My son Jack’s latest thing is Redbox. You know, the big red box at the front of the grocery store where you can rent movies?
For over a year he wandered over to it when we stood in the checkout line, and he pressed his nose up against the screen to read all the titles. It kept him busy and I could still see him from where I unloaded the cart, so it seemed harmless enough.
And it was. Harmless. That is, until I agreed to let him actually rent a movie. Then, the very thing that was a harmless pastime blew up in my face like a lead zeppelin.
It was as though I’d spawned the devil himself in the name of movie rentals, because like anything with Jack, we can’t do it just once.
Now we have to do it every time we go grocery shopping. Every single time. Every time. Every every every time.
“Can we do Redbox. Redbox.”
Last week I needed to run to the store for about three things. The second I tried to slip out the door, Jack—the child we once thought was hearing impaired because he never answered when we called his name—came running down the stairs.
“Redbox! I will for come with you. To get for. Shaun the Sheep.”
It didn’t matter that he’d already seen this movie—twice. It didn’t matter that it’s a cartoon movie about a bunch of sheep on the run from their farmer and it’s better suited to a six or seven-year old and he’s almost twelve.
I swallowed the familiar lump in my throat and agreed that yes, he could rent the movie as long as we did our shopping first for just the handful of things I needed; apples, ice cream, and breadcrumbs. No pink frosting, no weird Funfetti cakes, no maple syrup.
For the most part he kept up his end of the bargain, and after about fifteen minutes we headed to the front of the store. He rushed off towards Redbox, and I got in line with the cart.
I was looking over the magazines when I heard a rising wail, like the crescendo in an out-of-tune orchestra. The woman standing in front of me looked up quickly, searching for the source.
I knew the source. I knew the song.
I pushed my cart aside and rushed to where Jack was standing, screaming and hitting his own head. From a few feet away I saw there was a sign taped crookedly to the front of the box. As I got closer, I could see the sign more clearly. It said “Out of Order.”
Redbox was broken.
“Shaun the Sheep. Shaun. The SHEEEEEEEP!”
I have been doing this for a thousand years. I have been warding off tantrums and explaining this boy and watching people’s head snap up when they hear his screams for exactly one thousand years.
The tiniest voice crept up from the dirty tile floor and traveled through the soles of my feet, the length of my body, and into my ear, “How did I get here?”
I don’t like to listen to that voice very much because it doesn’t to me any good. It doesn’t change anything. It is useless, and it’s usually followed by why me and it isn’t fair.
But standing before the giant red box with my red-faced boy, I thought it again.
How did I get here?
I know plenty of people who would be better suited for this job, who would know how to graciously explain that the Redbox is simply not working. They would seize the moment as one to teach, to inspire, to educate. Maybe they would throw in a lesson about pulleys and levers and supply and demand, who knows.
I was not this person. I was tired. I was hungry. The ice cream was melting in the cart and I still had to put dinner together and check homework and make sure everyone’s snow pants were dry in case they had outdoor recess the next day.
I thought about all the decisions I’d ever made and even the ones I didn’t—the ones that seemed to make themselves when I wasn’t looking and yet still landed me in this exact spot.
I thought about all the things I’ve said and the things I didn’t, the questions I’ve asked and the answers I’ve given.
How did I get here?
If I were to re-trace my steps, it would look something like this.
“I can never marry you. Then I would be Carrie Cariello!”
“Hi, my name is Carrie Cariello and I need to make an appointment. I may be pregnant.”
“Let’s name him Joseph, and we’ll call him Joey.”
“Honey? Can you get up here? It says I’m pregnant again!”
“John. John Michael, but we’ll call him Jack.”
“Something is wrong. He never sleeps, he never looks at me.”
“I can’t explain it. I have a pit in my stomach all the time.”
“Hi, my name is Carrie Cariello and I think I need to make an appointment for my son.”
“Honey! Guess what! I’m pregnant.”
“Charles Patrick, and we’ll call him Charlie.”
“The report says delays in speech, language, cognitive flexibility, and executive functioning.”
“The report says he lacks joint attention and he has problems with sensory integration.”
“The report says he doesn’t make eye contact.”
“The report says autism.”
“I hate this report.”
“Honey. Wake up. Are you awake? I’m pregnant again.”
“It’s a girl. We have a girl! We’re going to call her Rose.”
“Honey. I told you to keep that appointment. Why? Because I am pregnant again.”
“His name is Henry, Henry James Cariello.”
“Yes, there are five of them.”
“Yes, they’re all mine.”
“Yes, I do know how these things happen.”
“Jack, look at me, look in my eyes, point to the bird do you see the bird where’s the bird?”
“Jack, the oven is hot. It’s hot, do you see, it’s hot don’t touch.”
“No, Jack, no more Baby Einstein no more let’s play with trains let’s look at this book come sit with me, sit down.”
“No, we don’t bite, Jack.”
“No Jack, no hitting. Stop hitting me.”
“You have to stop screaming, please stop screaming just calm down take a deep breath.”
“Quiet body, quiet body, quiet body, ssshhhhh.”
“I can’t do this for one more day. I am just so tired it is so hard I can’t take it.”
“I had to drag him out of the grocery store because he was screaming and throwing himself on the floor.”
“He ran away from me in the mall and I couldn’t find him. My God, I thought I’d never find him.”
“He’ll only use the red cup.”
“He’ll only sleep if I hold him.”
“He never says a word.”
“Yes, Joey, it’s true what they said. Your brother does have autism.”
“I don’t know if he’ll ever get married.”
“I wish I could answer you, but I can’t say if he’ll ever be a father.”
“I know you will, I know you’ll take care of him.”
“Hi, my name is Carrie Cariello and I’m here for the IEP meeting.”
“Hi, my name is Carrie Cariello and I’m calling about your adaptive program.”
“Hi, my name is Carrie Cariello and my son has autism.”
“Uh, he likes to lick the counters a lot. We’re working on it.”
“Sometimes he swears when he’s upset, but we’re working on it.”
“He jumps and grunts when he’s nervous, but we’re working on it.”
“We’re working on it.”
“Yes, we’re working on it.”
“Of course, we’re working on it.”
“We’re trying to help him be more flexible.”
“We’re trying to help him sleep.”
“Jack, you have something called autism.”
“Jack, one more math problem, I know you can do it.”
“Jack, calm down, quiet your body, shhhhh, quiet body.”
“Jack, it looks like it’s out of order. That means it’s broken. Redbox is broken. I’m sorry, buddy.”
I guess the question is; how do any of us get anywhere?
Romance, dumb luck, chance and fate and wonky genetics.
Phone calls and meetings and evaluations and tantrums.
The fact is I am here. I am washing snow pants and cutting up apples and rotating the blue cup with the red cup, and every step is a step closer to something even if I’m not exactly sure what.
This is everyone’s life. This is everyone’s autism.
It is a thousand years of desperate moments and quiet triumphs strung together like Christmas lights without a season. And all at once, someone flips the switch, and the world is incandescent and bright.
“Ok. For Mom. OK no Redbox tonight. Next time.”