Last Tuesday I headed out to meet the bus at 2:40, and stopped to collect the mail at the bottom of our driveway. As I stood organizing the sheaf of brightly colored flyers and bills into a manageable pile, a light blue Honda Odyssey slowed to a stop and the driver opened her window. A pretty blonde woman poked her head out and said tentatively, “Carrie?”
It was my neighbor from around the corner. I’d spoken with her a handful of times; once while I was handing out Halloween candy on our darkened front porch, a few times at the school’s noisy open house. I know her well enough to nod and wave, but sometimes I have trouble retrieving her name right away. Carol—no, not Carol. Catherine? Uh-uh. Cynthia! Ah yes, Cynthia, with four small children scattered in and around the same grades as my own kids. She passes me every day while I wait for the bus, and we always exchange a smile.
“Hello!” I said heartily, still mentally scanning my memory for her husband’s name. “How are you?”
We exchanged pleasantries for a moment or so, and I noticed she seemed a little nervous, excited. She explained how she sees Jack a lot in school and heard about his fascination with license plates, and she turned to pick something up out of the passenger side and passed it through the window. An Illinois license plate.
“I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know when to give it to him. But I wanted him to have it.” I could see in her cautious smile this gesture meant nearly as much to her as it did to me. My eyes filled and I stuck the upper half of my body through her car window to embrace her. “Thank you”, I told her again and again. “Thank you for thinking of him.”
This was not the first license plate Jack’s received. Back in January, we were heading out to dinner on a Friday night when Joe brought the mail in and plunked down a manila envelope addressed to Jack. Excitedly, Jack tore into it and pulled out a New York plate and a letter written on lined paper from Jacki, my boss’ wife in Buffalo. In this letter, she told him how she remembered him as a small baby, how her mother is still alive, how she doesn’t like purple plaid skirts either. And he was thrilled.
About a month ago I was sitting on the beige couch in our psychologist, Phoebe’s, office. (Phoebe is not her real name. But it’s kind of close to her real name.)
(Actually, it’s not even remotely close to her real name. I just like the sound of Phoebe; feee-beee. If I ever get a cat, I’m totally naming it Phoebe, even if it’s a boy cat).
Anyway, I was sitting in Phoebe’s office (The psychologist! Not the cat! I can’t have a cat, because Joe is allergic. Plus cats don’t have offices. Please keep up with me here and stop asking so many questions.)
As a giant stuffed Elmo peered over my shoulder, she and I talked about some of the things Jack’s working through right now: fire drills, bathroom issues, a slight rise in his anxiety. I mentioned how he’s started writing notes to kids in school every day and signs them from your secret admirer. I told her about the inter-school mail system, where kids use multi-colored paper to pen letters and “mail them” to the classrooms. I admitted I was uncomfortable with Jack sending these messages. I fretted that he was making a spectacle of himself, that the other kids (and parents) might get annoyed with his daily correspondence. I was worried these letters represented an inner world Jack had created for himself in his autistic mind; an imaginary world of friendships and admiration.
Phoebe sat back in her chair and crossed her legs. “I don’t know”, she said slowly, thoughtfully. “I’m not sure we need to worry just yet.” She explained this may be Jack’s way of endearing himself to his peers, of reaching out to them with an approach that makes him comfortable. And so I agreed to let it go for a while, to let the note-writing run its course. But I wasn’t convinced.
And then, three days later, this came home in his backpack:
The day after Cynthia reached through the window of her Odyssey and handed me the license plate, school was canceled because of snow. Our area was hit twice; once in the morning, with the heavy snowflakes letting up for a few hours around noon and beginning again in earnest late in the afternoon. During the lull between the storms, I suggested to the kids that we head out for a quick lunch in town. They agreed, and in between shouts of where’s my coat and do I need boots and let’s go to that place that has corn dogs, Jack quietly disappeared into the office. He emerged a few minutes later, a disc in hand, and asked me to play the CD during the ride to the restaurant. “It’s an Easter CD”, he said curtly when I asked what was on it.
I popped it in when we sat in the car, and I looked back in the rear-view mirror and saw his rare gap-toothed grin. He was rocking and grunting in excitement. The first beats of a song started and Joey broke into a wide smile. “Hey! This is my favorite song!”
While the rest of us were bustling around the kitchen finding gloves and jackets and hats, Jack had logged into ITunes, downloaded everyone’s favorite song, and saved them to a disc. Each child cheered and shouted when they heard the music, and all the while Jack sat between Joey and Charlie in the third row of the van, silently rocking and smiling.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, a special song for me; I Will Wait by Mumford and Sons. Jack broke out of his reverie long enough to explain choppily, “Mom. It’s your favorite. You like it.”
And it is one of my favorites. Whenever I hear it I always think of Jack; the somewhat frantic, chaotic instrumentals of guitar and banjo, the phrases use my head alongside my heart, paint my spirit gold. And the hushed verse I will wait, I will wait, for you.
I think this song perfectly captures my own relationship with autism, of finding balance between holding back and pushing him forward, of altering the course or letting him steer. It reminds me of kneeling next to three-year-old Jack as he sat, unmoving, unblinking, in his stroller at the Buffalo Zoo, pointing and talking look see the elephant so big Jack so big, wondering when this boy was going to open his mind to the world, so we could know him and he could know us.
Now, nearly five years later, he has done just that. With license plates and music and letters, Jack is connecting with the world on his terms. And the world is responding.
To all of you who have reached out to this boy of mine, who have dug old license plates out of their storage areas and expressed a shared disdain for purple plaid skirts and danced for just one moment to the beat of Jack’s unusual music, I am forever your secret admirer.
What Color Is Monday? is now available online at Amazon.com.
A portion of the proceeds from every copy sold benefits Autism Speaks.