“Carrie, you have to remember. He is a cat right now, not a dog.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. I was sitting in my car in the Macy’s parking lot, talking to Jack’s developmental pediatrician on the phone.
When I was a kid, we had a cat named Polly.
One afternoon my mother walked out of the Grand Union and ran into some teenagers trying to give away kittens, and she picked one out of the box and brought it home.
If you’re thinking that picking up a kitten from the same place you buy cigarettes and eggs is a little reckless, well, I would say you are right. But this was 1980, and things were different. It was the era of Reaganomics, the Safety Dance, and John Lennon’s untimely death.
It was also the last time I ever lived under the same roof with my father.
Had I been older than six, I might have been able to predict the imminent divorce based on the deep, dangerous rumblings that resonated through our house night after night, and the sound of one of my parents squealing out of the driveway in a rage. But I was a kid and so I had no idea how bad it all was, until my mother came home with the weekly groceries and a cat.
My father hated cats.
Sitting in my car, I kept my eyes closed, and I tried to explain all the things I’ve been ashamed to say out loud for about six months now.
I tried to tell her how he says terrible, terrible things like our family has changed for him and he is a loser and everything is so stupid, he hates me, he hates us, he hates himself.
I tried to tell her how his need for routine has intensified, and constantly he asks what we’re doing one week, one month, one year from now.
His body is in motion all the time. It’s like watching autism control his arms and legs, the way a puppeteer manipulates the strings on a marionette.
All he wants to do is sit on the computer and rearrange songs into long playlists and watch the same movie trailer a dozen times.
And when I take the computer away, he just wanders around listlessly, alternating between rage and despair. He calls me names and jumps up and down and clenches his fists and cries.
I tried to tell her how he calls me the worst names he can think of—he accuses me of being a drug dealer and a bastard and one time, a hermaphrodite—and even though I don’t think he even knows what any of them mean, it still hurts.
Yet when I ask for more; to try and understand why, why the playlists, why the trailers and the rage and the names, he shuts down altogether.
“Jack, what do you mean, you are a loser?”
“Nothing. What are we doing Friday. December 30th.”
I tried to put into words what it feels like to mother a child who gives almost nothing in return—not a hug, not a smile, not a kiss. I would give nearly anything for a smile.
Or the way he’s developed his own private language that sounds like a series of beeps and grunts, and when he’s not beeping and grunting, he’s talking about some kind conspiracy theory–something about being framed and taking revenge.
I can’t get him to do anything. He won’t sit with me to read a book or frost a cake or even answer a question.
At the same time, he has very brief, fleeting moments of tenderness, where his prickly exterior dissolves for a split second, and its as though I can see a much younger, happier version of himself peeking around the corner–like the time he ran up to me, breathless and flushed, in the grocery store because he’d found his favorite chocolate chips in the baking aisle. I could have cried to see him so happy.
“He’s so different,” was all I managed.
“I know, I know,” she said softly. “He’s a cat right now, not a dog.”
Hearing her say this, I felt like I had looked underneath the couch, and in the middle of all the stale crackers and Legos and discarded socks, I’d finally found the last piece of a long, complicated jigsaw puzzle. It was dusty, and one corner was a little bent, but it fit perfectly.
Jack does not care about pleasing me or making me happy. If I demand something of him, he hisses and scratches and backs into the corner, ready for a fight. He is aloof, and reserved, and he wants to be left alone.
“For now, he just needs to know you are there. He will come back when he’s ready, I promise.”
The doctor and I talked about other important things like maladaptive behavior and sensory flooding and trying a new medication, and right before we hung up she reminded me one more time.
Polly mostly lived outside, and from time to time she got herself into what you might call a little, uh, trouble. And if you think picking a cat up from the grocery store and then neglecting to fix her is maybe irresponsible, I would say you are right. But again, this was 1980, and the lady of the house was a newly single mother of three. The cat was low on the list.
We loved Polly, and we loved her kittens. In between their birth and our own time standing outside of the Grand Union trying to convince someone other hapless family to adopt a new pet, her litters lived inside a cardboard box in a room off the back of our house where we did laundry.
My mother always warned us to stay away from the kittens and not to pick them up too much. But one time I snuck back there and when I peered into the box, I saw Polly was worrying over the tiny black and white boy kitten we called Spice. She kept nudging at him like she was trying to wake him up.
I waited until she turned her attention to his sister, Sugar, and I leaned over and picked him up.
He was weightless in my hands, like lifting air. And when I brought him closer to my face, his head fell back between his shoulders. No matter how much she nursed and nuzzled, Polly could not keep her newborn alive. His spirit was gone.
This is how I feel about Jack.
Not literally, of course. He is a tall, sturdy boy who eats a ton and is healthy and strong.
But I feel like every minute of every day, I trying to keep his spirit afloat; to keep him here with us, instead of giving in to autism’s long, beckoning finger.
It is perhaps the hardest work I have ever done.
The next morning I was waiting with the kids at the bus stop, and Jack sidled up to me. His body was calm. He touched my arm and said, “Today. I will bake. Chocolate chip cookies.”