Aftershock (#113)

Charlie’s Monday got off to a tremendously tough start and, while the rest of the day passed without incident, Jim made sure to give Charlie multiple pep talks Monday night and Tuesday morning; I delivered mine in the car en route to school. Charlie, groggy in the morning as always, munched on a waffle in the backseat, his blue blanket near at hand.

Charlie’s responses to events in the world around him–especially people coming and going, and our moves from state to state (Missouri to Minnesota, Missouri New Jersey) and house to house (a condo in the exurbs to a house in an older suburb), a bad morning–tend to be fully evinced about a day and a half after the fact. Some nights, excited by a fun day in New York or at the beach, he just cannot get to sleep and is awake till 1am. It is usally the second or third day that he is “off.” I often think that the trouble Charlie had in October of 2001 that led to him being placed in a preschool handicapped classroom to an autism one occurred in part because of the general gloom and sorrow everyone was feeling after September 11th. Charlie’s first day and days in a new program can have lots of smiles and good learning. The test is on the days after when it is clear that here is where he is and is not going anywhere; it is then that his unease with the unusual and unexpected of a new situation present themselves, as worried requests for things that have proved to comfort him (if only for the short-term) in the past: “Fries and burgers!” “Sushi!” “Fwies shrimp!” “Barney doctor BJ!”

I heard a lot of these phrases this afternoon and early evening. The afternoon was like a roiling sea of cheery grins and chatting one moment, and crying calls and sniffling the next. The latter was how I found Charlie in the front vestibule of his afterschool program, two staff members close by. He had come off the bus crying; he called for “Danielle” (who picks him up most Mondays and Wednesday, and who he has known for more than 2 1/2 years); he and his head were on the floor while the staff raced to him. Charlie cried when I walked in and threw his Capri Sun just as a teenage girl, who does not speak, walked up and spilled milk all over her sweater. Charlie kept crying in the car and on our front lawn. I wrapped my arm around him.

“Charlie, how about a hot shower?” He had refused his usual “hot showa” last night and something smelled amiss. Once in the shower and sniffling a little, I divined that Charlie had had stomach trouble, location uncertain. His home program therapist appeared in the midst of this and soon he was dry and clean and working. Leftover sorrow and agitation kept breaking through, hot and sudden as lightning, and the therapist stayed late so we could both hang onto Charlie, each of us with one hand in his armpit and the other wrapped round his palm and fingers. At such moments we autism parents and teachers know the extent to which the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for autism only scratch the surface. Whatever Charlie felt at having hit his head and hit his head on Monday morning–whatever shame, anger, annoyance at the uncomprehending world–whatever I can say in these words to you while he has as much in him but all bottled up and manifesting themselves only as rote phrases (“fries and Blake! Rocco doggy Portia doggy Rocco doggy!”): There is indeed a universe of thoughts and ideas in Charlie that need to be uttered, heard, and understood,

Charlie flung himself on the couch and burrowed into the pillows and a sleeping bag. The smiles came in five minutes and therapist smiled back and said good night. “Charlie,” I said, getting my keys, “let’s go to Pathmark.”

Growing up in California, I’ve experienced an earthquake or two. I never liked the aftershocks that could strike whenever.(It is not a good feeling, to feel the very ground beneath your feet move.) As a child with a cognitive disability, Charlie’s brain is wired such that it takes longer for his life’s events to register on him. Charlie’s aftershocks–especially as they occur in a child with so much potential–can sting and they can goad us on to keep on teaching and trying and working to teach Charlie to learn to cope with sorrow and pain, loss and desire.

We bought green apples and a Sierra Mist Free at Pathmark. We spent a half-hour in the condiments aisle, the bread section, the ice cream section, and before the pickle cases. Charlie wandered into the Seasonal Items area and, with an interested look, picked up a plug-in electric pumpkin, which he carried around until we went to the check-out lane. He asked for “soy-sauss, brown noodles” and “burger” at home. He lay down on the couch, big eyes on me, and fell fast and peacefully asleep. Beneath us, the ground was settling and we all could both feel it and, yes, love.

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