March 13, 2013 by Joanie Tidwell
We’d reached the end of another crippling day. Alex was edgy, vulnerable, fighting with his younger brothers intermittently, so it came as no surprise that by evening he’d reached the point of rising rabidity. On the couch, the boys leaned against each other like dominoes, while Alex complained that Spencer was sitting in his spot, and as he continued elbowing the nearest sibling, Logan kept reaching into the bowl for popcorn every time he wanted to reach into the bowl, which was annoying! His low moans came like birth pains at regular intervals, his breathing staccato gasps, reminding me of when I learned Lamaze. In his eyes I read the panicked need to hold onto control, but when Logan abruptly changed the channel, Alex snapped, sprang forward like a jack-in-the-box , grabbed the remote, and hurled it against the wall: a silver grenade. His brothers dived and rolled for cover, their execution as well practiced and proficient as any Navy Seal. Arms over their heads, they waited for the artillery of batteries to rain down.
In the end, I didn’t tell him to go to his room. I didn’t tell him anything. I was momentarily rendered catatonic, my silence startling. The absence of emotion and jolting non-reaction was unsettling. Alex waited—chest heaving and brow furrowed—for me to tell him what he wanted to hear: “Go to your room. It’s not okay to throw things.” He waited, transfixed, for me to rush to his brothers. Waited for me to sigh, to frown, to crease my brows, slump my shoulders, give him some indication that I was frustrated and mad. My shocked stance offered no clues as to my mood, so he couldn’t be certain that I was—as he anticipated I would be—upset. Instead, the unpredictable quiet (his brothers still cowering) unhinged him from where he’d stood rooted to the ground.
“Fine!” He yelled, “I’m going to bed since no one wants me here anyway!” He knocked the popcorn off the couch as he blustered past, skittering it across the floor. Taking the quaking stairs two at a time, he slammed his door wildly, sending aftershocks through the floor boards.
His brothers came out cautiously, pausing by the popcorn bowl. Skittish like deer at the side of the road, they waited, ears perked to see whether he would reappear. It was only when they heard the water running in the tub upstairs that Spencer bent to pick up the metal bowl and Logan crossed the room to turn the TV back on.
I put Spencer and Logan to bed early, feeling guilty. They read the weariness around my eyes, absorbed my heavy gait, and didn’t argue. I kissed them goodnight and mumbled something about reading an extra chapter tomorrow when things were better. Upstairs, I crawled into bed without brushing my teeth. My husband Russ was working late and still wasn’t home, so I lay in the center of the mattress, unmoving, bracing myself for when the solitude splintered; but instead, silence settled in the room, heavy as humidity. Then, just as I was drifting off, I heard Alex’s tenuous approach. He paused by the side of the bed, hesitant, then climbed in next to me, lowered himself laboriously, and sunk into the mattress, sighing heavily like he’d never really rested before. In the dark, he leaned his head still damp with bathwater, against mine. “I’m sorry,” he said into my shoulder. “I know.” I whispered back.
Autism, like formaldehyde, had seeped through his foamy bones, leaving him rigid, living in a state of functioning rigor mortis. He was unable to relax the way other’s relax (to lean against someone, to mold yourself to them, to seek heat). He longed for touch, the comfort of human contact. But knowing how to approach it was puzzling, knowing what to do with it once he’d gotten it, disarming. In the dark, he groped for the remote, flipped between channels, stopping on Animal Planet. He cast me a furtive glance, then pulled the striped blanket around us both. I was surprised. Our legs touched, until he started to seal himself off from me, tucked himself into a tomb, encased like a mummy. He sighed content.
