A Day Off: The Balance of Pain & Pleasure (#119)

Charlie did not have school due to our district’s having an in-service today. I had noted the date back in the summer and asked my mom and dad (aka "Gong Gong and Po Po") if they might visit. Charlie has been talking about them non-stop since we last saw them when we went to California for my grandmother’s 100th birthday party back in October. Before they came at the end of August, he was totally caught up between the prospect of seeing them and his only somewhat unexplainable anxieties about these visits, which bring with them different routines, lots of fun times eating and going to stores and movies, and lots of extra affection and attention.
Hoping to distract him on that hot late August day, I had taken Charlie to the town swimming pool where he had so blissfully performed his water acrobatics. His swimming delight was very brief and the swim ended with me hanging onto him while crouching over the edge of the deep end of the pool, as he clung to the metal gutter and cried wordlessly, loudly, awfully, all while screeching "ALL DONE Gong Gong Po Po! All done." When we picked them up at the airport, he cried and yelled for an hour and only stopped when we, at my parents’ suggest, got his favorite "brown noodles." As he ate, my mom dabbing his face and hands with a napkin as the three of us chatted of inconsequentials, I could see an almost physical change working its way through Charlie’s body. We left the restaurant with him walking hand in hand with my parents.

Autism never does take a vacation. Days off are always days on for Charlie and for us, his mind always needing to be stimulated, every day rich in teachable moments. Spending a day with his much-loved grandparents constitutes a significant change in the usual way of things for Charlie, who must still teach himself–his mind and even his body’s responses–how to find himself one day off from school and being indulged on all fronts, and the next back to the usual way of things. When it is all a matter of one or the other–long summer days with Gong Gong and Po Po or a long stream of days of him at school and Jim and me at work in the fall and winter–Charlie is fine with his well-ordered life.

Days off from school, holidays of all sorts, do not necessarily entail delight for Charlie and kids like him. While he certainly enjoys some aspects of these–the Halloween parade and cupcake he’ll have next Monday–the loss of the way things generally are is hard on Charlie, and, due to his language disability, too often communicated in other means than words. Charlie presents with what seem to be almost physical difficulties in mediating between what pleases him and what causes pain. He seems to have a sort of deep and essential and physiological craving for some bit of the same in his daily existence.

This is why Charlie was so peaceful and easy-feeling at our local McDonald’s yesterday. The very golden arches of the M look comfortingly like the French fries he knows he will wolf down. We do order him "meat in a box" when we get him a quarter-pounder, due to his special diet. Last night he only had water in a Ronald McDonald cup (instead of "brown dwink"–Coca Cola) and he was perfectly satisfied with the occasional sip as he ran up the plastic playground. Cholesterol and Fast Food Nation aside, how can a parent not at such times be grateful for McDonald’s, for providing an experience so familiar, almost routine, and simply comforting for my boy, and so enable him to let go of his worries about airports, airplanes, Californy, Gong Gong Po Po, Gramma Granpa, elevator chair?
Charlie was just finishing up a waffle when my parents came early this morning; I sped off to work after telling him "bye Charlie" and rubbing his head. They went clothes and shoe shopping (Charlie has really grown over the summer) and had lunch at Johnny Rockets. They were hoping to catch a movie but showed up at the theatre only to discover that the 1.45pm matinee was no longer playing. Charlie was glad to go for a walk instead and then worked very well with his home therapist, while chatting a lot about my parents. After dinner and a hot shower, he wanted "Daddy home, Daddy suit on, Daddy white shirt" and any explanations about the fact that Dad was still in the Bronx, Dad was on the subway, Dad was just running into Penn Station, Dad was coming home soon, did nothing to asuage a mournful boy. He sat beside my mom as she read to him and then beside my dad under a sleeping bag, fitfully watching an ice dancing competition. Finally, past 9pm, Jim called to say he was six minutes from the train station and, in the pouring rains of a nor’ easter, Charlie hurried into the black car’s back seat.

We met an implausibly dry Jim (given the circumstances) and headed home (where Jim divulged he had availed himself of a large black plastic garbage bag while running to catch the D train–a fashion statement replicating that of a certain band many moons ago). Charlie finally smiled big and broad, only to return to his worried look on the couch before Jim piggy-backed him up for "beddtime" after a round of hugs, pats, and kisses from my parents and me.

Before he went to bed, Charlie made one last run into the kitchen to check to see if his lunch box was in its place on the refrigerator door–a placement that signifies, "school tomorrow." There was something else on that shelf and I had placed the lunchbox directly below. Charlie saw this, contemplated this new ordering, looked sort of over at me, and shut the fridge door. And ran back out to the living room couch. "Daddy wie down," he said, looking over at my parents. "Goo night." "Up you go, pal," said Jim and up went Charlie, up the stairs holding onto his dad’s shoulders, slumping securely into his back, eyes looking ahead.


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