BAM the phone rings

Charlie sitting on our old blue couch  On a January 23rd post on the City Brights blog on SFGate.com,  Laura Shumaker wrote about "drive by phone calls" in describing her reaction after her autistic son Matthew called. Matthew is a student at Camphill California, a residential community. Matthew had had a great 3-day weekend at home; now back at Camphill California, he tells Shumaker "'Things are not working out here. No one understands me and I seriously need to move to Louisiana."' Shumaker's 17-year-old son John had been sharing his "jubilation" at finishing his exams with her when Matthew's call came, and that call changed everything:

It turned out that Matthew had been reprimanded for using his gas powered weed whacker too early in the morning, and that it had been locked up as a consequence. After expressing his disappointment that he wouldn't get to weed whack for a whole week, he calmed down and told me he had to go, it was time to do his chores.


When I hung up the phone, I went to resume my fun with my 17 year old and the dog, but John was busy with his skateboard and Callie dreaming on her dog bed.


I started to cry.


I chastised myself, and wondered how this silly phone call from Matthew had impacted me this way.

A friend of Shumaker's who has a daughter with Asperger Syndrome terms this a "drive by call":

" Matthew is doing well and you feel like your life is almost normal and then BAM! You're reminded Matthew's condition is life long."


I've felt that "BAM!" from a phone call that Shumaker, author of 
A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism, refers to. The "BAM!" for me comes not so much from realizing that Charlie's going to be autistic for life—-I guess you could say that became part of the way things are around here some time ago—but that the "good day" I'd been having gets stopped in its tracks.

Monday the phone call came early. Jim, while driving Charlie to school, got that sinking feeling when he didn't see Charlie's blue bookbag in the car. Someone—ahem, me—had forgotten to pick it up from the blue couch and plunk it in the car and to say that Charlie was not happy to go into the Big Autism Center without his bag and its contents (lunchbox) would be an understatement. 

Jim hurried back home and the bag was duly delivered, and we immediately started talking about leaving the bag by the front door and, too, having Charlie put his bag in the car as part of his going to school routine. It was a sobering way to start the week (especially after a very fine weekend) and I was extremely distracted during my Elementary Latin class, with comments about Charlie and the woes of "no lunchbox" (Jim had told me Charlie had been saying that as he was exiting the car, visibly upset) threaded through my explanations of the perfect tense of verbs.

It's probably a good thing that college students matriculate for four years, else I'd find myself facing an audience increasingly weary of hearing the latest Charlie story. Charlie was born the year before I got my first professor job and his growing up and learning have occurred side-by-side with my academic career. (I can mark the stages of his life—toddlerhood and preschool, elementary school, intermediate school, middle school—with my jobs at different colleges and universities.) My students have always been, what can I say, a captive audience—though a little "slice of life" amid the grammar lessons has never seemed to hurt.

This Spring Semester, I'm teaching my "Women in Antiquity" course for the first time. In prepping my class last night, the accustomed divide—the distance—between my teaching and "life" seemed to contract. Studying the sculpture on a marble grave stele of a seated woman, facing a smaller, i.e., younger woman who might be her slave, or her daughter, the question of what would the deceased woman's child do without her would not get out of my mind. This is the inscription on the stele: 

Mnesarete, daughter of Socrates.


This woman left a husband and siblings, and grief to her mother, and a child and an ageless renown for great virtue [
arete].


Here the chamber of Persephone holds Mnesarete, who has arrived at the goal of all virtue [
arete].

Inscriptiones Graecae II/III

And then, inevitably, what would my own child, my family…… I apologize for being morbid or melodramatic but reading about maidens and marriage and motherhood, I've been thinking about how, indeed, motherhood is one of those things that hasn't changed much, external trappings of cell phones and debates about "working mothers" and "stay-at-home-dads" be darned. The ancient Greeks—or the Romans, or anyone before quite recently—didn't talk about "parenting." They just did it.

After that less than fortuitous beginning, Charlie had a quite decent day. It rained hard and a very strong wind howled (and turned my cheap purple umbrella inside out as I walked down John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City). The clouds briefly parted in the afternoon and it was oddly warm; Jim got out the bikes and, after picking up Charlie at school, went out riding. Charlie fixed us both with a couple of long, big-eyed, smiling looks and, in the evening, told me not to go away, but to sit by him—and started up a conversation, Charlie-style, with me, about past therapists and aides and classmates. 

