“I need to make PLAY DOUGH. For TOMORROW!” Jack screamed as soon as he stepped off the bus last Wednesday.
“What? Oh, okay, we’ll figure it out,” I told him as we made our way up the driveway. Hazily, I remembered this task buried somewhere in Mr. Hines’ weekly teacher notes. I thought about our schedule for the afternoon—getting Joey off the bus in another hour, religious education shortly after that—and figured making play dough wouldn’t complicate things too much.
I was wrong.
Jack is only interested in say, the first nine seconds of any project. After that he relegates himself to the role of supervisor; barking out orders, directing traffic, that sort of thing. In the case of making play dough, this was just long enough for him to throw his backpack down on the counter and tell me, “I want it to be BLUE.”
I looked up the recipe for homemade play dough online—two cups of flour, one cup of salt, water, food coloring optional—and because I am Awesome Mom, I was more than prepared!
I mean, I had two cups and flour and one cup of salt and obviously, I had water. But I did not have blue food coloring.
I rifled through the cabinets while Jack hovered at my elbow, both of our blood pressures rising. My stomach began to hurt just the teensiest bit.
“Oh, look!” I said with false cheer. “We have green and yellow! Green and yellow make what, Jack? What do they make together?”
“Blue,” he grumbled.
But see, the thing is, they don’t always make blue. People, it is time to revisit the color wheel because I am here to tell you that green and yellow do not always make blue, especially when they’re mixed with a gummy paste of flour, salt and water. What they do make is a streaky greenish-gray yellow mess. (Both in the bowl and on your hands.)
Like the captain of a boat that has suddenly burst into flames, every bone in my body and cell in my brain was shouting jump! abandon ship! save yourself while there is still time! But as usual, my dummy mouth didn’t get the memo and forged ahead. “Hey, Jack! It looks kind of cool. I totally like it!”
Cue enormous tantrum: hitting of own head, whirling through the kitchen, screaming and crying. After about ten minutes of sustained mayhem, he gave himself a bloody nose.
Suffice to say, Jack did not think it was kind of cool. In his own words, he thought it was kind of ugly, kind of stupid and kind of I WILL NOT BRING THAT TO SCHOOL IT IS ALL WRONG.
On days like this, it feels like we are carefully balanced on the right side of sanity, and all it takes is a poorly mixed blob of streaky dough to teeter us right over the edge to crazy.
While he screamed and leaped and stimmed, I thought about how important it is to make him flex and bend, to zig and zag with the wrong color dough. How his rigid mind will remain locked and unyielding if I can’t pry it open to the idea of green and yellow.
But I was tired. I needed to get homework organized and make a turkey meatloaf and clean up a lot of blood, so I gave up. I gave in. After about ten minutes, I waved the white flag and told him if he could calm down long enough to get his nose to stop bleeding, we would make another batch.
“But we need BLUE FOOD COLORING!” he screeched through a damp paper towel.
“I know, I know. While you guys are at religion, I’ll take Henry to Market Basket and we’ll get everything we need.”
“And we need MORE SALT. Don’t forget the salt, DANCING QUEEN!”
(Over the past month, he’s taken to calling me “dancing queen” after a rather heated debate about the merits of ABBA versus some weird group called Ylvis. We were at a restaurant the first time he said it, and all the kids looked up from coloring their paper menus, jaws slack with shock.
“Jack!” I hissed at him. “What did you call me?”
“What, what what. I was making a JOKE,” he retorted with a bewildered expression.
I know it’s rude. I know it’s disrespectful and I should correct him and tell him not to talk to me that way. But to be honest, it’s so heartwarming to hear him attempt a joke, to enter our world of social cues and humor and wit, that I can’t bring myself to stop him. It always makes me smile.
Half an hour later, I pulled up to Saint Elizabeth’s and noticed the parking lot was eerily empty. The education building—normally teeming with rambunctious kids—was quiet and dark.
All of a sudden a woman in a lavender sweater raced out from the office building waving a blue sheet of paper in one hand. “No religion today! Remember! It’s on the schedule!” she said, thrusting the paper in my direction. “Didn’t you get the schedule?”
For the second time in an afternoon, I hazily remembered the religious education calendar tucked away in a folder on my desk at home. I smiled wanly at her, took a second schedule, and climbed back into the van to head to the grocery store with all five kids—essentially committing my own personal version of hari-kari, only instead of a finely sharpened sword I die a slow, tortuous death from whining, complaining, and why can’t we get Captain Crunch Berry with extra marshmallows.
A half hour later we walked out of the store, and in addition to the necessary salt and food coloring, we also left with pumpkin-shaped Peeps, pumpkin spice English muffins, five miniature pumpkins, and a pumpkin-sized headache.
(When, I thought to myself sulkily as I pushed the cart through the parking lot and wrangled them all back into the van, did autumn become license for food manufacturers to inject pumpkin flavoring into absolutely everything?)
On the drive home, Henry fell asleep. I watched in the rear-view mirror as his big head lolled to one side like an oversized dandelion on a stem. His blue eyes fluttered closed, and his thumb dangled from his open mouth. For the first time since the big yellow bus had made its way up the hill, it was blissfully quiet.
Buying myself a few extra minutes of peace, I drove slowly through the neighborhoods, trying to appreciate the brilliant autumn leaves backlit by the late afternoon sun. But in spite of the glowing colors, I felt unsettled, unmoored. And winding through the back roads, I thought about another day in our life, seven years ago.
I thought about sitting in our little breakfast nook in Buffalo with 3-year old Joey and 2-year old Jack, while 6-month old Charlie dozed in a swing on the floor. It was a dreary Sunday afternoon, and Joe and I—desperate to keep two toddlers busy, if only for ten minutes—had pulled out the bright yellow canisters of play dough.
While Joe helped Joey make elephants and fake noses and brightly colored bracelets, Jack just stared vacantly at the blobs of dough in front of him. Even the simplest of shapes—snakes, circles—couldn’t compete with autism’s tenacious grip.
And now, seven years later, my eyes pricked with tears as I remembered Jack’s empty gaze, his disinterest in the colored dough, his absolute detachment from me, from his father, from our life in that little yellow kitchen. I remember feeling unsettled, unmoored as I vacuumed up the hardened pea-size blobs after the three boys went to bed in their matching blue sleepers.
But it wasn’t the dough scattered in and around the table that unsettled me. Rather, it was the boy who would not play.
And here we are; another day, another kitchen, but still struggling with the confines of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Only instead of detachment, we have rigidity and tantrums and bloody noses.
And this, people, is why I do not like play dough.
We pulled into the driveway and all five kids jolted out of their quiet reverie with a bang. They started talking and laughing, planning their afternoon fun of basketball games and leaf piles and snacks. And in the midst of the chatter, I heard his voice call out to me from the back seat, slightly louder than the rest, less modulated, more robotic:
“Come on. Dancing queen. It’s time to MAKE BLUE PLAY DOUGH.”
And I couldn’t help but smile. Because all at once, the day had color again.