We had another…incident. That’s how it feels, reporting these moments of autism-inspired flare-ups—like filing a police report. You can almost see the mirrored sunglasses glinting as the fictional officer approaches…
IO (imaginary officer): “What seems to be the trouble here?”
ME (me): “I…I…He…and then…”
IO: “Slow down, ma’am. Is anybody hurt?”
ME: (snuffles) “No. Well, just a little.” (rubs hand) “It’s nothing. I’m just crying.”
IO: (looks around) “By the side of the road?”
ME: (wails open-mouthed) “Yessss.”
IO: “Tell me what happened, ma’am.”
ME: (wipes snot) “I tried to take my son to the restaurant.”
IO: (gestures) “This one?”
IO: “And then what happened.”
ME: “Little Man refused to go in…but I made him. And then…” (tears well up again.)
ME: “He lost it. He started screaming and biting himself and fighting me. I tried to stop him. A woman helped me get him to a table and I tried to give him his emergency medicine. While I was getting the pills, he sank his teeth in and I dropped them all over the floor. I was wrestling him, trying to get him calm and he finally started to settle down when…” (starts crying again)
IO: “Go on.”
ME: “…the manager asked us to leave.”
IO: “I see.” (clicks pen, scribbles a few notes) “Was anyone else hurt?”
ME: “No…just my hand. I’m gonna be fine. Just need a Bandaid.”
IO: “Are you going to be okay to drive?”
ME: “In a minute. I’m just waiting until I’m sure Little Man is okay.”
IO: “Sounds like a plan. Take all the time you need.”
ME: (sniffs) “Thanks.”
IO: “Don’t mention it, ma’am. Just get home safe…and take care of that bite.”
With the click of a pen, the imaginary officer walks back to the car and calls it in, then fades away and is gone. I’m left, wondering why days like these are happening more and more often? After forty minutes, we move back onto the highway and get stuck in molasses for what seems like hours in the Memorial Day weekend traffic. My hand stings the whole drive home.
I was tempted to post a video to Facebook. You know the kind. Angry, outraged mother, slams establishment that doesn’t understand her child.* Everyone shares and declares the company the Spawn of Satan. But really, I didn’t blame the management of the restaurant, which I won’t name, but will say, what hurt the most today was not the bite. It was being asked to leave.
In the softest voice imaginable, a young man approached our table where I was standing holding my son in a head lock/hug, and said, “I don’t want to have to ask…you know that.”
He didn’t say the words. He didn’t have to. My son was being more than disruptive, he was having a stellar autism meltdown of galactic proportions. I was just trying to get him calm enough to take him out without an incident and, in a whisper, I told him that.
“How can I help?” He said.
Getting my son to the car was a small trial, but after a Vesuvius explosion of vented rage and frustration, we sat in the car. He fumed. I wept.
People came. People went.
As the meds I’d managed to stuff into my child finally worked, I contrasted this afternoon with the successful-ish visit to school earlier in the day. It was field day and all four of the students in my son’s class participated, or not, as they could. No game went as it was intended—though, the rolling tires up an incline only to chase them back down causing everyone to scatter like ten pins came pretty close. It was a physical metaphor of the emotional rollercoaster of autism parenting. What goes up will definitely come down. Probably with teeth marks embedded in it.
This is the refrain of my life. For every good moment where I manage a picnic lunch in the grass with my son and pictures are captured as proof, there is a corresponding, undocumented, black-hearted despair waiting in the wings to walk to center stage and take a giant, steamy dump.** Guess which memories last the longest?
I have reserved a small, smug nugget in my heart for the moms who struggle with their broad spectrum children. My son has had his moments, but I’ve been able to take him places and do things other families just didn’t. This makes you cocky. You want to think that you have the secret! You know something those other families don’t!
“Just push your child. Find his boundaries and respect them, but keep trying to push them.” I would think to myself.
The boundaries are now pushing back. And, at thirteen, they have the weight of an almost adult behind them. A proto-man who has his own mind and directions and preferences that I am now required to respect. Either that, or be prepared to count my fingers and come up with an odd number.***
I didn’t videotape the experience. I didn’t post it to Facebook. But for a bitter, self-indulgent, desperately tired moment I wanted to. I wanted the pity of nations and the poor-me sympathy of automatic outrage served up on a platter for autism families everywhere. It would feel so good, so soothing to be told I was right. That they were wrong. That people should be more understanding.
!!!VINDICATION IS MINE!!!
But knowing I was the one who pushed my child through the doors when he’d already said, “No!” I knew who to blame.
Being told to leave hurts. Every time. It hurts so very deep, in a place you can’t see and don’t want anyone to know is there. And every injury scars deeper than the last. Keloid patches leather your soul, making the effort to try again that much harder. It’s the smallest cuts that hurt the most; and a life with autism is death by a thousand cuts. With lemon juice squirted in for good measure. And a dash of salt.
So, while the rest of the world expands its horizons this weekend, I am weathering the storm at home, licking my wounds and trying not to be pitiful. Much.
Hopefully by next Friday, I’ll be ready to meet my childhood alter ego on the silver screen. I’ll have my silver arm bands ready and my lasso of truth set for introspection and self-revelation. And forgiveness. And I’ll be Wonder Woman once more.
*Internet Rage Fest–It’s the modern-day equivalent of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame except that it lasts forever and is shared until it reaches obscure corners of Outer Mongolia and beyond.
**Go ahead, try and scrapbook that image!
***Which my son would no doubt find oddly pleasing. He prefers odd numbers to even. He thinks numbers divisible by two are the devil.
Missing Easter eggs–taken from fridge–still not found?
This too shall pass.
Two teardrop shaped containers of food coloring found in son’s bedroom. Two still unaccounted for. Mattress now looks like Jackson Pollock vomited there.
This too shall pass.
No clean clothes today…most of child’s pants cut up by scissors or missing. Must remember to check the heat ducts later…
This too shall pass.
Looks in fridge. *Stares blankly* Where’d the chicken go?
This too shall pass.
If you are a happy parent, please stop reading here. If you find fulfillment of life in nurturing and raising your beautiful, perfect little yous. Go away. This is not the blog you are looking for and I won’t be nice about it.