After a few minutes of this, Charlie looked down and told me, again with a good look, "bedtime." We gathered up his blankets and favorite items and he went to bed and I went back to my books, 

quietly, gently, without drama.

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Comments
9 Responses to “BAM the phone rings”
  1. Bonnie says:

    ….it’s especially irritating when things are going well and then something we (as parents) did unknowingly rocks their world a little! I’ve done this unknowingly until it hits me that say, he had a bad day because I forgot to send in something or other. It’s so easy to do sometimes, but, Charlie bounced back it sounds like!

  2. Rose says:

    >>>but to sit by him—and started up a conversation, Charlie-style, with me, about past therapists and aides and classmates.<<<
    I love it when that happens!

  3. a parent says:

    I’ve certainly been responsible for missing lunches, unpacked bathing suits, and the like. After kicking myself I try to think of it as me giving my son a chance to practice little bumps in the road.
    Yesterday my son’s school closed <2hrs after opening. The high winds down here caused a lot of power outages his school among them. Not a great thing and that was followed by his after school swimming session being cut short and then his haircut appointment being forgotten by the stylist – i.e. it didn't happen, but we waited around for 15min.
    Looking back on it, it was a disaster of a day for my very routine loving son. But, instead of any big blow-ups, we had some minor objections and a general sense of unease. Way better than where we would have been a year ago.
    I'm not sure if it's practice or just maturity, but it seems like we're slowly moving forward.

  4. Jill says:

    I really liked “A Regular Guy.” As I recall, Laura Shumaker sometimes felt like her other children were being overlooked because she focused so much of her attention and energy on Matthew: trying to find the best school for him, arranging for male college students to spend time with him so he felt like he had “buddies,” and running interference between Matthew and neighbors who were furious because Matthew had taken birthday balloons from their mailboxes or had misbehaved in some other way.
    Charlie is your only child. Do you ever wonder what your lives would be like if he had a sibling? Do you ever see boys Charlie’s age playing sports or hanging out with friends and feel a twinge of regret that Charlie won’t get to experience dating, college and the type of intellectual activities that you and Jim enjoy?

  5. Jill says:

    I really liked “A Regular Guy.” As I recall, Laura Shumaker sometimes felt like her other children were being overlooked because she focused so much of her attention and energy on Matthew: trying to find the best school for him, arranging for male college students to spend time with him so he felt like he had “buddies,” and running interference between Matthew and neighbors who were furious because Matthew had taken birthday balloons from their mailboxes or had misbehaved in some other way.
    Charlie is your only child. Do you ever wonder what your lives would be like if he had a sibling? Do you ever see boys Charlie’s age playing sports or hanging out with friends and feel a twinge of regret that Charlie won’t get to experience dating, college and the type of intellectual activities that you and Jim enjoy?

  6. silimom says:

    Someone on a local autism board I read posted that a friend with 4 year old twin boys, both with autism, just passed away from a brain aneurysm. Mom was the primary caregiver and she had to help Dad get the day to day routine under his belt.
    It got me thinking about what would happen if one of us wasn’t around for our kids. I feel both of us would be able to pick up the pieces and keep with the routine, but I don’t think either of us would be as effective a parent. There are things that our kids get from each of us that would be missed. And there’s the reality of having a partner to help tag team parent, which makes a big difference. I guess all I’m saying is I know I could do this alone if I needed to but I’m VERY thankful I don’t have to.

  7. I love the idea of the “drive-by phone call.” We also have the drive-by home visit,” where Nat comes home and I barely get the chance to reconnect with him. I then drop him off at the residence on Sunday where he is surrounded by staff and other autistic young men, and I can’t help it, sometimes I just kind of collapse thinking, “how is this Nat?”

  8. autismvox says:

    @Jill, Your comment spurred some of my thinking for the “What If” post…..

  9. Regina says:

    When my daughter was little, every misstep was a crisis or pondering “omigosh, did we really screw this up?” and as you noted, the phone was not my friend at that time.
    Part of it was getting through those little (and sometimes not so little) hurdles, but another part of it was coming to a personal realization- “well, that’s already happened, and no amount of fretting or reliving that particular moment is going to make it go backwards. Take the lesson, dust off and work it out better tomorrow.”
    Somehow in the balance, the densities of “betters” seem to be increasing. So far, so good.
    Hope you, Charlie and Jim have a good weekend.

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