The thing is, the Dad never wanted me.
The Mom, well, she reminds me of this almost every day. She scoops me up in her arms and she nuzzles my neck and she whispers about how she had to convince him to adopt me.
Then he takes me from her, and he cradles me until my belly shows, and he scratches behind my ears and he says he loves me the most now. He just had to get used to me.
This is a game they play—the secret language of their marriage.
My name is Wolfie. I am half Bichon, and half Shih-tzu. I am four years old.
My nicknames are The Big Dubs, the Wolf-man, da Woof, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Toes.
The Dad came up with that last one. He says my feet look like chocolate chip cookies and he could just eat me up like a big cookie because I am so cute. Don’t tell him I said that though. He might be embarrassed.
This Mom and this Dad, they have five kids. It is a lot of kids. Their house is noisy and kind of busy and crowded. Lately, it seems like someone is always coming or going—to basketball practice or a sleepover or a birthday party.
He moves very, very fast around the room. He jumps and stomps and traces the walls with his fingertips. This can go on for hours. Sometimes the house shakes.
He goes to a special school.
He likes his schedule, and his routine, and he asks the Mom a lot about dinner.
I see the way she grits her teeth and forces her mouth into a smile and tells him again, even though she’s already told him a bunch of times.
Meatloaf, buddy. We’re having meatloaf.
Before I came along, this boy Jack was very, very afraid of dogs. But slowly, he started to like me. And now, he looks for me. He calls out my name. And when he’s feeling sad, or worried, or anxious, he puts his arms around me and he holds on tight.
Once in a while, Jack gets very, very mad. It happened one day last summer, when the Mom had to tell him he had to go to school all year round. It was hot out, and the sun shined down bright and yellow.
Jack, buddy, listen. We need to talk about school.
From inside the house, his screams punctuated the dry, still air like gunshot.
No school. For me. Normal. No more. Not fair not fair NOT FAIR.
In that moment, the Mom hated everything in the whole entire world. She hated autism and she hated herself and all she wanted to do was make her big tall son feel better.
She put both of her hands on his shoulders and she bowed her head close to his and she whispered to him over and over until he closed his eyes.
I know. I know. I know. I’m here, buddy. I am here.
I see it all.
The boy named Jack hasn’t thrown one of those big fits in a long time.
Instead, he stands within a perpetual bubble of disquiet. He is constantly in what the experts call reactionary mode. He claps his hands over his ears when he hears a loud noise. He shrieks if the Mom steps on the brake too hard in the car. He jumps and hops and rubs his long fingers down the sides of his nose.
All day long, he says the meanest things he can think of in a voice that burns like fire.
Leave me. For ALONE.
You will never. KNOW ME.
This is. The WORST. Family. Ever.
This wears on my family, especially the Mom and the Dad. His unhappiness erodes them, like a tall mountain slowly dismantled by the harsh, salty sea. And once they reach the water, they try to swim to the surface, but autism weighs them down, and together, they sink into an abyss.
When this happens, they yell at each other. They stand in the kitchen spooning meatloaf and buttered noodles onto plates and it all starts with a few short words and then it escalates into a wide, gaping chasm.
I’m just saying, maybe we should read with him a little longer at night.
Oh, really? Reading? That’s what we’re worried about?
We have to start somewhere.
You try being here with him all day!
Then they look at their five children who are stricken and sad, and they try to go about their night as if nothing happened.
They clear the table and load the dishwasher and they kiss their worried kids goodnight. They promise them there is no divorce and everything is fine, just fine. And once everyone is quiet and settled in their beds for the night, the Mom and the Dad retreat to different corners of the house, and they nurse their own private song.
They hurt. They hurt for him and for each other and for the life they might have had. They strain to hear each other’s melody within the chaos of so much noise.
I see it all.
The thing is, there is no award for this life with autism—for them, or for him.
No one is ever going to clap the Dad on the back and congratulate him for working hard his whole life so he afford an expensive group home for his complicated son.
There is no award for the constant vigilance it takes to keep a wandering boy safe. There is no prize for barely getting a child through high school. There’s no blue ribbon for a still body, or medication on the nightstand, or stares in the grocery store.
As for the boy named Jack, he’ll probably never stand on a stage, and hear his name called for the National Honor Society. He may never carry home a trophy for Most Valuable Player, or wear a tux to the prom.
I see it all.
Now, this boy Jack goes to school every day. He is resigned to it. Deep in his heart, I think he knows there is no other way. Deep in his spirit, in a place he cannot articulate, he knows this is the price he has to pay for a diagnosis he barely understands.
Every afternoon, he bursts though the door at 3:02. He throws his red back pack on the floor, and he announces, “Mom. For me. I am here.”
As soon as I hear his footsteps on the front porch, I get up from wherever I am napping—the couch, the window seat, the chair with the blue and white pillow—and I wait. I wait for him, and when he bursts through the door, I sit, wagging my tail. I look up at him, and with my light brown eyes, I tell him the same thing.
I know. I am here.
All we have is each other.