You Can Go Back (#529)

When the going gets tough, you hang on to the smallest things.
The sort of flopping-on-the-back head-banging-on-the-floor that happened yesterday became the norm for us from the time Charlie was nearing seven years old, through his last rough months in his former public school, and through the summer when Charlie was settled in his new school. I have a kept a journal of what happened in Charlie’s life ever since he was a baby and it became a grim habit to record “# of hb’s” after the date and the medicine dosages.

I am not sure how I saw Charlie off at the door of his old school, with my wistful and increasingly despairing hope that “the reading thing will just click” the way some professional always said. The same so-to-speak philosophy was applied to the head-banging (“we’ll just have to do what we can and wait and see if it gets better”); by the time we took Charlie out of his old public school classroom, head-banging happened daily and repeatedly. And it sometimes occurs to Jim and me that we are still experiencing post-rough-times-aftershocks and have had to unlearn the frantic ways we used to respond to Charlie’s tantrums—the fast and too quick (almost automatic) grabs to stop his head from going towards some hard object.

Through it all, we held on to what we could. We had once bragged that we could take Charlie anywhere, from shopping malls to church to non-fast-food restaurants, and now here we were buying take-out and hurrying back home with it. Near the town where we used to live there was one restaurant which served Charlie’s favorite brown noodles—rice noodles with peanut sauce and shrimp. We got in the habit of going there every Friday, partially because Charlie said “brown noodles I want brown noodles” over and over every Friday afternoon, partially because he had knocked over water glasses there but nothing more, partially because it had a wide and open space, partially because we were too tired to try to attempt anything new (i.e., requiring Jim and me to be ready to spring into action in less than a moment’s notice).

Often we were the only customers and, in time, the staff started to expect our Friday visits, to anticipate what we would order, and (because they had a certain amount of free time—-there might be one other table filled), to chat with us. Charlie had a favorite, circular table and often lay down briefly on the padded seat. No one minded if Charlie vocalized sounds loudly; we never said he has autism because it never came up. “Yeah, he likes it here,” Jim would shrug as he paid the bill. “And we’re glad to see you guys,” the staff would say and, when we laughed, they added, “we mean it!”

The kindness of strangers cannot be underrated—-especially when you are living rough times in Autismland.

After we moved in June and no longer lived nearby, we stil made the occasional trip to the restaurant for Charlie’s favorite. And then, a few months ago, we went to see the chairs stacked up and dishes and miscellanea spread helter-skelter here and there.

The restaurant was closed.

“Too bad,” said Jim who proceeded to make some inquiries and to find out that a new branch of the same restaurant (it is a chain) was opening a half-hour from our new house.

It was a day of unsettled weather—the barometer dropping, gray clouds and sky, sometimes heavy rain, and nearly 70 degrees on the first day of December. Jim and Charlie got in a bike ride between rain showers, to return to an unsettled house: The lights were flickering on and off, the electrician’s van was dead in the driveway, my in-laws’ nurse was preparing to leave for the weekend. Charlie put away his shoes and took out a dinosaur puzzle which he, after looking at the pieces in the box for some minutes, threw, then cried. He sat on our bed, he rocked in his new rocker chair from my parents, he did the dinosaur puzzle.

Two pieces were missing. “Puzzle,” said Charlie. “It’s missing,” I said. I found only one piece: “I think we’ll have to do without for now,” I added. Charlie moaned a number of times and sat looking at the puzzle, minus a piece, then got up to put on his shoes at the mention of “black car to get brown noodles.” (First he had to help Jim unload the many books in the white car.)

We soon found the new location of Charlie’s restaurant in one of the overly numerous, and anonymous, malls of New Jersey. It was laid out just like the old one but the circular table was taken, so we sat by the front window. “I missed you guys!” said one of the staff, who had always remembered our Friday order. He and Jim talked about the best route from his home to his new place of employment as Charlie dug into a steaming bowl of brown noodles, left hand in his lap as he scooped up his food with the fork in his right. The tofu on mine was cooked just right.

Before he went to bed, Charlie, tightly wrapped in Daddy’s blue blanket, did the dinosaur jigsaw again, then sat looking at it. Minus the one piece, it was pretty much the same, yet different.

And just fine.


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