The other day I had an email from an NYU sophomore asking if she could interview me for her Oral History class project. She wanted to know about mothering a child with autism. I told her that I’d love to, but that my son was now 24. She said that would be great anyway. She was down in New York, however, so we were not sure at that time how to proceed.
Then yesterday I was contacted by her project partner, Chris, who happened to be in Boston visiting a friend. Chris and I agreed to meet at my favorite coffee shop in town, Peet’s. Nat was home for the weekend, so I asked him to come with me; the interview was partly about him, so he should be there, too.
It was snowing really hard. I had to drop Nat off and then park, or he wouldn’t have been able to open the door against the hardened snow drift. We went into Peet’s together and found Chris, a smiling young man. Nat shook Chris’s hand. Then he went right to the glass case and started saying, “choc chih cookie,” before I had even gotten there. This was a happy development, however technically/socially incorrect it may have been, because Nat was so confident and was speaking up for himself without even being prompted! I did call him back to the end of the line, though. How can something be so right and so wrong at the same time, goes the love song, and it is also the song about Nat in the world.
Every time something like this get-together comes up now I realize either just in time or a little too late that Nat should be part of it. I can’t believe that I still have such a hard time thinking of him as a definite part of a get-together, rather than, well, luggage. That sounds horrible, right? But listen, to some degree, any time a parent has to bring a child along, it is a little like hefting more than you’d like. Until that child starts to grow up and become more visible, more there, he is more just cute baggage than anything else.
But Nat is not a child! Nat is 24. He is not luggage the way a toddler would be. He is 5’11″ and very garrulous. No, he does not talk directly to the people we are with, but he is very much a part of the living, moving social noise of any gathering.
But: there was a time, and I still carry the trauma of that time, when Nat was highly unpredictable and scared me in public. It took years for me to get used to his being stared at, and also to realize that he was no longer going to try to hurt someone. He used to be so much less aware of what the outside world expected of him, and even if he did know, he did not know how to get the right behavior out of himself. He must have gone around with so much frustration I can only imagine it was the way third grade math was to me, but for Nat, it was every day of his life.
I need to remember that things have changed. I need to find a way to keep that fact with me, and bring Nat into every picture that is about him or that would interest him. He is a grown man and he seems so much more comfortable in the space around him. Certainly those around him get it better than they used to. They make room for his pointy widespread elbows, his faster pace, his sudden peals of laughter. He does not get stared at as much, or maybe I don’t notice it anymore. I’d like to think both are true, like maybe I now feel we are more deserving of respect, he and I, because of all we’ve been through together. Now he is a grown man, and a happy and confident one — albeit not speaking the language around him — and so people just see the man and they make room.
And indeed, we did find room at the long marble countertop against the cold wet window. I was in the middle while Chris asked me questions. Nat was on my left, scarfing his cookie and sipping cocoa with great animation. I think some of what Nat and I told Chris (in one mode or another) moved Chris to tears at times. Chris really got it. At the end of the interview I went to shake hands to say goodbye to him and he said, “Actually, I’m a hugger, so bring it in.” We hugged. Nat, however, is not as much of a hugger so in saying goodbye, he shook Chris’ hand, saying, “Hi Chris.”
As we walked back to the car, I tried to summarize the meeting because I was not sure if Nat knew why I had been talking so much about him to this stranger. I said, “People want to talk to me about you, Nat. A lot of people have little children with autism, like you. A lot of people want to know how to help their children be as great as you. You’re a really good person, Nat, and they want to know how to be a good person, like you.”
And we drove home through the heavy snow. Everything was just white and black, except the bright red lollipop stop light.