Friday, February 25, 2011

Sweet Emotion, Autism Style

Sunset in our neighborhood ~ March 6, 2010

The Husband was in a car accident this afternoon, right down the road from us, on a drive he does all the time. He was headed to pick up the kids from afterschool care.

(As of right now, I think he's OK, but we know enough about these things to know that sometimes the damage reveals itself in the morning. It was the other guy's fault, one of these instances where Person 1 waves Person 2 into traffic and Person 2 hits Person 3 ... which in this case was The Husband.)

Before this, we'd just spent a relaxing day at home, sans kids. A rarity. While I finished writing a grant at my dining room table office, The Husband read in the family room, did errands, got his teeth cleaned ("I hope I have teeth like this when I'm your age," said the 27-year old dental hygienist), listened to McCartney.

It was a day when you could almost feel the house itself exhaling a final sad song, the slow-but-certain evaporation of the stress that had consumed him (and, as a byproduct, our entire family) for the majority of the past four years. We talked over lunch he brought home, mainly about the excitement and anticipation of the new job (he starts on Monday; this was the first of two days off to relax).

We debated who would go pick up Betty and Boo.  We had flipped roles.  I'd handled this morning's routine, allowing The Husband to sleep in, so I joked that it was his turn to pick up the kids.  He obliged, and I took the opportunity to take a short nap. 

The phone rang.  I looked at the Caller ID, expecting the Caribbean to be calling.

It was ONSTAR.

See, because The Husband is between jobs, he's also between cell phones. Surely he could get by without a cell phone for a couple days.  Hell, we did so back in the dinosaur ages, didn't we?  Anyway, we had ONSTAR in our cars in case of something like an accident.

I didn't pick up the phone.  (Sometimes I'm not too bright, but in my defense, I was half asleep.)

It rang again.  ONSTAR.

"Hello?" I said, steeling myself for a sales pitch of some kind.

"Hello, Melissa, I have The Husband on the line."

(It's true, those calm, cool and collected ONSTAR folks really do work as they do in the commercials. They're not paying me for this post, by the way, but, hey, if they happen to be reading, I love them.)

"I need you to pick up the kids. I've been hit." 

The State Police (the police department for our tiny town) were en route. The car wasn't driveable.  He thought he was OK. He sounded coherent enough, I thought. 

I drove to get the kids (stopping by the accident scene itself) and even though I was relieved to find The Husband generally seeming all right, I was shaken when I greeted the kids.

Boo looked at me.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

Did you get that, people?  He looked at me.
This boy, my child with autism. 

He saw the expression and fear on my face. 

He knew something was wrong.  He asked me, "What's wrong?" 

I'm a straight-shooter with my kids.  I tell them the truth, as much as we can all muster at the time.  (The Husband, on the other hand, is the king of sugar-coating as much as possible.)  This type of situation - a crisis, with logistics needing to be coordinated and quickly, was my domain.

"Daddy's been in a car accident," I said.

Boo gasped, dropped his book bag, his hands flying to his mouth.   

"IS HE DEAD???" 

The afterschool care class went silent.  The teacher froze.

"He's OK, honey, but I need you to move quickly.  We might need to take him to the hospital."

"Betty!" he hollered Stella-like to his sister, oblivious to all this while playing with a friend across the room.  "WE NEED TO GO RIGHT NOW! DADDY'S BEEN IN A CAR ACCIDENT BUT HE'S NOT DEAD. It's OK, but you need to hurry up."

Betty came over and I repeated myself about the accident and of the urgency to not dawdle as much as we typically do.  She put her hand on her heart. 

"Oh, my goodness ...." she breathed. 

After we ascertained that Daddy was OK and we were back home, I had more bad news to deliver to her. One of her beloved killer whales, an orca in the San Juan Islands named Ruffles, is missing.  Because of the length of the whale's disappearance (he hasn't been sighted since November 21) and his age (he's 60), there is the strong possibility that Ruffles might indeed be dead. 

Upon hearing this news, Betty disintegrated into a hot mess of tears. 

Boo rolled his eyes, shook his head.  "Betty. DADDY has been in a CAR ACCIDENT.  He could have been KILLED.  This is more important than Ruffles." 

I stared at him.  Who was this kid with autism and what was he doing, displaying these sorts of ... dare I say it? ... appropriate emotions here in my house?

I didn't know what to do, so I watched.  (And breathed.  And prayed a bit.)

The Husband called.  After talking to him, I put the kids on.  Betty first.

"HiDaddyareyouOK I havesomebadnewsforyou areyouready? RUFFLES HAS GONE MISSING!"

