Orpheus and Charlie (#339)

Orpheus is the best mortal singer, the best musician, in ancient Greek mythology. He sings so beautifully he makes the trees move and tames the tigers and other wild animals, and he wins the love of the nymph Eurydice, who is bitten by a snake and dies. Desperate to get her back, Orpheus makes his way down to Hades, to the Underworld, charming Charon who ferries the shades of the dead over the River Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and even the terrible King Hades with his lovely music. Hades says that Eurydice can follow Orpheus back to the land of the living if he does not turn around to look at her until they have left. And just as Orpheus can see the sunlight, he cannot resist and turns around—and back Eurydice must go to Hades, forever.
Years ago, I was intrigued by the myth of Orpheus because of his marvelous, miraculous ability to sing—to use words set to music—that were so beautiful that inanimate objects moved. It seemed beyond magic to me that words–language–could have a direct effect on nature, on reality, and, as I learned how to use words to express, emote, explain, I would often think of Orpheus, the poet par excellence.

Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice—a loss twice experienced—never made sense to me until Charlie.

It is not that I think that “inside” my autistic son Charlie is some “lost, damaged child” that I have to “get back” via “treatment” or (as in the name of a certain autism organization) “rescue” Charlie. Charlie at his loveliest, Charlie in full and raging tantrum mode, is the same Charlie, and I love him. And it is this love so deep that I would go to the ends of the earth—down to the Underworld, down to the dead—if I had to, is the love that drives Orpheus (like Demeter seeking her daughter Persephone) down to Hades, to find Eurydice.

Orpheus fails at the last minute. I used (B.C., Before Charlie) to wonder, how could Orpheus be so stupid? why could he not control himself?

But now I know. When you love someone like Orpheus loved Eurydice, and like Jim and I love Charlie, you do everything you can and, sometimes at the last moment, you slip. You fail.

Today’s journey took us down to the Jersey shore.

It was a marvelous trip. Jim’s cousin and his wife were visiting and our friend Hal came up from Philadelphia. Charlie woke up early, breakfasted, lay wrapped on the couch singing (appropriately for Memorial Day) “God B’ess Amere-ihgah,” and rode off on his bike with Jim behind. We stopped for drinks at a certain QuikStop and then, with Charlie calling for the “frog hopper, frog hopper, frog hopper,” to the boardwalk and beach.

Two years ago, I absolutely dreaded bringing Charlie to an amusement park. Of course he loved the rides–the merry-go-round, swings, giant slide, more—but our exits were always loud and full of kicking and screaming that erased any happiness. Charlie would call obsessively for those rides; we had to be careful not to drive by any amusement parks and woe to us if we chanced upon a church’s summer carnival. Charlie clearly experienced a physical joy, a magnificent sensation, in riding those rides that he became immediately addicted to. As he could hardly ride the ferris wheel forever, drag him away we did; when away from the rides, we explained in short sentences how rides were fun, but not an everyday thing. We scrupulously limited Charlie to no more than two rides on his favorites.

The fruits of that labor were evident today. Charlie rode the frog hopper twice (the second time with a gleeful smile, as if the first time he had to acclimate himself to the ride) and the merry-go-round once. And then to the ocean. He handed his shirt to Jim and ran straight into the waves, and out and in again. He laughed; he called for Jim to “piggyback Daddy!” (Jim grinned, “not today, Cholly!”); he watched the waves rolling in and dove headfirst into a wave’s bottom, as Jim had taught him last summer.

It was beautiful and how I looked forward to writing about salt water, shrimps, and summer.
We dropped Jim’s cousin and his wife off at the airport and Hal at the train station. Charlie had been saying his teacher’s name all the way home from the shore and, as he and Jim and I sat on the old blue-and-white striped couch, again and again and again. We knew it would be hard to have an extra day after the weekend off. We know that Charlie has nine more days at his beloved school.

We know so much, and we had no idea what to do when, after the loveliest of days, Charlie looked at us then fell into the full spectrum of tantruming behaviors.

When Charlie was asleep, Jim and I looked at each other and asked, we saw it coming, we knew it would happen, why did we….why didn’t we…….?” In Autismland, I have so often felt, knowledge is not power, it’s just knowing that something can happen and it’s not knowing what to do with my beloved boy who is 75 pounds and strong and smart and who said, when he was calming, the name of his teacher and “done”…….

Just like Orpheus, turning around at the last moment to see Eurydice.

It is a good thing that Orpheus was both a singer and poet and a musician. Charlie might not respond to Virgil or Keats, but when Jim’s cousin played a few bars on the keyboard, Charlie went right over to stand beside him and tickle the ivories too.

Charlie is the next Orpheus, and how the trees will move.

5 Responses to “Orpheus and Charlie (#339)”
  1. Rose says:

    Ben had to do a report on Greek mythology in social studies. He chose Orpheus, and chose, as he always does, to do a comic book of the story.

    To hear the story again today was lovely.

    And I get so much out of it when you write about Charlie. You try so hard to understand, and I think you do. I don’t know how to explain it, but “words” can be so precious with our kids, one has to work to get the picture…

  2. Eli's mom says:

    Nine more days with his school…
    Eli has 3 more days with his wonderful teachers of the past two years and then it’s on to Kindergarten. Very bittersweet for us right now. We’ve met his new teacher and she has gotten great reviews from the present teachers, so I’m not too worried. But still. No more Miss Maggie and Miss Tami.
    As for amusement park rides, well, Eli just loves them, to! Can’t wait for the county fair again!
    Have a great summer!

  3. Lisa says:

    Beautiful post today, Kristina. The stories of both Orpheus and Erudyce have always fascinated me with their terrible beauty and loss. That is the truth of life–any life. That it contains both beauty and loss.

  4. Kristin says:

    Beautifully written Kristina.
    I think I could ride The Beast at Kings Island over and over. Gabe loves movement too, especially train rides.
    I hope Charlie’s last days at his school are good ones that he can look back on over the summer :o)


  5. Beauty and loss, and fun and not so much fun when you least expect it!

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