If, however, you have had dark thoughts on miserable, cold days. If you haven’t showered in forever and aren’t entirely sure whether it’s Tuesday or the apocalypse. Join me, comrade. And welcome.
While studying to get a degree in Russian Studies*, we were assigned the work One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Its simplistic, yet brutal reflection of the miseries of life for prisoners in a Russian gulag are played out in a single day for the title character Ivan Denisovich. What I did not know then, while reading about the struggles of someone trapped in a cold, cheerless existence, is that it could just as well be a metaphor for what it is like to parent a special needs child.
This too shall pass.
This has become my mantra. This reassurance every time my son finds a new and inventive way to make me regret the wonders of fertility treatments: the bad moments pass. It is a lifeline when you feel you are drowning and desperate options rear their suggestive, ugly heads.
This too shall pass.
Sometimes you find yourself sitting by the side of the road weighing bad to worse choices. Because bad are the only choices you can see.
This too shall pass.
I took my son to a birthday party Friday for the son of a longtime friend in the Autism Community. Little Man refused to enter the building. When finally forced to enter, threw a massive tantrum, beating himself and biting his arms, until he realized he wasn’t getting his way and we were going to stay. He sat rigid, refusing to join in—in a place where other children played jumping on trampolines and swinging from giant swaths of spandex dangling from the airplane-hangar-sized ceiling beams. He tolerated it until I would let him go home again.
This too shall pass.
We traveled to the delightfully grey and 40-degree weather in Traverse City, Michigan. I drove for three hours. Got fifteen minutes in the hot tub of the hotel before my son screeched his regrets and left the pool; I took him for his requested walk to the nearby lake where he promptly wanted to leave; returned to the Comfort Inn to sleep to dream of wifi only to be woken at 6:00 a.m. because someone next door took a shower. This was a good day. No major meltdowns.
This too shall pass.
Then yesterday happened.
I took my son to an event sponsored by the school celebrating a program that is intended to engage children like mine with the neurotypical kids. The ones who can play the games and take part in ordinary life. The children not like my son.**
I run into his teachers and classroom aides.
“Little Man had a really good day today.” One person tells me.
“Really, he was very happy.” Another stops to greet my son.
This too shall pass.
They don’t hear it. They don’t hear the bell ringing, the tolling, sonorous carillon signaling the shift from happy child to frantic, exhausted, terrorized hulk.
Neither do I.
This too shall pass.
We win the most patriot looking red-white-and-blue cupcakes at the cake walk—on only our sixth or seventh time around. *Thank goodness.*
I coax my son into a bizarre game where marshmallows—a food my son loves—are tossed back and forth to be caught in cups. None of the marshmallows are supposed to be eaten, however, because they keep hitting the floor. My son sneaks one anyway, confused that he couldn’t eat them in the first place. Has no one heard of cotton balls?
This too shall pass.
I drag my reluctant child to a photo room where mustaches on sticks and leis are strewn to give families props to stage silly portraits. I manage a few with my unsmiling teen and he drags me out after thirty seconds.
This too shall pass.
He attempts to leave the building by several exits. We have only been there a half hour, but he wants out.
I ‘encourage’ my son to participate in a game in the library and he balks.
“One game. Candy Land…or Yahtzee. Then we can go.” I plead.
It is too much for him.
He is desperate and begins hitting himself violently.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
It is the sound of someone testing a melon for ripeness. It is the distant sound of an axe biting into wood. It is my son’s fists cracking against his skull.
He is crying from angst or anger or frustration or stress or some combination of all of these emotions. Or none. Perhaps he is drained and all that is left is the hollow drum upon which he beats an empty tattoo.
This too shall pass.
I push him into a cozy nook for readers to sit by a pretend fire where a painted tree grows to spread its branches overhead. Or so my vague memory suggests. I was too busy dosing my child with a sedative so I could get him out of the building without scaring or hurting anyone.
This too shall pass.
As I am driving him home, I am blinded. Blinded by regrets that my son cannot take part in fun activities. That I don’t get to be the parent encouraging him to stretch his limits, but instead failing to recognize them in time to prevent catastrophe.
It is as if his emotions have spilled over from where he sits in the back seat tearing strips of paper to calm himself.*** He winds the paper around his fingers and I think, “At least he’s finally using all those summer workbooks I purchased.”
I am crying now for the pain he feels but cannot express. For the fact he can never, ever make any real friends because he has such devastating limitations.
That he is so broken and so am I.
This too shall pass.
I pull off the road because, really, I can’t see now. I can’t see the point in continuing.
I park in an empty florist’s lot. The strip of grass that divides my car from the busy traffic is a green wedge of nature slipped between asphalt boundaries and a Panera coffee shop.
I am tired. I am listening to the recording of my parenting failures skipping and repeating in my head. And before anyone thinks to tell me what I great mom I am. Stop. Just stop.
Because you don’t know the thoughts I had.
This too shall pass.
You don’t hear the insidious little fucking voices in your head telling you that there has got to be an easier way than this. That life shouldn’t be this hard. That life shouldn’t be this…
This too shall pass.
You all think there are programs to help families in need. You all think we are getting help to make it through the every-fucking-day struggle of making yourself get up when black thoughts drag you down.
Maybe there are. But you know what? I don’t qualify for them; barely anyone does. You apply through miles of red tape, applications, certifications, interviews, and, if you are lucky, you are put on a wait list to try and get one of the 450 some slots the entire fucking state has to help people with severely handicapped children who don’t qualify for Medicaid.
You heard me. 450 slots. For a state with a population approaching 10 million.
You all think that there must be someone out there helping families like mine make good choices and to step in when things get bleak or despairing. You would be dead wrong.
This too shall pass.
This is the problem with real life. Ugly thoughts are like rancid cheerleaders rooting for destruction. There are no angels to balance you out. Sometimes the monsters win.
But not today.
This too shall pass.
I watch the robins bobbing on the slender manicured lawn that is trapped on all sides by concrete barriers and the threat of chemical castration or decapitation by lawn mower for any daring weeds. The little red-breasted birds are rejoicing in the abundance of rain-forced worms.
This too shall pass.
I turn on the book on tape I’ve borrowed from the library.
