, to remember the way love feels without all the chaos of misfiring synapses and illogical perseverance? to atrophy the tenuous hold we have on each other.
I’ve decided to stop waiting for Alex to come to me and, instead, I make my own way up the stairs to come to him. Often, when I’m feeling particularly bereft, I climb into his bed and pull him close–needing to bury myself in his self-imposed cocoon.Holding him close, I whisper into his soft hair that someday, somehow, in some brilliant moment of hope fulfilled, we will emerge from this metamorphosis transformed, and with shuttering wings, be released and allowed to fly.
And I confess, in those rare, quiet moments, holding onto my boy, I hate the dark night for giving in to the sun.