Monday, July 18, 2011

Look Me in the Eye

I sat in the still, humid air at the train station and let out a quiet sigh, lamenting the fact that I had just missed the last train and was going to have to wait forty minutes for the next one that would bring me back into the city.  I was thinking about Rupert, and stressing about how late I was going to get home in order to take him out.  I was thinking of how uncomfortable the chair I was sitting in was.  I was thinking about whether there was a mosquito on my left foot.  Oh my, was I doing some heavy thinking.

A trio of people came walking down the concrete platform.  I was mildly surprised, since the next train was still forty minutes away and I had been counting on spending at least thirty of those minutes alone.  I glanced up from my book and noted a mother wearing a head scarf, a gangly pre-teen boy who was clearly her son, and a tall woman (an aunt? a friend?) who seemed at once both regal and gentle.  They sat near me, on the only other available chairs, and it soon became clear that the boy was on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum.  He was having a hard time of it.  He used almost no words, and when his mother gently told him that he could have no more bread because he was throwing it instead of eating it, his violent reaction was so intense and so unexpected that I flinched.  He swung his head up and around and caught his mother directly under her eye, leaving behind what I'm sure will be a nasty bruise.  She gave a small gasp but said nothing to her son, except, even more softly and quietly than before, "Look at me, please.  Gentle head, now.  Gentle head."

I reached over and touched her shoulder.  "Are you alright?" I asked quietly.  She nodded.  "I'm sorry," I rushed, "I didn't mean to interfere.  Would you like some water or anything?"
"No, but thank you."  She gave me a small smile and I saw in her eyes something that took my breath away.

I saw a love so deep, so unflinching, that it withstands unintentional abuse and outbursts from her son whose future is so uncertain.  I saw in her eyes that she understands what it means to love without any hope of reciprocation.  I saw that she knew pain that I couldn't begin to understand.  She was so calm.  She was at peace.  I was not.  I went back to my book and swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat.  Stop, now, I thought to myself.  Stop and appreciate this moment.  You may be dealing with a lot right now.  But her - right there - you've got NOTHING on her.  

I wished for the ability, for the grace, for the power that none of us have to take away her pain.  It didn't come.  I didn't open my book on the train ride home.  I gazed out the rain-streaked window at the slowly darkening sky and tried to swallow the lump that wouldn't go away.  I don't pretend to understand what it's like to have a differently-abled child, particularly one with severe autism.  But I sure as hell understand what that mother is doing: she is staring straight into the eyes of the challenge that faces her and she is not backing down.  As I watched in my window the reflection of her cradling her now sleeping son across the aisle from me, I thought to myself, Looking life's problems in the eye may not take them away.  But it sure beats the hell out of backing down without a fight.


Anonymous said...

Amazingly written. I am a teacher to children with autism and you captured the parent-child dynamic perfectly, in families where these children are lucky enough to have parents like that.

Ashley the fellow Smithie

The Hoodies said...

This is beautiful. I am the mom of three little lovies. Love is a powerful and intoxicating thing. It makes you do things that you never thought possible. I do not know what it is like to parent a child with Autism, but being a parent is one of the most rewarding, challenging, and beautiful things I have ever experience.
So thankful there are amazing parents out there who choose to fight.

Cait said...

Thank you to you both. It was incredibly moving to see this happen before my eyes. It definitely made me stop and reflect on what the human heart is capable of.

Anonymous said...


I am a new follower via the Nanny Files and I keep reading this post over and over. It is so beautiful and you are a gifted writer. I am a mom of 3, wife, breast cancer survivor and special ed. teacher. This mom sounded so wonderful with her son, but your kindness and compassion also left a big mark on my heart.


dmsegel said...

Beautiful post !!

Cait said...

Thanks, Mel and D. It was a beautiful - and heartbreaking - moment. I feel grateful to have an outlet to share things like this with an audience.