In writing this, I was reminded that in college, I found One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be uplifting. Despite all of the misery, Ivan Denisovich finds moments of grace—not religious—but humanizing that help him to eek joy from the life he does have.
Ivan Denisovich got fish eyes in his soup.
I got robins bobbing for worms and the lyrical beginnings of a musician who might be a magician. Or vice versa. I’m not sure yet. The story has only begun.
I’ll have to listen for another day.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Because I’m all about collecting useless degrees. Ask me about my aborted career as a teacher. Go ahead, *cocks imaginary pistol* ASK.
**The normals (aka The Little Fuckers.)
***The real reason why I donated my son’s books to the school—because watching him destroy something I love and had hoped would connect us is too painful.
I am fine. It was just a bad moment. We all have them. Do not contact the authorities or the Department of Human Services. I shared this to let the world know we have a problem with our resources and mental health care assistance to families in need and maybe to let other parents of special needs children know they are not alone. We just need support.
If you want to act, check out our local Autism Support of Kent County (A.S.K) agency http://www.autismsupportofkentcounty.org. They have helped my family as well as others in various outreach programs and financial aid for summer camps and therapies. Their Annual Walk for Autism is Sunday, May 7, 12:00 noon– at John Ball Zoo, 1300 Fulton W, Grand Rapids, MI 49504. If he’ll go, I’ll be the one leading my son around with a bag of marshmallows.
Just after posting my celebratory hurrah about our South Haven Adventures last week, I get home and decide to compound my success by being a ‘good parent.’*
“C’mon son. Let’s go for a walk.” I say.
I’m thinking of a brisk stroll, fresh air, and then getting back to the house to tackle some work. It is a good game plan.**
As I have mentioned before, my son is a runner. He would explore a lion’s den given half a chance. Like Austin Powers, his middle name is “Danger”. Unfortunately, this evening is no exception. As we walk, he keeps pointing out buildings he would like to ‘visit’ and even writes house numbers down on his papers when I don’t seem to pick up on his subtle signals when he tries to drag me to the front door.
The night is turning colder when I spot the Grand Villa in the distance. This is a local restaurant which goes by the nickname “The Dungeon” because of its subterranean locale. If I had seen their website beforehand, I might have taken heed of the warning they post in their tagline:
Teeth chattering, I haul my child away from the housing complex he is lunging toward—a nondescript giant block of apartments in what once was a large family home. Seeing as my son is now 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs as much as an overindulged Great Dane, this takes some effort.
I lure him in with the promise of chocolate milk.
Twenty minutes later, warm again and well quaffed, we gather our things to go. Then I consider the nearly mile-long walk back to the house…in the cold…and decide the bathroom should be our first stop. I send my son into the men’s room and wait for a few seconds…before deciding I’d better make sure myself and pop into the ladies.
I swear I peed in less than a minute and was back out to wait for my son. A MINUTE. That’s all it took. My clever, devious, Machiavellian boy was gone.
You can pretty much predict the rest. After a frantic and futile search of the area, I’m on the phone with 911. While talking with them, I see a police car pull up alongside the road. I hail them while I’m on the phone with the operator.***
Now I’m babbling at two different sets of people—neither of whom can understand me—when someone calls out:
“We’ve found him!”
Another police officer escorts my happy, oblivious-to-the-chaos-he-causes boy to my weeping embrace.
My son is returned safe and sound and, though he had broken into a home, no one is hurt. A few papers are stolen and have to be retrieved. He’d even had time to scribble calendars on the back as a memento to the family he invaded. I hope they frame them.
In those interminable minutes he is out of my grasp, I imagine enough scenarios to make my heart stop a thousand times. I am honestly surprised it doesn’t kill me.
Once home, my child goes to bed with no complaints. I think on some level he recognizes mommy has had it. I turn off my phone and tune out the world and spend the evening overwrought and shaking.
The next day, I find the energy to call my mom.
“Hey, mom…Little Man is okay, but I have to tell you something that happened last night. Understand, I can’t take any comments about what might have happened. I still feel so emotionally raw I can barely breathe.”
My mom knows about loss. I had a sister—Robin. She died of crib death before I was even born. As a result, mom has had a super-charged paranoia about any dangers we faced as kids and I think this has multiplied exponentially for her grandchildren.
I re-live the night before as factually as I can without breaking down. She lets me vent. It is what I need—a shoulder to cry on without judgment. It is phone call catharsis at its best. Mom says she’ll check in on me later, but she has something to do first. I ring off feeling a shade lighter than before.
My mom stops by that afternoon, carrying a cooler. I unpack it while she tells me a story of her own. When I get to the table with a warm bundle wrapped in a towel, she is drawing me a map as she talks:
“When I was a little girl, my father took me to the ice cream shop at the Occidental Hotel in Muskegon. It’s torn down now, but it was located between Clay and Webster Street downtown—it’s in the same area the Frauenthal Theater and the culinary school are now.”
I pull up my computer to help in the search for yesteryear landmarks. We have a doozy of a time since mom—who has a much better sense of direction than me—apparently can’t reorient her mind to the north-on-top directionality Google maps insists on presenting.
“Anyway, they had a famous hot fudge sauce that I absolutely loved. We didn’t go out very often so it was a big treat to go there. So I made this for you!”
As mom is saying this, she’s unwrapping the towel to reveal a small Corningware casserole dish wrapped in plastic wrap with a band of duct tape for extra insurance. (She’s not messing around with spills!)
“After you told me about your adventure, I thought you could use a treat.” Mom says.
She makes me sit down with a big bowl of ice cream and a dollop of the chocolaty, silken sauce melting over the white caps of vanilla-y goodness.
She then tells me more about our connections to the famed hotel with the equally famous sauce.
“Do you remember the lamp your father brought back when they sold off the property and its belongings?” She asks.
I would have been eight in 1975, and home furnishings weren’t a high priority in my experience, so I shake my head and take a bite. I swallow her memories with each taste.
“It was a heavy iron lamp and we put it in your room with the flowered Crosscill bedspread and curtains—you remember those?”
