Anger and Peace (#104)

As we stepped out of the PATH station at the site where the World Trade Center used to be, we heard a single bagpipe. “Where’s that coming from?” asked Jim. “Fries and burger,” said Charlie, same as he had several times on the train ride over. “We’ll get it, pal,” said Jim, “I think it’s coming from over there….St. Peter’s Church is around here….”
We crossed the street and there was the church, a massive soot-gray structure, the oldest Roman Catholic parish in New York city. Two policemen on horses were on the sidewalk below and across from them was an officer playing the bagpipe. A man, a policeman by his uniform, appeared amid the heavy columns. He was in a wheelchair and a small crowd of officers and woman in a red-blazer stood around him. The woman was fussing with a tube and some medical equipment. After a brief pause, several of the officers held the wheelchair bits wheels and gently carried the man in it down the stone stairs. The man replaced his cap; the woman straightened it; they all stood in a long line with the other officers for a photograph as a new police van was unveiled and the bagpipe played.

Jim recognized the cop in the wheelchair: He was Steven McDonald, who–Jim recalled, as we walked about in search of fast food for Charlie–had been shot and paralyzed from the neck down by a 15-year-old in Central Park in the 1980’s. A few years later, Shavon Jones, the young man who shot him, called Detective McDonald from prison and apologized to him, his wife, and his son (who had not yet been born when his father was shot). The Detective forgave his teenage assailant and told him he hoped that they could one day speak together about how violence had changed both of their lives. Jones died in a motorcycle accident three days after his release from prison in 1995. Detective McDonald now speaks in New York and elsewhere–in Northern Ireland–about non-violent conflict resolution; about how he has realized that “anger is a wasted emotion” and how he has learned that we are to use “both our abilities and our disabilities.”

I reflected on Detective McDonald’s words of the debilitating effect of anger and revenge on us after we had returned to our comfortably cluttered home in New Jersey. The three of us had walked away from St. Peter’s Church most thoughtfully. Charlie got his McDonald’s (“Hey, Charlie, we came all the way from New Jersey just for this?” Jim laughed). We considered getting back on the subway and walking around Brooklyn, or going down towards the water. Soon as we started walking, Charlie cried out for “piggyback Daddy” and, when he found himself having to walk, started to whine. This soon became moans and cries and erupted into two quick episodes of full-blown screaming and twisting. Jim kept hold of Charlie’s left hand; I held Charlie’s upper right arm and reminded him about how he is “a big boy, you don’t need to do that.”

Jim and I both agree that Charlie is fast approaching a time–if he is not already there–when he’s too old, and too big, for piggy-back rides. Charlie has got it into his head–his sense of the order of things–that he gets piggy-backs when we are walking around Manhattan. Certainly, when he was much younger, Jim did a lot of this. And this afternoon, Jim on the left and me on the right, we walked past tourists and variously baffled passersby, our angry, yowling boy between us. We walked by City Hall and the Woolworth Building; we walked back to where the WTC was; we got back on the subway and went up Grand Central Station and told Charlie he could ride the merry-go-round in Bryant Park. He was smiling and racing the sidewalks as we passed the New York Public Library and looked sadly at the silent, still merry-go-round and joined in a fast walk down to Penn Station, where we boarded a train back to Jersey.

For the final leg of our trip, Charlie lay down on the seat, his head in Jim’s lap. He was truly tired once home around 6pm and lay around quietly, wrapped in his blue blanket, only venturing downstairs for a dinner of “brown noodles.” How intently Charlie addressed me across the table, telling me “Doctor BJ. Mommy, brown noodles, I want!” He went up to bed at his usual time and we turned down the volume on the TV and talked softly to each other. Perhaps over-excited at the events of the day and anticipating Monday, Charlie lay awake in his bed till after 1am. I went up to check on him and rub his back at intervals, smiling and speaking softly.

When Charlie cannot sleep and I know I’ll have to drag him out of bed and watch him stumble into school in too few hours, a resentment tends to build in my stomach. Why can’t he just go to sleep, shouldn’t he be tired, how sleepy he’ll be tomorrow morning, my mind races to think. And I am worried, and angry, about something.But right now, while I’m certainly sighing over how sleepy Charlie will be tomorrow morning, I know it is as it is.

It would be easy to say “it’s autism,” just as it would have been easy to be angry this afternoon to find ourselves hanging onto a strong 8-year-old whose antics and whose autism “prevented” us from having a nice Sunday afternoon in New York, going to some museum or cinema or touring the neighborhoods. It would be easy to get angry at autism and hate the fact that Charlie has “it,” to believe that, without autism, the three of us would be leading a fine and normal life. And that, the only way for us to have that life is to eradicate autism, to “cure” it, to direct our anger at the drug companies who manufacture vaccines, at the government agencies who call for childhood vaccinations, the pediatricians who do not seem to understand what autism is, the insensitive buereaucrats who deny our children what they need.
Detective McDonald is right. Anger stirs up and is mixed up with so many emotions, but it can only help us so much. Better to give up our resentments and make the most of what we can and even what we cannot do; better to emphasize what Charlie and kids like him can do and can learn, rather than to see them as flawed victims. Charlie overcame his piggyback obsession and more than enjoyed his afternoon of subways and skyscrapers. Peace and gentleness, in my tone of voice, in my actions and words, do somehow assure Charlie that all is right in the world. Even when insomnia haunts him, it seems to help that I can just rub his back and speak soothingly, and give up any frustration that he is still awake at a very late hour.

Forgiveness–giving up anger–is a lot harder than being angry. Charlie was mad this afternoon but what kind of an example do I set for him by being spitfire mad? Is that the way I want Charlie to cope with his frustrations? Peace, little boy, and thanks for showing us how to be, and how to have a good life together.

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