“Let me just tell you, I really enjoyed working with Jack. He was incredibly cooperative, and I think we got some really good information during the testing.”
I leaned forward eagerly in my chair.
“First, I’d like to talk about his working memory.”
I nodded. I had an idea of what working memory was.
“Well,” the doctor said kindly, “Picture our working memory to be this entire table.”
She spread her hands over the dark wood surface. “We have all this space to arrange our ideas.” She fanned some of her papers out to demonstrate.
“We can organize the things we’re thinking about. We can put some things here,” she said, gesturing to the right.
“And other things here.” She moved a folder to the left.
“But Jack, well, his working memory is more like this.” She made a small circle with her hands in the empty corner of the table. “He doesn’t really have as much.”
He doesn’t really have much working memory. His table is empty. Like a gust of wind on a rainy day, autism has swept all his cerebral papers and folders and post-it notes to the floor.
“It’s as if we all have a filing cabinet in our minds,” she continued, stepping inside of my reverie. “It’s where we store all of the information we absorb throughout the day. Jack has his own kind of filing system, but it’s hard to know what that’s like. His information is, well, it seems complicated.”
I uncrossed my legs and then crossed them again. I glanced at Joe in the chair next to me. He seemed to be squinting at something on the wall.
“His cognitive thinking is quite impaired. He’s probably less than two percent of his peers at this point, but it’s difficult to tell because his anxiety gets in the way.”
“Based on his scores, his reading comprehension is close to that of a first grader.”
“While I was testing him, he often said things like he feels like a loser—that he feels alone.”
“When I showed him a math problem, he would tell me he’s dumb at math, he can’t do it.”
I struggled to stay focused. I pictured Jack in first grade. He was so cute. I had bought him a red backpack for the first day of school. His name was stitched across the front in white letters. He still uses it.
“You see, he doesn’t process language the same way we do. For Jack, listening to people talk all day is like you or I sitting in a French class, except we don’t speak French. He only understands bits and pieces here and there.”
Bit and pieces, here and there. There and here, pieces and bits.
“I do think he’s probably a little depressed.”
I felt a wave of regret and fear so powerful, it was like nausea. The room was hot. The dress I was wearing—the one I’d kept from Stitch Fix even though it has a pattern on it and I never wear patterns—was tight.
When Jack was born, Joe bought me a huge candy bar called Toblerone from the hospital gift shop. It’s the kind that comes in a long, tubular box shaped like a triangle.
Sitting in the warm conference room, listening to the neuropsychologist share the results of Jack’s testing, I thought about that candy bar.
I thought about how I put it on the little table next to my bed and nibbled at it for the two days I stayed in the maternity ward. I thought about how Joe teased me for eating almost the whole thing, and about how we started to call our brand new baby boy Tobes; an iteration of Toblerone because he was practically the same size as the candy bar when he was swaddled.
My son has autism.
My son has anxiety.
My son has little working memory and low cognitive functioning and trouble processing language and maybe a little depression and his reading comprehension is around a first grader’s even though he just finished sixth grade and he thinks he’s dumb at math.
Now we mostly call him Jack-a-boo, but every once in a while we still call him Tobes, although never directly to him, but when we’re talking together late after the kids have gone to bed or when they’ve left the dinner table.
Tobes is lonely.
I mean, we know all of this. Of course we know it. We know he has trouble keeping information in his head and no matter how many times I ask him, he never understands how Pippi Longstocking might feel after her father died in a shipwreck. Emotionally, he hasn’t been himself in months.
Yet I was wholly unprepared to hear the things we already know echoed back to us in the black-and-white, bell-curve-and-statistics of a neuropsychological test.
It’s as though we’re chipping away at him, piece by piece, until one day he’ll be nothing but a shell of a person.
When Jack was little, his needs were so much more concrete and tangible. He had no words so we bought picture books. We pointed to the apple and the banana and the monkey and the duck. We flapped our arms like a chicken and drew circles on paper with crayons.
Executive function, theory of mind, reading comprehension, isolation—they each disappear like vapor through my fingers; these fine, tenuous ghosts of his autism for which there are no picture books.
He is my son.
I heard a car in the parking lot below us. The radio was playing but then someone turned the engine off and the muted music stopped abruptly. Time is running out, I thought to myself.
Time is running from us. Running time running clock running water running shoes.
But he’s so funny! I wanted to shout. Just the other day he made the funniest joke but I can’t remember it right this second.
I wanted to tell her about the time we were driving and we saw a stop sign that was covered in branches and a half an hour later, after we had already walked around Target and bought a new bath mat, he said to me, “They should cut. Down the tree.”
I said, “What tree?” And he said, “The tree. Covering the stop sign.”
I wanted to say that every Saturday morning he rounds up all the hampers in the house and puts all the dirty clothes into the washer and starts the laundry.
I want to cry out that he can’t be lonely because he has twenty cousins and three brothers and one sister and a puppy who all think he is the sun and the moon and the stars and the sky.
Like an expensive shiny vase that someone knocked to the floor and broke into hundreds of pieces, I longed to glue him back together again into a whole, unimpaired boy.
He is my son.
Mostly I wanted to run home where he was playing outside with his brothers and sister. I wanted to hug him as tight as he would let me and smooth my hand over his soft crew-cut—the one we’d gotten that very afternoon at the hair salon in town.
I wanted to drop my head close to his and whisper in his ear the one single phrase I know in French.
Je t’aime, my Jack-a-boo.
I love you.