I had loved that frilly bedroom set up until I left for the Army. It was gone when I got back home four years later and I truly mourned its loss. I nod and lick the spoon. No words are necessary when you have hot fudge. Mom continues to wax nostalgic about the past:
“I was nineteen in 1959. I remember going to a Valentine’s dance there once–sponsored by the Elks, I think. A boyfriend, Jack Boles, took me to a ball at the hotel when we were dating. Do you remember the beautiful dress you borrowed for school that was stolen?”
This I distinctly remember. It was my first experience with theft. I borrowed it for a theater skit for a character in the show. It was gorgeous red dress of some kind of stiff but silky material. I have never quite forgiven myself for losing that dress.
“It was a play, Mom. We were performing at the elementary school. The dress disappeared from the prop and costume boxes before we finished the shows.” I interject. I’m apologetic—it’s a script we’ve enacted whenever we rehash the event.
“It had a square bodice and the style was so grown up. The sheer overlay matched the underskirt perfectly. Do you remember the fabric?” Mom holds her hands out as if measuring the width of a belled skirt.
“It had a swirly pattern—nothing distinct, like paisley, but more like the swirls you see when oil floats on water.” I say.
[A hunt online produced similar styles but nothing exactly like what she had:]
Close but no cigar!
Similar tulle overlay
Now it’s her turn to nod.
“Yes! I wore it when I was in the beauty contest at the ball—you’ve seen that picture, right?”
It is a small, black-n-white snapshot of three women in ball gowns. Mom was the first runner-up. In the photo, she stands to the left of two other women—all dressed up and carrying bouquets of now, long-dead flowers. It was a night of beautiful memories.
The fudge sauce is slowly disappearing as we reminisce. We look online trying to find a photo of the ice cream parlor that existed before The Occidental Hotel was imploded in 1975 to make way for a parking lot. But all we can find are details of the implosion. The article is an epitaph for a leveled landmark torn down in pursuit of a mall that would later close of its own fiscal demise.
The ice cream is gone and I scoop up the remains of the cooling, lava-like gooeyness to store in the fridge.
“Be sure to hide it from the boy or he’ll eat it all!” Mom warns before giving me a hug goodbye.
It’s after she’s gone and I’m cleaning up that I realize what she’s done. It is what all mothers do—try to make it better. When you skin your knee, she offers a kiss. It is a little sugar to take away the bitterness that life sometimes hands you. I may be an adult, but I am not immune to the sway of childhood remedies or memories—be they mine or my mother’s. The sweetness cannot stop the pain, but it can make it better. And when those remembrances come with chocolate sauce—it surely does.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Being a Good Parent—a laudable goal that, when I try to do it on purpose, results in immediate failure.
**Life is out to get me most of the time and rarely needs a good reason. Still, I thought, in light of my good intentions, the universe was being a real shit not to reward me.
***No matter how many times I have called 911, I do not improve with experience. I am just as hysterical and useless each and every time. I owe sincere apologies to the people who man those phones…and probably a fruit basket.
———–You read this far bonus—————–
I just had to include this photo. It is the entire line up of contestants from that long ago Valentine’s beauty pageant.
*Warning, graphic and disgusting content follows.*
You are ruining everything! I was supposed to be having fun, staying up late, writing a novel for NaNoWriMo. Instead, I’m seeing how fast I can go through a mega pack of toilet paper and finding out exactly how dehydrated one has to get before you have nothing left to give.
I hope you are happy.*
Sure! You let me have a Halloween party, but then you show up and knock me on my ass!
For days I was too tired to even whine. Did you read that? TOO TIRED TO WHINE!*
I threw away CUPCAKES because of you. I, who may or may not have eaten cake which had been left out for days in my past, threw away perfectly good—well, let’s be honest, my kid ate all the candy pumpkins off the top and it looked like tiny orange homicides occurred in the remaining frosting—cupcakes. They were tossed–much like cookies.*
I have only managed to eat the Jello brains leftover from the party and chicken soup. Four days of chicken soup. Bkwawk. I suspect I have started to cluck.*
My son has run amok in my absence. I actually had to chase him once when he escaped the house. You of course followed me and made my life hell.
You can imagine that phone call to the police department:
Dispatcher: “9.1.1, what is your emergency?”
Me: “My son has eaten a truckload of candy and is running amok. He’s dressed as Robin Hood and breaking into people’s homes. I’m in danger of shit running down my leg any second. I’m dressed as Dolores Umbrage—you’ll find me squatting in the nearest bushes.”
No thanks to you, I found him before they had to be involved…and I was arrested for indecency and polluting a public place.
The house is a mess. My son is officially out of clean clothes. And the basement…I don’t even want to describe what he has done to the basement. Suffice it to say, there will be Lysol in the old house tonight.
I’m sorry. But we have to break up. And let me be frank. It isn’t me—it’s you! I just can’t put up with your shit anymore.*
Asterisks Not So Bedazzled:
*A graphic representation of how frequently I have been interrupted while writing this post. You can only imagine why.
And because I suspect you think I’m making this up…here’s photographic proof.
1st Place goes to Kiri at The Dust Season for the “A Happily-Ever-After Story Involving Break-Ins and Police Action”. It takes a village to raise a child, but those villages often wait to show themselves. At just the right moment…
She was sent one Green Study Coffee Mug, a postcard from Minneapolis and $100 donation was made to the American Red Cross on her behalf.
“A Happily-Ever-After Story Involving Break-Ins and Police Action”
My son is an escape artist. He revels in finding ways around the protective prison cocoon of his home life. This would be fine, if my son were normal. But he isn’t and this story isn’t. So, before everyone gets up in arms about my use of the word ‘normal’ in relation to my son, let me get one thing straight: something beyond ordinary happened—and that’s okay.
On the heels of my last post “Tempest in a Teapot, ” today follows the story with an introductory Haiku—poorly crafted poetry that tries to sum up a day in seventeen syllables:
As tea steeps, rain weeps
Water fills both bowl and sky
Prepare to drink deep.
I leave the Japanese Tea House buoyed with happiness and a certain sense of rightness with the world. It doesn’t last long.*
I take my complimentary shocking-yellow umbrella from our Meijer Garden’s guide—I almost bow from recently-acquired habit—and pause to pose in front of a font for a photo. (Hit *like* if you love alliteration.)