I knew he’d come with the brittle hope of reconciliation, and I softened, relented. For a time, I just listened to his even breathing, then cautiously I raised a hand to his face and stroked the side of his cheek. When he didn’t pull away, the contact revived a limp memory: the nights we used to spend reading together when he was a baby. He was my firstborn, and Russ worked the swing shift while he was finishing school, so Alex was my date each night, and oh, how I loved that boy. He’d climb into bed, settle against me with his little blond head angled towards mine. I remember breathing in the intoxicating scent of baby shampoo and how one tiny, fleeced foot tapped the mattress methodically, like a metronome. We’d lie together, night after night, reading a stack of books as tall as he was. I’d turn the pages to make him happy, while he’d point to the pictures and—biting the nipple of his bottle between his teeth to hold it in place—he’d say, “Race car” or “Triangle,” then turn to look at me, react to my praise: “Yes Alex! That’s right! Triangle! Such a smart boy!” He would smile, milk pooling in the pocket of his lips. And one night he turned his whole body to face mine (his bottle dangling from his yielding wrist, dripping on the duvet) and flashed me that crooked milk smile while he patted the spot above my breast, then leaned his head against my chest. His eyes widening in surprise when he detected the steady beating of my heart. He fell asleep with his head still cradled against me. And even though it was late, I never moved him away. I kept him undeposited, pulled close his comforting frame, kissed his dimpled hands, his downy head.
Side by side we lay now, Animal Planet droning white noise in the background. Absently, I wondered how my baby had grown to be eleven years old; his head seemed bigger than mine, his thick blond hair shaggy, unkempt. He’d whined again about the buzzing clippers, the drape snapped like a noose around his neck, the stray hairs daggers in the folds of his skin, so I’d put the haircut off. On TV, I watched a dung beetle roll his dung ball at a reckless pace, and the commentator said something about a snake whose venom made humans bleed out of their eyeballs, but I missed the footage because I was distracted by the way Alex’s unbreakable frame was relaxing, moment by exhausting moment. I’m not sure the catalyst for change: the dark room, the soft bed, the quiet, the end of the day, knowing that sleeping is next on the list of what to do? I’d like to think it had something to do with the back of my hand against his face, and the way he didn’t pull away when I slowly rubbed it up and down his cheek. He curled towards me, almost in a fetal position. I ran my fingers through his damp, unruly hair. “Oh! I didn’t realize a hippo could impale a person on its teeth,” he exclaimed, fascinated. I nodded. He fell asleep during a commercial, and unconscious, he was at once emancipated.
Asleep, he was uninhibited, kicking off the binding covers and wrapping himself around me like one of those monkeys with the velcro hands. He tangled his limbs with mine, limp and supple, his head against my chest in no time, as if my heart was the steady rhythm he needed to dream. And it was in sleep that I saw that same little boy I had all those years ago, seeking me, easy with affection, needing my arms around him. It was as if the folds of his brain had relaxed a little, forgotten to send those commanding messages: “Flinch! Stand back! Be on alert! You don’t know what’s coming next!”
Asleep, he was easy with affection. Face to face, I searched again for signs he was the same boy I’d read to all those years back, the same one I’d held in the hospital, overcome with the startling intensity of gratitude I felt while I’d cradled him still attached to me (the nurse hastily wiping his rounded back). I had searched his big blue eyes, and breathed the simple words, “If You never bless me with another blessing again, this is enough, this son, this boy.” In the dark, with Alex curved towards me, arms and legs around me, I indulged in reprieve as we both got once again what we craved: contact, connection, warmth, touch.
It has been three years since Alex came to my bed seeking comfort. Admittedly, I had held him against me for a time, but when Russ got home, I called him up to move Alex back to his own bed. I thought our moment of connection was enough. I thought I needed space. A break. Solitude. In the pre-dawn dark, I didn’t comprehend the umbilical need for reciprocal connection in our relationship as mother and son.
But I know now: connection, however sporadic, must be cherished, curled around, protected with bubble wrap. I’ve learned I cannot risk a chink in the armor of hope I wear for my son. I need those soothing moments of touch, of callow communication to help me remember who he is at his core, the boy I once held in the rawest of forms. Unlike his brothers, who demand and accept love unabashedly, Alex struggles, parched. Unable to relieve his thirst on his own, he holds back, panting. He needs love as much as, if not more than, his brothers, and we both need the chance to reconnect, to remember the way love feels (like sugar on the tongue), without all the chaos of misfiring synapses and illogical preservation to atrophy the tenuous hold we have on each other.
So, through the maze of confusion and aching despair that parenting this child can be, I’ve found redemption in a moment of startling clarity. I’ve learned to stop waiting for Alex to come to me, and instead I make my way up the stairs to find him swaddled like an infant. I climb into his bed and pull him close, and I confess, in those rare quiet moments holding onto my boy, I hate the dark night for giving into the sun.