By Brianne DeRosa
I am walking back from my sons’ school when I run into a neighbor. He’s a nice guy with a tired wife. They live at the end of the block—the end that’s too close to the gas station, the end where we would not have bought a house because we could afford to be choosy. Every morning he leaves for work around this time, his name-tagged shirt hanging unbuttoned, his rattling old car breezing past the sad tire swing in the tiny patch of front yard where the kids can’t play unsupervised because people pull out of the gas station too fast. Little faces press against the storm door to watch him go. Little fingers leave sticky marks that a pajamaed mother will clean again and again, after she has put the five-year-old on the small orange bus that will take him to therapeutic preschool.
On this day, I’m walking back with my kindergartener in tow, on our way to a well check-up at the pediatrician. We’ve dropped his older brother off and now we’ll do our thing at the doctor’s office before I take him back to school for the remainder of his day. My neighbor greets us with his characteristic smile. This is a man who never shows a clouded face, never presents worry or unhappiness, a man who exudes good fortune even though I know at least a dozen reasons why he’d be perfectly justified in dropping his cheer.
As my son chatters at him—about the high-strung dog, which is trying to escape down the block; about Harry Potter; about chickens—Neighbor Man says to me, “Boy, he talks a lot, huh? That’s good. He’s smart. He got a lot to say. Me, I wish. Man, I wish my little boy would say even one thing to me. I wish he could say one word.”
I don’t have a chance to react the way I think I should. Six-year-olds are oblivious to adult pain and in the second that it beats between us there on the sidewalk, my little one is off and running after the dog, and we are distracted.
I know Neighbor Man’s son has autism. My boys know it, too. We’ve talked about it many times on that walk to and from school, because when they see him—and they do, often; sometimes they’ll even wait for him, saying “Mom, hang on, I think Ivan’s coming out and we should say hi”—they are acutely aware that he does not speak. He is like them, a smiling little boy, backpacked and sneakered and ready for school, but he does not speak. He is always glad to see them, runs in a circle, smiles, gestures to show them that he likes their backpacks or their shirts or that he is wearing something new. He likes that they say hello to him. But he does not speak. So we’ve talked, my boys and I, about Ivan and his autism and I’ve answered their questions and I’ve listened to them talk probingly, heartbreakingly about him: “I don’t think he’s unhappy, Mom. I think he really has a lot he wants to say. But do you think anyone will ever know how to help him say it?”
I don’t know if anyone will ever help Ivan say what he wants to say, but I don’t tell my boys that. And I don’t know if anyone can help me to say what I want to say to Neighbor Man as we stand on that sidewalk watching the boy and the dog. I see how he watches my son with hunger as if trying to imagine Ivan moving so confidently, speaking so surely. What he doesn’t see is how I watch the same thing with my own sadness, my own wonder.
What I want to say to him is that we are not untouched, our family, and that while my older son does not have “autism,” per se, his neurological disorder has many similarities. That some of the same fears they have for Ivan, I have for my boy, and that just because he is bright and high-achieving and can get along in a “normal” school, doesn’t mean that he does not walk a hard and precarious road. Or that we don’t walk it with him, every day. What I want to tell Neighbor Man, inexplicably, is that I have an email waiting for a response from the neuropsych and we are about to possibly embark on a new treatment, a new course of action, a new therapy that might help bridge the gap between my son and his peers. I want to tell him this urgently and I don’t know why, but I want him to know, somehow, that we are in this together. I want to tell him that today is a mess, this week is a mess. That I had hoped we’d finish 2nd grade on a high note but now it’s all looking like it’s going to shit. That in the space of just a day or two, “all right” can become “terribly wrong.” Because that’s what parenting a kid with special needs is.
I look at Neighbor Man and I see for the first time that he doesn’t look less tired than his wife. He just hides it better. He is kind and calm and he talks to my boy, now back at the curb with the dog at his side, about the chickens he and his mother raised when he still lived in Puerto Rico. I want to reach out to him and tell him that the headache you get from masking your fear, from staying calm and kind and strong on the outside, is startlingly similar to the headache you get from a good hard cry. I want to tell him that today, I don’t know which one of those aches to choose.
But I don’t say anything like that. We make small talk. I tell him we have to go, we’ll be late for the appointment. He steps back into his driveway, to the door of that rattletrap car. I start down the street with my son to the other end of the block, where the houses are a little prettier, the view nicer, where the playground that faces our house is shaded by trees and our car rests inside a well-kept garage. I didn’t tell him any of those things, I think, because there’s no need to. We may live at opposite ends of the block, but we both woke up this morning to the same world.
Brianne K. DeRosa, MFA is a mother, writer, and consultant to non-profit organizations living in Rhode Island with her husband and two young sons. Her work has been featured on numerous websites, including Yahoo and HandPicked Nation, as well as in two cookbooks and the live reading series Listen to Your Mother.