As I am leaving, the guide casually mentions that a ‘storm’ is headed this way and I should make sure to head in by 2:00.
I scramble around the larger Japanese Garden to admire the lush-to-the-point-of- heaving-bosoms blooming flowers in the rain. I ‘Cecil B. DeMille’ a few of them with dew-laden close-ups. I might have asked a few of them to “Come on, show a little stamen and pistil.”**
I stalk the Bonsai garden—a human sequoia in a land of miniature conifers. I took several snaps of the plump, if bruised, pear growing on its tiny parent. It struck me funny that I was giving produce the paparazzi treatment when I pass it up with barely a blink at our local grocery store. (I am high on centuries of tradition, what can I say? I am a wild woman.)
The rain is steady–not too heavy but definitely a presence. My shadowy, wet companion. At one point, I am juggling the umbrella and trying to photograph the Korean Hornbeam*** when I drop my iPhone. Fortunately, it hits the rocks glass-side up, or I’d be crying in the rain.
I stop in the rock garden on my way out. The nearly invisible poetry etched into the massive boulders is made visible by the downpour.
RAIN FALLING IN SPRING
AND I AM SORRY
NOT TO BE ABLE TO WRITE
I’m eating lunch in the Meijer Gardens’ café, surrounded by raindrop streaked windows and Chihuly glass installment on the ceiling, when I turn my phone back on to check for messages. There is a mildly alarming inquiry about my son from the babysitter, so I call to check on him.
That’s when I get the news…they are in the basement…there is a tornado alert for the area. I should seek shelter.
We exchange a few frantic words before I head to the front desk.
“Uh, are you all aware that there is a tornado alert?” I whisper this as if I’d cause a stampede if overheard.
The huddle of women with grey-to-frosty-white hair helmets look up from an iPad and confirm they’re tracking its progress.
“Don’t worry. We’ll let everyone know if we need to move to the shelters in the basement.”
I shrug, I’ve done my part. But in my head, I’m thinking. “Don’t tornados move pretty fast?” I make my way to the basement to grab a seat before anyone else does. Because…priorities!
Pretty soon, everybody else with an iPhone or other device is making their way down there ahead of an official announcement. If there is ever another mass extinction it will be because someone decided to wait until they were sure disaster was heading in their direction before taking action.
It’s getting crowded and suddenly all of our phones are going off announcing the approach of the storm. The officials finally make it official and start herding people into the area that is the ‘actual’ storm shelter. (Apparently they don’t consider a need for access to plumbing with the same level of urgency I do.) A service door leads to an unfinished concrete cavern filled with twists and turns and lots of unused equipment and staging material. We are urged to move as far back in the space to make room for everybody. I’m surprised by how calmly everyone is taking this. Inside I wonder if we really ought to be more concerned.
I spy a few of the people I ran into while walking the garden. I’m glad they made it back—but I do wonder about the second tea ceremony that was supposed to start at 2:00. There is a really evil part of me that whispers “Aren’t you glad you signed up for the first showing at 11:30!”
I pass members of a wedding party, one of the women is still holding a glass/candle concoction which would be an excellent thing if anyone wanted a light. (I see a future market for wedding planners —decorative flourishes that function as emergency provisions in the event of a disaster.)
I finally choose a spot that circles back to a secondary exit. There is light spilling in from the corridor so it isn’t totally scary if it is a bit cold.
Across from me a family—two grandparents, a family friend, and two children—are trying to get comfortable on the floor. I look around. Nearby there are folded chairs and a huddle of employees who, by their uniforms, work in the kitchens upstairs.
“Would it be okay if we got out the chairs?” I ask one of them. I have to repeat myself because it appears the young man isn’t used to actually talking with the visitors to the Gardens.
Minutes later, our area is much cozier with scattered seating. I quash any guilt I might feel because the woman across says, “Oh, that’s so much better.”
We exchange a few pleasantries before settling into a tense wait-and-see. The children are scared. You can tell by the way they clutch the toys they’ve brought with them. I honestly don’t feel that much fear—probably because I have no clue what kind of damage a storm like this can do. You see…
I am a tornado virgin.
I have never lived through any major storm—beyond the huge snow storm of 78’ when I was a child. And all I remember from that week was the isolation—school was canceled and we were unable to leave because the roads couldn’t be plowed. (One of the joys of living rurally.) I do recall my brothers and I deciding that the four-foot drifts were an invitation to jumping off the roof and sinking over waist deep in snow. We had to swivel back and forth to worm our way out. Oh, I’ve had to hide in a few basements on occasion, but they had always turned out to be false prophecies. So, I had a cocky optimism that this time wouldn’t be any different.
Minutes creep past. The littlest girl across from me is crying with that suppressed sob-hiccup combination that can be so cute even when they are earnest tears. I can’t make out what she is upset about other than it involves someone or something called…Balthazar?
So, I ask. Partly to hopefully distract the child and, well, because I am curious.
“Who is Balthazar?”
The little girl blinks tear drenched lashes and utters a nearly incomprehensible string of words:
“I…I…he’s…I left him…and…he’s in danger. I…I…what will…I do…if…” She trails off with more tears and no doubt a snuffly nose.
Her grandmother brushes a strand of hair away from her flushed pink face and leans toward me.
“It’s her toy…I think it’s called Bulbasaur. Or something like that.”
“It’s Bulbazar, Grandma!” This comes from the second little girl ensconced on the other woman’s lap.
A discuss pops up about the pronunciation, but Grandma shakes her head.
“No, I think it has S.A.U.R. at the end—like a dinosaur.”
“What exactly is a Bulbasaur?” I ask.
If I had known the torrent of information that was about to rain down on me, I might have tried to save myself. But then, again, there was no Wi-Fi signal and there really wasn’t anything else to do. So, I took an unscheduled course in Pokémon 101. The little redhead across from me apparently had a masters if not a doctorate.
At one point, she tells me her name is “Kay”
(Names changed just because.)
I tell her, “My name starts with a ‘K’ too!” She beams at me; we are now friends for life.
She points to her sister, “That’s Dee.”
“I recognize that is Pokémon.” I say, pointing to the yellow pillow-type thing Dee is holding as if someone were threatening to take it from her. Then I point to whatever lump is in Kay’s hands. “But what is that?”
