A Great Gift (#552)

“Doggy Callie!”
Those were Charlie’s last words before he fell asleep just around midnight. We always go to my uncle’s house up near Sacramento for Christmas Eve; my uncle has a light gold dog, “California,” Callie for short—-“doggy Callie” to Charlie, who was fascinated by her a few Christmases past (he used to like to lie in her soft dog bed). I don’t know how Charlie developed dog-fear this past year, but we did what we could to prepare Charlie by showing him photos of Callie sent by my uncle.

Charlie, eyes wide open, held my and my father’s hands as we walked in. “No, bye bye!” said Charlie at his first sight of Callie, who was on a leash and moving lazily, not with the sudden springs of some dogs Charlie has met. “Noooooooo!” His head twisted towards the floor and his back was about to follow; we held his hands and told Charlie he had first to try to be calm. Charlie sat on the couch, Jim and me on either side of him, face long: “I need break! Break I need break!” A squishy ball was produced from my mother’s bag, and the pirate puzzle Charlie had unwrapped this morning (and is exactly the same puzzle he took a liking to at the beach last summer) brought out. Charlie knelt over the pieces as more guests came in.

I am not able to see my cousins—all some years younger than me—-too much. In the midst of conversing, I saw Charlie pacing back and forth amid the guests, grinning to himself and jabbering, and he seemed quite at home and, in his Charlie-way, trying to get to know so many new people—eating with my cousins, looking up worriedly and reaching out to tap my cousin’s son when he picked up a piece of Charlie’s pirate puzzle, unwrapping a present as the other boy watched.

When I was a child, the ride back home to the East Bay from Sacramento always seemed so endless on those Christmas Eve nights, one Christmas pop-rock song playing after the other on the car radio. Charlie provided the audio entertainment tonight and it was good listening as he burst into a few rounds of “This Land Is Your Land,” “Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Monkey Man” by Toots and the Maytals. “Gong Gong house Gong Gong shower!” he called and Charlie got both, after which he did the pirate puzzle once more before bedtime just as the clock chimed 12 times (so Santa could get to work), doggy Callie’s name called out with a laugh.
Small things, great gifts, from Charlie: Starting to get over his dog-fear; reaching out (in his way) to another child; serenading us with songs in the car and so many words. Yesterday’s successful several hour airplane flight. Good days in school after a long search for just the right placement for Charlie that took us from St. Louis, Missouri, back to New Jersey where there are the kind of autism schools that we had discerned were what Charlie needed.

But back in 2000 we did not know how we could leave St. Louis to get back to New Jersey: Jim was a tenured professor with an endowed chair at Saint Louis University, I had resigned from my tenure-track position in St. Paul, Minnesota. But if one of us could get a position on the East Coast, we would move.

One December day shortly before Christmas, the phone rang in our small kitchen in our rented house. Jim answered and spoke for some time, and when he hung up told me that it looked like we might be able to get ourselves back to Jersey in 2001: The call was from Fr. James Loughran, S.J., the President of Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey, and he offered Jim a one-semester endowed chair at the college.

Jim said yes.

We packed up the green car in May of 2001 and drove East past the Gateway Arch and over the Mississippi and, while the past five years have seen every shade of down and up and even keel-ness, we have never regretted our decision to leave behind what we did. The good days Charlie has been having, the great day he had today, are testament to something more than our hopes. When I got a position to teach Classics at Saint Peter’s starting in the fall of 2005, I was thrilled to be able to teach Latin and Greek again, and thrilled to be part of the place that had helped Jim and me remake our lives and give Charlie the education he needs. Being able to teach and work at Saint Peter’s has been a true gift.

It all started with that call from Fr. Loughran. And when, Charlie tucked in bed, I turned on my computer and found out that Fr. Loughran had passed away today, on December 24th, I could not stop thinking about that telephone call from him back in December of 2000. I cannot stop thinking of him, black-clad and a straw boater at a jaunty angle on his head, walking round our small campus; of the email he sent me last month when a student I advised was a finalist for a prestigious fellowship (“Great news. Keep me posted,” Fr. Loughran wrote to me); of the whiff of a world now gone about him, a world that he called up when he spoke of Brooklyn Prep and of his mother, of teaching philosophy to Fordham undergrads and his annual “News from the Universe” addresses to our College community.

Fr. Loughran’s call gave us something that I am only beginning to understand the depths of—-that I glimpse in moments, that I hear when Charlie speaks and Charlie is as he was on this Christmas Eve tonight.

Requiescat in pace, Fr. Loughran, et tibi multas gratias—quot dicere non possum—ago.

To you, my Autismland friends and family, many thanks—how much I cannot say—and all peace and joy and hope this Christmas.

pace gaudioque speque omnibus

3 Responses to “A Great Gift (#552)”
  1. Lisa/Jedi says:

    Just the sort of memories that add depth to these busy days. Holiday greetings to you and your whole family, Kristina!

  2. Wade Rankin says:

    A wonderful Christmas message of how we are all related in one another’s lives.

  3. Peace and joy unto you, even though you have lost a friend and mentor. Even though I do not know Jim (but feel like we do from your posts), send him our condolances, as I am sure he had a great connection. Peace, Laura

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