“Let’s go up on the bridge to watch them!” my sister-in-law, Elaine, suggested. “The view is much better from higher up.”
Sweat running down my back, I turned my head slowly to look at her, then craned my neck to look back up at the Austin Congress Avenue Bridge. We were sitting on the grassy hill down below, waiting for the summer evening event where two million bats flew out from and streaked across the dusky sky.
I felt dazed, my brain befuddled by the thick Texas heat, and her words seemed like they were coming out in slow motion. I struggled to keep up with what she was saying. Go up there? On that bridge? With the kids? It felt like an impossibly dangerous request.
“Definitely!” Joe agreed enthusiastically. “Let’s start walking up there and get a good spot.”
These people are crazy, I thought to myself sulkily.
We’d left the comforts of Elaine’s house and her glorious in ground pool earlier that afternoon, and on our way to Austin we’d stopped to tour some underground caverns. At one point during the two-mile walk through the cool, humid caves, our tour guide—a twenty-something guy named Ryan—suggested we experience what he called total darkness.
“It’s so cool! You can’t see a thing in front of your face, just try to hold your fingers up!” Four-year old Henry jumped for joy and shouted, “So cool! Dawkness!” while I cringed and made a case for keeping the lights on. Ryan ignored me and snapped off his flashlight. I took deep breaths to stay calm. I hate the dark.
I also hate bridges. Especially ones that overlook water on one side and have oversized pick-up trucks whizzing by on the other. But we gathered ourselves and proceeded to climb the stairway to the top of the structure, four adults and five somewhat whiny children.
My hands began to sweat as we ascended higher, and I had a hard time keeping hold of Henry’s slippery fingers. My stomach started to knot.
Once on the bridge, we organized ourselves in a row facing the water, and instructed the kids to keep both feet on the ground as we waited for the sun to set and the bats to emerge from their cool concrete corners. Trying to keep myself calm for the second time that day—I mean really, total darkness?—I let my thoughts wander. I started to think about the phrase bridging the gap.
Online, the idiom bridging the gap is defined as making a connection where there is a great difference.
Since I started writing about Jack, many, many of you have reached across the social divide to connect with my son through his love of license plates. You have posted pictures of ones from places like South Dakota and Washington and Hawaii. You have mailed old plates you dug out of your deepest storage spaces and ones that came off of planes and boats and antique cars. You asked your high school shop teacher in Iowa to pry his off of his truck and give it to your parents to bring to New Hampshire. And each license plate has been accompanied by a letter describing where it came from, who you are, how you care.
Because of you, Jack has a wall decorated with license plates from all fifty states and a smile in his heart.
I mean, Joey loves Legos and Rose collects monkeys and Henry cannot get enough of Batman. I’m sure I’ve talked about my own fondness for hundred-dollar bills and diamond tennis bracelets, yet not a single one has shown up in my mailbox.
But you do it for Jack. And I think you do it to show a young boy that the universe is ready to make a connection where there is a great difference. To bridge the gap between his autism and your not autism, to transition to the world of stimming and language delay and anxiety, and show a child you are trying, trying to understand him.
To create light where there might otherwise be total darkness.
Back on the bridge, the bats began to fly. Rushing out from underneath the concrete platform, they streamed across Austin’s city skyline and clouded the horizon. They were fast and stealth and just a little bit stinky. They were thrilling.
Kind of like autism.
We returned from Texas late Saturday night, and this morning Jack started camp. For three days he’s been telling me he wasn’t going this year. Well, maybe the phrase telling me doesn’t quite do it justice. For three days he’s been chanting, screaming, whining, declaring that he will not go to camp. “I am NOT GOING!” was the last thing I heard before he closed his eyes at night and the first thing out of his mouth when he woke.
He fussed and shouted and screamed for the entire fifteen minute drive this morning, and refused to follow Joey and Charlie as they bounced away to the morning meeting full of energetic campers and counselors. I finally extricated him from the car and he stood, unmoving, as tears collected in the corners of his blue eyes. I felt at a loss, helpless and hopeless, when a tall girl crossed the dusty courtyard with her arms outstretched.
“Jack! You’re back! I’ve missed you!”
Slowly, he walked into her embrace and nestled his head on her shoulder, and I heard him say softly, “I got older.” He linked his arm through hers and leaned against her as they made their way towards the campground and the dark wood cabins, her voice low and soothing as she asked him about third grade, if he brought his bathing suit to swim.
Watching them walk away, I was reminded of standing on top of Congress Avenue Bridge, of the silent bats soaring into the rich blue evening sky on a warm night in Texas.
Because of bridges, maybe we can all help Jack fly.