Kay giggles. She holds up a lumpy, terry-clothed thing.
“It’s a towel! ‘Cause I did a ‘Dee’!”
And then she plops the thing against the side of her head.
Of course. This make perfect sense. No doubt my expression says as much.
Her grandmother laughs and explains. “She bumped her head earlier and they got her a cloth with ice in it.”
Kay holds back her bangs to reveal nary a bruise. The ice must have done its job or the strawberry hair is hiding the evidence. Kay is now picking through the washcloth and slips a sliver of ice into her mouth with her grandma none the wiser.
Grandma smooths the bangs again, adding, “Anytime we bump our heads, we say we are doing a Dee because she used to run into all sorts of corners and things when she was little.”
Kay pipes up again and points to her sister. “Yeah she bumped her head a lot! So we say ‘We did a Dee.’”
Everyone is nodded and smiling. Then Kay adds, “And when we fart we say we did a ‘Kathy’. Because Grandma farts a lot!” And she points back at her grandmother, who is now laughing—though a tiny bit mortified by this announcement.
Grandma Kathy murmurs something about maybe sharing too much information but she isn’t really mad and her granddaughters know it because they are both laughing, snuggled safe in loving arms.
Kay pops back up from this to launch into a detailed explanation of Bulbasaur’s relationship to Pokémon.
I learn there is something called the Rocket Team—and they are definitely bad guys. And someone named Ash who spends a lot of time in the gym.
The grandma throws in a comment to clarify a point Kay is trying to make with hand gestures that look like something is exploding.
“The Pokémon can evolve.” She says.
But into what is never clearly explained. I picture something like a Transformer—which is my cultural experience with toys that are more than meets the eye—but rounder and cuter.
I learn that the Pokémon can fight. That Pikachu has a secret weapon—something called a ‘Thunder Shock.’ And here, Kay puffs out her cheeks and demonstrates:
“His cheeks blow out really loud and he says, ‘Pikachuuuuuu!”
Apparently this devastates his enemies.
The girls are laughing and chatting back and forth when all of our phones go off at once.
Some of the alerts are voiced announcements notifying us of a Tornado alert in our area and to seek shelter. There is something really unnerving about the shrill cacophony of notes chiming throughout the cement block room. No one is laughing now.
There is a human instinct to huddle. To crouch low as if to make a smaller target. I find myself looking at the little girls across from me shrinking back and arms that had been holding them loosely now tightened. Reassurances are whispered and Grandpa is a stoic figure who rarely says a word but is a calm presence in the face of the unseen.
I try to comfort them, knowing I am helpless to be there for my own son tucked in the basement with a babysitter who definitely deserves more than I pay her.
“So, the alarms are like the ‘Thunder Shock’ Pikachu makes. It’s just a reminder to be careful.”
Then a little girl in a frilly dress toddles past and loses a bow. The pink ribbon falls near my feet and I seize the opportunity.
“Look she lost her bow. That’s a bow alert!”
Kay is delighted by this idea. When an oblivious little boy in an adorable suit trundles through bumping into nearly everything in his path, she calls out, “Baby Alert.”
Soon Kay is reciting once again the episodes and even an entire theme about her favorite TV characters. She sings some sort of anthem—it went on for about seven verses—and it is too fast and her voice is too high for me to do more than pick out one word in ten.
I’m reminded of the scene in Finding Nemo where Nemo’s dad is listening to the baby sea turtle explain the way to get to the East Australian current. After the pipsqueak voice winds down, Marlin says:
“You know, you’re really cute, but I don’t know what you are saying! Say the first thing again.”
For whatever else I miss, I understand that this language is helping Kay and Dee to deal with a frightening situation. No one can call out. All attempts to text and get replies are blocked by the surrounding concrete cocoon that keeps us safe from tornados as well as causing wireless signal fatigue. So, while we sit and try not to worry about the ominous thumps we occasionally hear overhead—we share our stories to distract each other.
Instead of spending our moments anticipating whooshing air signifying imminent destruction, we find the strength to laugh, to find the humor and our humanity in the darkness.
Eventually, the crowds that had been loitering near raw plywood and collapsed tables usually only seen fully clothed with the ruched skirts to protect the legs’ modesty, start to part. People drift away and cheers go up as we realize the danger is past. With very little fanfare, the crisis is over.
I say goodbye to the girls and soon the crowd separates us. We are all ready to be done with the claustrophobic space.
The wedding party is making its way back to their celebration. I spot a woman who is still clutching her slice of wedding cake. I can’t help but comment on her foresight.
“Well, I didn’t want to miss out if it was gone when we got back!” she says with a smile.
“I am just surprised you didn’t eat it while waiting.”
“I didn’t have time to grab a fork,” she replies.
I laugh, “A little thing like that wouldn’t have stopped me!”
Before we part, we agree, this is a wedding no one is likely to forget!
Outside, there is little evidence that a major storm front has gone through.
“Another much ado about nothing!” I think.
It’s not until I am nearing home that I spot the devastation. Trees that had survived sixty to a hundred years of bad weather were torn and scattered on front yards and crushing cars and houses like giant match sticks dropped by a careless hand. I’m not even a mile away from home and it suddenly strikes me how close it came. How violent the winds had to have been to snap oaks and other hard wood like dry kindling. I later learn this was a weak system–only a category EF-0. I don’t want to ever see what something stronger could do.
My house and family are fine–two city blocks west of the path of destruction. I pay the sitter and she shrugs off the seven-hour ordeal caused by our separate vigils in the dark. Thankfully, my son was totally oblivious of any danger.
I didn’t really face the dragon—but I felt his breath on my neck. I survived his reign of terror and I can imagine how differently things could have turned out.
Thus ends my tale. The only thing left is an appreciation for Japanese culture which creates a tea to feed the soul and a Pokémon to calm the tempest in the pot.
