BAM the phone rings
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.