by Debra M. Fox
we sit in lawn chairs
When the Rover “Curiosity” made an elegant landing on the Martian surface, he did not know. He did not know that the twentieth century’s last two decades were the hottest in four hundred years or that there has been an upsurge in extreme weather events. Closer to home, he did not know that his older brother, Alex, graduated from college, has a job as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and likely will not live at home again. He is fifteen years old, non-verbal, and severely autistic.
His mother experiences time differently, with him in the world. He continues to grow older, but unlike most people, his awareness of certain events does not grow keener. He hears the phone ring, but doesn’t make the connection that he can talk to people who are not in the same location as him. He is aware it is pouring rain outside but not that the cause is a devastating hurricane. He eats waffles and bacon on Sunday mornings, but doesn’t understand that bacon comes from a pig and that you have to kill the pig before you eat it. Cole, one of his cousins, was born when he was eleven, and even though Cole is a baby, and he can do things Cole can’t, such as walk, and eat solid foods, and ride a bike, it is only a matter of time before Cole will catch up and then exceed him. Put simply, he is not following a conventional time-line.
What do the following people have in common? Irv Zimmerman, Beatrice Bailis, and Gershon Fox. Like Cole and like Alex, they are all related to him. Irv Zimmeran was his grandfather. He was a neurophysiologist who looked like Jerry Garcia and taught medical students. Beatrice Bailis was his great-grandmother who cooked the best sweet and sour meatballs anywhere, and Gershon Fox was his great-grandfather who could sew a man a three-piece suit in an afternoon. What else did they have in common? They all died before he was born. They didn’t know they would have a grandson or great grandson who would never talk. They lived their entire lives in a sort of innocence (those are his mother’s words). And just as they would never know him, he can never understand their existence or their relationship to him, no more than he can know about Martian Rovers or cousins who will grow up and change and live lives he cannot know.
There are moments, though, and this is where it gets confusing for his mother on an emotional level, when he appears perfectly normal to her. After dinner for the past three months, he has taken to listening to Mozart sonatas. He turns off the light in the living room and stretches out on the sofa, with his hands folded in his lap, and listens to an entire CD in one sitting. He doesn’t like when his parents try to move him along for bedtime. Listening to this music gives him extreme pleasure.
His mother tells his father that the sight of him stretched out in the dark, listening to music makes her think of Pinocchio and how much he wanted to be a “real” boy. She says she is fooled for moments into thinking that he is ordinary, just like any other boy his age. But scenes like this can as easily be flipped around. She has dreams where everybody else in the world is like him, and she is the only one like her. She still struggles to understand who he is.
There’s a poem, “Another Summer Begins,” by Mary Oliver:
…The white blossoms of the shad
because it is their time
in the thornbrush.
How did it come to be
that I am no longer young
and the world
that keeps time
in its own way
has just been born?
I don’t have the answers
and anyway I have become suspicious
of such questions…
His mother is suspicious of these questions too. For her there is a weird co-existence of his childhood leaving but all the trappings of innocence remaining. His breath no longer smells like cookies when he wakes up; he has hair under his arms; his cheeks are no longer smooth; his legs are growing hair all the way up and down, and they’re beginning to take the shape of his father’s. His fingernails aren’t soft, and they’re becoming square shaped like a man’s. When he utters sounds, his voice is deeper, and that’s unexpected, because he is not saying anything intelligible.
Like a baby who has not yet learned to speak, he makes rhythmical sounds like “na na na.” He is not self-conscious. He simply enjoys the sensory experience of vibrations in his throat, and the sound as it enters his ears, and the repetition satisfies him intensely. His mother thinks of birds that repeat song cycles, over and over, their throats warbling, their bodies relaxed. She sometimes wonders what it would be like if a flock of beings like him gathered into a space, like birds to a tree, and made their repetitive sounds, not all together, but more staggered, to form a multi-faceted whole. People who listened would feel like they were there, but not there, occupied, but not occupied. It’s a state that frees the mind.
There is a bed in his room, but he doesn’t like to sleep on it. It’s too straight, and he likes to burrow and curl when he sleeps. So, he migrates, once the light is off, to a blue loveseat across the room from his bed. He likes to put his head under the pillow where people press their backs, and drape a leg over one of the arms. He likes closed, squeezed places. He wants to be surrounded, and his bed is too straight for that. Besides, his loveseat smells like him in a way that his bed doesn’t. It smells of saliva and shampoo and suntan lotion and dog. When he is surrounded by those smells, he can sleep.
If you walked into his bedroom, you wouldn’t know how old he is, and that wouldn’t bother him. He has toys on his bookshelf with which he still likes to play, but not for the purpose for which they were intended. Take the wooden ball toy, for instance. He places his head very close to the balls as they roll down the track, and there’s an imperceptible interruption of air on his cheek that thrills him. He likes to observe the balls, first red, then blue, out of the corner of his eye—not straight on.
He has a keyboard in his bedroom that plays four tunes, one right after the other, in a continuous loop. He likes to press the keyboard right up to his ear, not just for the sound, but for the feeling of the music running through his body, right into his bloodstream. He can live in that world for a very long time. Only, it disturbs his father if he turns the music on in the middle of the night. He’ll tell him to stop, but it’s not easy to stop outright. He has to do it in stages, in gradations, the way an airplane doesn’t just drop out of the sky, but lowers slowly, losing altitude in steps. A keyboard is a toy even a teenager could have, which is what he is. But the ball toy is for a toddler. His mother knows that, but lets him keep it anyway.