I leave you with a final haiku:
Trees dance and bow low
Thunder applauds with fierce claps
Making dancers fall
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
* It never does
**Floral porn, take one—“Come on, you know you want to bee pollinated!”
***You were expecting a dragon ala Harry Potter, weren’t you?
My inner child typically goes wild during the holidays: perusing the many catalogues that come to the house pointing to each item (or circling) the ones I want the way I did when I was a kid. Now, instead of Easy Bake Ovens or Barbie accessories, I’m eyeballing whatever takes my fancy and trying to justify buying it.*
Yet, this time of year also brings with it the anxiety of gift buying that grows more intractable every year. Worry about buying a commensurate gift or any gift for an unexpected kindness makes me want to avoid people.** Trust me, when I say “You shouldn’t have!” I really mean it. The Big Bang Theory’s neurotically lovable character, Sheldon, said it best: “You didn’t get me a gift, you got me an obligation.”
But I understand, there is a joy in sharing and caring for the ones you love. But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to do it with tangible, pricey exchanges—beautiful bows, notwithstanding.
This brings up today’s quandary. I have looked up from November’s hole of self-absorption to realize Christmas is barely two weeks away. I have not strung the house with any kind of decoration. I have not written any cards. I have baked no cookies. I have purchased no gifts, no boomwhackers or fandoozles. In short, I have been the Grinch who Ignored Christmas.
My son, however, has finally noticed the holiday comes around every year. He has started dragging me to the toy aisle to point out the extremely expensive plastic monstrosity which is this year’s IT toy:
Now, I try not to be a Scrooge when it comes to my kid. But there is a history here that wars with my better nature. Maybe it is because he is autistic, but in the past my son has insisted on one toy in particular. He will drag me or run to the toy department to make me follow him. He will try to get me to buy it…or, failing that, will try to tuck it under his arm and walk out with it. It takes the skills of a ninja for me to sneak out, buy the item, wrap it and hide it where he can’t find it, and keep it secret until December 26th.
Then, when the holiday rolls around, and I wait to see his excitement as he opens his present, I am floored by the total disinterest the toy produces when it is actually removed from the many trip wires they use to entrap parents into never returning the item for fear they would have to repackage it. It’s as if, the minute it is out of the box, it loses whatever magic it possessed in the store when I refused to buy it for him.
So I sat down with my son and pulled up several much-cheaper options online which he willingly clicked on and watched the video ads that promoted them. Over, and over, and over. Afterwards, I type out my questions on the iPad and wait for his painstakingly slow replies:
Me: “Why do you want the garage toy?
Son: “It is wider.”
Me: “It is very expensive. Let’s see if we can find a cheaper toy you like.”
[interlude with several nearly identical v-tech toys.]
Me: “Will you like this toy instead?”
Me: “Is there anything else you would like for Christmas?”
Me: “Okay, anything else?”
Son: “I would like you to teach me to talk.”
It took me a few seconds to remember how to breathe, that’s how much the sentence hurt. I typed a few more sentences about how well he is doing and how much I now know about him because of the iPad…but he is done for the night. He runs off to play and I get a glass of wine and try not to cry.
It is entirely tempting to just order the damned prized toy to make up for all of the things my child doesn’t have. It is a constant measure of guilt that underscores many of the decisions I make as a parent. It is a trap of desperation: “If only I can make him happy it will make up for him being a non-verbal child with autism.” But I have been down this very expensive road before and, though it is a scenic route full of enticing detours, I stick to my pecuniary path. I order a VTech Ultimate Amazement Play Park car set that will make him happy for at least an hour at half the price.
Do we as parents say “No!” to the overpriced toys and the overpriced holidays since we know that it isn’t worth the cost? On the other hand, do we really want to face disappointing our child and the associated guilt? This is my continual quandary.
I would really like to know, where do you all come down on this issue? Do you cave and buy the exorbitant junk or do you grit your teeth bear the price of impecunious, parental perspicacity?***
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*I am impulse consumerism personified.
**Let’s be honest, people make me want to avoid people.
Me: “No no no no no. You can’t be sick! We just got here–trampoline adventure awaits and hockey practice starts at 3:00!”
Me: “Maybe it’s allergies. Or dust. Or you are just leaking. If you just go in and have fun, I’m sure you’ll feel better.”
Child: (Sucking inhalation of gargling nose noise.)
Me: “Well I guess you aren’t going to school tomorrow.”
Child: “Achkrkskhclag!” (Makes noise like a fork going through the food disposal.)
Day 2—Monday – Home From School
Child is not the least bit tired. He races from room to room, stopping periodically to cough directly into my face or into the nearest plate of food.*
Speaking of food, have I mentioned that the microwave has been broken for days now? I eat cold left-over stuffed peppers rather than try to reheat them, because battling to get the microwave to function sends child into a fit of hysteria. I am near tears myself.
In an effort to reign him in, force child to clean room. Discover bed frame has actually warped into a vague ‘U’ shape. Child manages to keep room clean for about a minute.
While I am cleaning bathroom, child turns stove on, past the ignition point, filling house with gas. Discover window I had ‘fixed’ is actually still broken as now it won’t stay open.
Survive day despite child’s efforts. Find bottle of wine saved in basement for a ‘special occasion’. This day has been extra fucking special.
Day 3—War on the Home Front
I have battened the hatches and am maintaining a hostile truce with the enemy. My child is trying to drive me mad…or kill me. He keeps spreading mucous on everything he touches. Every surface is a burgeoning petri dish of bacterial possibilities.
He spends fifteen to twenty minutes running up and down the stairs like a maniac, giggling and shrieking for all he is worth. I am afraid to go downstairs to find out why he is so happy.
I suspect he is just thrilled to be out of school. His new phrase is ‘stay home’. Any communication is pretty big for a non-verbal child. So, I’m ecstatic to hear him talking, even if he sounds like a congested, thirty-year smoker.
Any time I leave him on his own, trouble ensues. At some point, he eats the small, rubber toggle mouse that came with my laptop computer and the grandfather clock is now missing its pendulum. He is like one of the scary, Weeping Angels from Dr. Who—I don’t dare take my eyes off him.
After he floods the bathroom and then sends water pouring down the stairs by overflowing the kitchen sink, I may have threatened to lock him in his room for the rest of his life.
I call for reinforcements. Cousins come—bearing Lysol disinfectant and hand sanitizer, they’re not stupid—to help me eat pizza and drown my sorrows in a game of Settlers of Cataan. I feel human for a very short while. But then, they are gone and I am alone with him once more.