Boo's turn.  "Hi, Daddy.  Are you OK from your car crash?  I was worried because, you know, sometimes you know some people die in car crashes and I don't want that to happen to you.  Are you in the hospital? ... No?  OK, good, will you be home soon? I'm glad you're going to be OK.  Betty's all upset about the orca but I am trying to tell her that isn't as important."

What the ... ?? 

Truly, I swear to you, I heard the voice of the developmental pediatrician from hell, speaking at the moment of diagnosis.  "See, this is an example. You're crying, and he doesn't understand what that's about.  (As if anyone at such a moment could understand what this is all about, much less a toddler who just celebrated his 2nd birthday.)

And:  "He's displaying highly inappropriate emotion in this instance.  You're falling apart and he's smiling and wanting you to notice him.  He doesn't recognize emotions.  That's one of the biggest signs of autism." 

One of the biggest signs, indeed.  Look at him now, lady.  Highly inappropriate, my ass.

So, we're all breathing better now as I write this in the wee small hours of the morning. The Husband went to bed early, understandably, with a day ahead that was going to be relaxing now replaced by one that will be full of insurance and rental cars and body shops. 

I sat with a still-crying-over-Ruffles-the-orca Betty for longer than usual, explaining that in such cases as Ruffles' unfortunate situation, sometimes we need to hope for the best while preparing ourselves for the worst.  That he was much older than most orcas tend to live and that God was watching over him, regardless.

(I am, lest there be any misunderstanding, genuinely concerned about the orca.  The fate of each and every orca on this earth is A Very Big and Important Deal in our house. Still, given the circumstances of the evening and that we're in the midst of a huge transition with The Husband starting a new job on Monday that is 5 hours away, you'll forgive me if Ruffles isn't at the forefront of my mind all the time.)

As soon as I departed Betty's room, my boy appeared from his.

"Mommy?" he said.  "My head is full of sad music tonight, and I just can't get to sleep." 

You could almost feel the house itself exhaling a final sad song ....

"How can I help you?"

"Can you, maybe, sing me a happy song? Maybe two?"

This I can do, my boy.  I can certainly sing a happy song or two. 

And so, I sang.

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


kristenspina said...

I'm so glad to hear Bill is alright. And so sorry about the whale and your sweet caring girl. About the autism? Yeah, it's kind of the same here. When my son was younger, it was much as your develop. ped. described, but now it's a whole different thing. Like your son, he's full of sweet and appropriate emotion... Never say never, right?

Jerry Zurek said...

All I can say is Wow! and Wow!

Kelly said...

Glad the husband is okay! Hope Ruffles is found soon, even if he's no longer alive, the closure of finding him would be a good thing.
Your boy? Wonderful! I love when kids defy the gloom and doom cast on them by those that only see a diagnosis. It's also an encouraging reminder to me that growth does happen, even if it looks different than "it's supposed to".

Beth S. said...

Wow. It's amazing how life lessons can come in such small packages sometimes.

Niksmom said...

Oh, man. Even though I knew about all of the accident and orca stuff from FB, this post brought me to my knees (emotionally speaking). I am crying happy, sad, wildly inappropriate yet appropriate tears over Boo's utterly TYPICAL and wonderful reactions.

Doors and windows, my friend. God, the Universe, whatever you believe in.. closes and opens them when we least expect them. Let the light shine in regardless of the source.

Sengin you big hugs and wishing your husband healthy and happy transition to his new job. I hate that it's taking you all away, but I know it what is right for all of you. Doors and windows...

Amy said...

Wow. I have a lump in my throat.

avisannschild said...

Wow, Melissa, this is a beautiful post that brought tears to my eyes. I'm glad to hear your hubby is OK and I hope the transition to the new job goes well.

Coupon Codes said...

Glad that the husband is okay. As for your son's reaction, it warmed my heart.

Mel said...

I'm so glad that hubby is okay! I'm also very sorry that you all have to deal with the additional stress right now. How sweet of your little boy! Perfect emotions. I'm crossing my fingers for Ruffles too.

Melissa said...

I'm very glad to hear that your husband is all right. But reading about your son and daughter . . . that nearly had me in tears!

Cavalier92 said...

First things first, I'm glad that bill is going to be ok. Tough thing about the car, but hey, that's what insurance is for.

Boo's a gift. You're so lucky to have a child who is able to be that in touch with himself and how he feels. You all have made sure he knows what is important in life and he is finding ways to express himself.

Pretty damn cool, these kids, aren't they?

Alison said...

What a GREAT story about Boo.