Like the sound of the ball, there is something mesmerizing to him about snow, especially the first snowfall of the season. While some children might run outside and throw snowballs, or build a snowman, he is content to be amongst the snowflakes, watching as they fall from the sky. If it is nighttime, he likes to turn the outside porch light on and stand at the door, watching the snow come down. Just last year, when he was fourteen, his mother and he put their coats on and sat outside on the back porch, watching the snow pile up, without speaking a word. This is not something his mother could have done when he was younger, that is, enter his world fully and not have any other expectations for them than to sit quietly together in the snow.
While change comes very slowly for him, it would be a mistake to say he hasn’t matured in some ways. For instance, he knows more things than his now four year old cousin, Cole. He knows how to dive into a swimming pool and retrieve a toy torpedo from the bottom. He knows how to put together a one hundred piece puzzle in less than fifteen minutes. He knows how to direct you to the mall if you don’t know how to get there.
Also, it would be inaccurate to say he doesn’t talk. He does, but some of the words are made up, even though they have the same meaning for him as words have for anybody else. Recently he’s figured out how to make more meaningful utterances. His mother doesn’t know why he is able to do this at age fifteen when he couldn’t when he was younger. He’s chosen a sound he likes better than the word “moon.” It has elements of the word “Mama” in it, which is comforting, like looking at the moon is comforting. The word is “mamaloo,” with the accent on “loo” because after all, that is the part of the sound that tells you he’s talking about the moon.
Here is a poem by Michael Ketchek that his mother imagines he would like if he could understand it. It reminds her of the two of them enjoying the moon together, just like the word “mamaloo” implies.
light that touched the moon
This poem makes his mother feel connected to the world, and the things and people she loves. It is reassuring to her to know there are constants in the universe, and even if her son is wildly different from most people, the light that touches the moon will still touch him, just like it touches everybody else.
Life isn’t without its frustrations for him. He can’t completely communicate what he is feeling to those he cares about. His mother asks him every day how his day went. She puts up both hands, signaling left means good and right means bad. She asks him to tap the hand that answers the question. He taps, but if she then asks “why?” it becomes very complicated, and his talker and sign language are usually not sufficient. So their “conversations” are often not very long.
Nevertheless, they have other ways of relating to one another. Every day for as long as they can remember, they take walks over the same route. First they walk to the high school, along a busy road, then they meander through the suburban streets of their neighborhood. It is a way of communing, breathing the same air, with no pressure to speak. And it’s not as if there’s no communication. He likes to point out whether the moon is out, if the bees have abandoned the dried out lavender, or if the snow is gone. He remembers the gingko berries that fell in the fall, and reminds his mother that she made him walk around them. He remembers where a dog pooped on the sidewalk and tells her jokingly through sign language he wants “more,” poop, knowing it will make her laugh.
There is a house that they pass along their walk every day that is of particular interest to him. It is a place where he first learned that bees will sting if you try to catch one with your bare hand. It’s a place where stargazer lilies bloom in July for a brief two-week period. It’s a place where, when the dried out leaves from the oak tree make an eerie rustling sound, you could swear you are listening to the reed section of the orchestra playing “Peter and the Wolf.” It is an infinitely intriguing house, one that is in constant flux from one day to the next, a perfect point of conversation for the two of them, if they’re in the mood to talk.
Now that summer is almost over, and he is approaching his sixteenth year, they seek out this house more than ever. He loves this time of year most, when the August sky takes on the color of ripe plums, and the last of the rudbeckia is in bloom. The bees seem fatter and slower as they hover around the clematis, and he has acquired a new respect for them.
They sit on the sidewalk right in front of the house, making it impossible for anybody to pass, not that it matters, as very few people ever do. They watch as gypsy moths quietly flutter to the patio light, recently turned on as a last splash of orange sunset streaks across their faces. He allows his mother to place her fingers on his cheek, and she leaves them there, just a little longer than usual. At times like this, he wishes he could tell her that even if he doesn’t understand many things, and even if he is developing differently, that he feels a closeness to her unlike any other person he has ever known. A poem by Stephen A. Peter describes how his mother senses he feels when they are together at this house:
the space in me
He is looking forward to tomorrow morning, because it will be Sunday, the day his mother makes waffles. The word he utters for waffles, would sound like gibberish to most people who don’t know him, but his mother and father understand it perfectly well. He cannot say the “w” sound, so he begins with “ah.” He then draws out the “ff” sound for as long as he can, because it pleases him to do so. When he gets to the “l” at the end, it sounds like a French song, where at the end of a phrase, the “le” sound is made. He thinks it delights his parents too, to hear him say this word, because they always smile and say, “good talking, Matthew.”
When the warm waffles are first placed before him, he savors the moment when the syrup is poured on, when it pools into the holes, and overflows onto the plate. He knows what it is like to be a waffle at that moment, to be crunchy on the outside, but receptive to sticky substances, to welcome the feeling of being filled up. While it is true not every hole is ever filled completely and perfectly, enough are, enough to feel that the world is a good enough place for him.
Debra Fox’s poems have been accepted for publication in various haiku journals. In addition, her short stories and essays have been accepted for publication in Hyperlexia Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Squalorly, Embodied Effigies, Chamber 4 Literary Magazine, Burrows Press, and The Meadow. She is a lawyer and the director of an adoption agency. In her spare time she loves to dance. She lives
just outside Philadelphia with her family.