Day—Infinity?—Who the F*ck knows?
It feels like eternity since I have had a break. Now the only break I can envision is a total nervous breakdown. I am randomly shrieking at child and alternately trying to make amends for my horrible behavior. He is fairly oblivious to both my good and my not-so-good efforts.**
Despite being sick, he isn’t sleeping much, as a result, I’m exhausted. Everything is getting on my very last, razor-wire thin nerve. Every time he does something—turn off the fridge, steal my keys, pour the bottle of green dish soap into a garbage can in his bedroom for the second time—my patience is becoming dangerously frayed. Even my son starts to pick up on it because when I shove him in his room with a strangled threat to hang him by his toes and beat him like a pinata, he recognizes that maybe, just maybe, mommy isn’t kidding.
That night, I drive us to the nearby store and pick up some well-earned desserts.*** My son picks out the biggest, sprinkle emblazoned cookie and coughs hard enough to etch the glass with his breath. The clerk doesn’t say a word about the diet coke I buy along with my sugary confections—I suspect the desperation in my eyes is beginning to show—either that, or she wants my child out of her space as quickly as possible.
Friday dawns beautiful—regardless of weather predictions—because I can finally send him to school. He is still coughing, but no longer shooting phlegm so I am calling it ‘good enough’ and shoving him on the bus. I ignore his requests to “Stay home Friday” and walk back to eat my well-deserved cupcake.
As I go to sink my teeth into its sinful, rich, cake-y goodness…I feel a tickling at the back of my throat…like I might have to cough. I suppress the urge and gobble up my treat.
Denial tastes delicious.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
* T-minus three days from transmission and counting.
**Putting him in his room repeatedly was for his own safety, I promise you, not just for my sanity.
***Ignore the fact that half the Halloween candy is already gone; I do.
For those of you who enjoyed the past holiday weekend…bite me. For anyone else who spent the day at an emergency med center making sure your child hadn’t broken or permanently damaged any part of his body, join me in a moment of reflection.
Can you remember before you had the awesome responsibility of parenting? Can you think back that far? (You could be a parent for all of thirty seconds, and still the crushing realization that you are now responsible for a life beyond your own will be smacking you in the face…hard…like Mike Tyson in the final round, testosterone-flared-nostrils-in-your-face hard.) Do you remember what that life before was like? Seriously, what was it like? Oh, wait, now I remember. It was freedom. That’s what it was. Glorious freedom. Those days are gone.
I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I can tell you, after this past Fourth of July, I’d really like to go back and celebrate what freedom used to mean. B.C.—Before Children—life was a dream. I didn’t know it, of course; I thought I was living a life of drudgery and low-paying jobs. I had no idea I was reveling in the greatest wealth the world can offer: freedom. I was reminded of that this weekend when I decided to take my son to a local parade in our new home town. And what better way to get there than riding our bikes?!
I had purchased a bike this past winter and stared at the blizzards fantasizing about biking around in the summer with my son. It was going to be a glorious, technicolor dream. There would be butterflies and rainbows. Even with my bionic enhancements, my physical limitations make it hard to keep up with him on foot, so I thought, “Hey, if we are both on bikes, then I can enjoy the experience and not worry about him getting away. After all, he’s strapped into it and it weighs about ninety pounds. What could happen?” Saturday, we get on our bikes and head toward the city park where we can watch the parade. Cautiously, we cross the scary, busy road near our house to cut cross the cemetery to hit the bike trail along the river.* It all sounds bucolic and delightful doesn’t it? Wait for it…
We’re tooling along, practicing passing people on the left and not mowing down little kids or elderly people who think I’m kidding when I yell: “Watch out. He can’t brake yet.”** Then we get to the section of the path that is becoming our bone of contention—the fork in the road that is the pain in my… ANYWAY, the kid is behind me and has stopped at the fork. A woman with a stroller is passing him and I call back, “No, Booger…we aren’t taking that route today. We can take it on the way ba…” I can’t even get to the end of the sentence before the berserker rage strikes. My son is peddling for all he’s worth–near missing the baby in the stroller–zipping in a mad dash past me and heading towards trouble. All I can do is watch; it isn’t pretty.
My son rides a very sturdy Ambucs Trike.*** This was a wonderful gift from an organization that helps families to buy special trikes for special tikes. (Sounds sickeningly cute, doesn’t it?) What’s more sickening is the experience of watching your agitated child pell-mell his way into an emergency med center visit. As expected, the “Hulk Smash” rage ended in disaster. Helpless, I watched as my son exceeded safety limits, causing the trike to wobble, and then come crashing down on top of him—face first into the asphalt. The good news is, road rash on all bendy parts, a smashed nose and lacerated lip (inside and out—made me want to puke when I saw it) aside, he is going to be fine. The not-so-good news is we spent the entire holiday sitting in waiting rooms just to determine that he hadn’t broken anything. By the end, all we wanted to do was crawl home and collapse. We didn’t bother with going to any Fourth of July celebrations that evening. As my mother-in-law said after we survived the harrowing experience, “We’ve had enough fireworks for one day.” It was unanimous; we spent the holiday huddling in our house avoiding any further excitement.
So, how do I celebrate freedom now? I cherish the moments that work and recover as quickly as possible from the ones that don’t. I will count surviving the day as a win. I will try very hard not to mourn a time when freedom was as easy as leaving my house and getting to my destination unscathed. And I will be buying knee and elbow pads for any future ventures that might lead us astray along our rocky path to freedom.
[Of note, the Bandaids should be coming off just in time for our camping trip to the U.P. later this week. I’m not worried, inclement weather notwithstanding, what could possibly go wrong?]
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*No, this is not foreshadowing. Foreshadowing would have involved an anger management seminar.
**Subtext: you are worth 50 points you old codger, so you’d better get out of the way.
***Sturdy and a bit clunky, these are the Cadillac of kids’ bikes. Solid steel construction—built to inflict the most damage in whatever they hit.
P.S. It wasn’t until after I wrote this that I learned of the terrible bike accident at the Tour de France. I have the sincerest sympathies for the mothers of each and every one of those riders. I am very happy everyone walked away from that one.