The Meaning of Mercury (#156)

When you live in Autismland, certain words take on a lot of meaning.

Take appropriate, as in “is he playing appropriately with that plastic barn and those farm animals?” or “is this an appropriate school placement?”. Another is special, as “special needs,” “ special education,” “special diet “; as in, Charlie is a “special child.”
Leafreading_1
Other words that have acquired these strange and sometimes painful resonances include (in no particular order) typical, refrigerator, weird, different, sushi, silence. And, also mercury.

The mere mention of mercury (not to mention vaccine or thimerasol) can generate some lively and rather overwrought exchanges in the autism community, whether online or off. Generation Rescue indeed suggests that autism, PDD-NOS, Asperger’s, and “many other developmental delays” are “all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.”

B.A. (“before autism”) what did I think when I heard the word “mercury”?

I might have thought of the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, thanks to the explanation that many a haberdasher became “mad” due to mercury exposure from the chemicals used in making hats. Or perhaps of the planet closest to the sun.

Or, perhaps of the ancient Greek god Hermes whose Latin name is Mercury. Hermes is the messenger god who delivers Zeus’s dictates to gods (Venus in Vergil’s Aeneid) and mortals (Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey) alike. He is also the god of thieves, of roads and of travelers, and of trade. So was the name “mercury” applied to the element Hg, which can combine with all the common metals. Mercury intercedes between gods and humans, and between the elements of the periodic table.

So the adjective “mercurial” describes one who is changeable from moment to moment, quick as the alchemists’ quicksilver to be smiling and then sad, or sullen, or whining.

Charlie swung between such mercurial mood changes all throughout day. One moment tonight he was laughing when his dad came home, calling for “bike ride” and pulling on the little green gloves he wears to keep his hands warm. The next it was whine cry moan through me directing Charlie to do a puzzle of Elmo and Ernie and settling him under his worn blue blanket. What magic process occurs that one minute Charlie is running (coatless) excitedly into the backyard to the shed where his bike is and the next he has flung himself on the blue couch beside me and says, on and off, “no bike ride, no! Bike ride. Yes, bike ride”?

As psychagoges–“soul-leader”–Mercury aka Hermes guides the souls of the dead down to Hades, the Underworld of the Dead in ancient Greek mythology. He operates on the borders between and inbetween worlds, of the living and the dead. So everyday of our life with Charlie and with autism teaches us that distinctions (“normal vs. abnormal,” “typical vs. atypical”) that might have seemed obvious are not so at all. Life with autism teaches that normal is a relative term and as open to redefinition as special.

On a walk this warm November morning, we slowed our pace on seeing a hundred plus black birds on the sidewalk, lawn, streetscape before us. They must have been migrating south and stopped to drink from a big gutter puddle and to poke for worms. Charlie, a huge leaf he had found from some neighbor’s yard twirling in his fingers, walked ahead and straight into the birds, who scattered instantaneously, some into the air and treetops, some in search of better puddles. Charlie kept going.

“Want to head home?” I asked. Charlie stopped for a fast second, turned his head round, looked towards me from under the pulled-down brim of his fleece hat.

“Go home. No home, no. Yes! Yes home. I want home.”

So quickly can words be used and discarded and used again, and more so when spoken in the silvery tones of Charlie’s voice, steeped as it is in plenty of thought and feeling and purpose.

Of course, the word that has changed the most for me, and that has changed me the most, is autism.

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