I saw you last night. You know, at the restaurant? We were on our way out the door, and I noticed you right away.
Your son, well, he moves just like my son Jack. They both kind of look down and to the side when someone talks to them, and they both flick their fingers up in the air.
I know that flick as well as I know my own heartbeat.
I really wanted to stop and chat, but Jack was already four steps ahead of me, and I always have to make sure he doesn’t bolt into the parking lot. If I had more time, I would have said hello and smiled and done that weird universal head nodding that special-needs moms do when they recognize one another.
I also wanted to ask you a bunch of questions.
How old is he?
When was he diagnosed?
Does he like to go out for dinner?
Jack is a pretty good eater, but when we eat in a restaurant he still orders off the kids’ menu, and lately the server kind of looks at us funny when we let him do this. I guess it’s probably because he’s taller than I am and a teenager, but I just pretend I don’t notice. Instead I focus on prompting him to look up and speak clearly.
For me. To have. The dinosaur chicken fingers.
Then I poke his leg and hiss in his ear to say please.
Jack, say please.
For me. Please.
Do you still hope for regular old ordinary things, like he’ll go to school and come home talking about a new friend, or maybe even ask to have someone sleep over on the weekend?
Some days I do.
Other days I don’t.
See, I stopped hoping because lugging my hope around all the times like trying to carry a tube sock filled with heavy rocks. It’s hard to hold. It slides out of my hands, and I can’t find a comfortable way to carry it.
Hope can feel like a burden, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.
How about screen time? Man, I am so sick of arguing with Jack about his ITouch. On one hand, I hate watching him disappear into this world of cooking video videos and car commercials and teeny-bop music. But on the other hand, I know he needs it to block out all of the noises around him.
Do you keep a running balance sheet in your mind of the things he can and cannot do? I do. I do this almost every day.
For example, Jack can count out the change from his order at McDonald’s, but he thinks a house cost about fifty dollars.
He knows the features on every vehicle made by Toyota, but he doesn’t look for cars before he walks into the parking lot.
He’s thirteen. Did I mention that? Thirteen.
Do you ever hide in the bathroom when he’s been obsessing about something like Disney videos and lock the door and pretend you can’t hear him anymore?
Do you ever laugh until you cry?
Do you ever want to crawl inside of his brain and see how it all works?
And let’s say it would be possible to crawl into his head, once you were there, would you untangle some of the wires that are mysteriously crossed so he could look people directly in the eye and
No, maybe I wouldn’t.
Well, maybe just the one that makes him whine Mo-ther at an unreasonably high pitch because frankly, that is on my last nerve.
Do you ever curl up with your whole family on the couch and watch a fun show, like America’s Got Talent, but your son refuses to join you and know he’s sitting all alone in his bedroom makes your heart ache?
Do you ever fantasize about running away?
I have. I mean, not in a while, but there was a period of time when Jack was in the second grade and he would come home from school and do terrible, awful things in the bathroom. He would scream and rock and cry, and I felt so bad for him and all the pain he was in, but then he would make a huge mess and step in it and run up the stairs and I would chase him, and beg him to stand still so I could help clean him and soothe him.
He never let me soothe him—not even once.
So, yeah, on those days I dreamed of running away. I thought about how nice it would be to simply open the door, step outside, and walk down our long driveway into the street.
But I didn’t. I wiped up his footprints and I helped him into clean underwear. I made dinner. I kissed my husband when he walked in the door and I scraped the plates and I loaded the dishwasher. Basically, I went on with my life.
Anyway, I guess what I want to say is that I see you, mama.
I see you, sitting in the corner of the restaurant holding an IPad, counting the minutes until those dang chicken fingers are ready.
I see you.
I am you.
I am you, and you are me, and together we are uncertain decisions and small triumphs and footprints on the stairs. We are fighting the good fight.
Sometimes I try very, very hard to remember that in the midst of all the balance sheets and the prompting there is a boy.
A curious, complicated boy who I am trying to understand as best I can—who was put in my life for reasons I will never fathom, since I am basically the last person who should care for a child like him.
Do you ever feel that way?
Do you ever feel like you are so inadequate and useless and uneducated about autism that you are bound to make a huge mistake which will cost you both something big and important and nameless?
I am tired of managing screen time.
I love him.
I lied about the hope thing. I never stop hoping.
I see you.
Anyway, after I finished asking you all these questions, I would tilt my head one last time and tell you one last thing.
Your son is beautiful.