I took this photo in the parking lot of the Lurie Center in Lexington, Massachusetts, a branch of Massachusetts General Hospital that serves children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. These are iconic fries, a not-so-secret symbol of what it often takes to get an ASD kid to and through a doctor’s appointment; I can only imagine the tears spilled when they hit the pavement. The clinicians at the Lurie Center are among the best in the world and yet even the skilled and gentle support they offer can’t always extend out into the parking lot where worried parents and anxious kids struggle – sometimes mightily – to fit yet another specialist appointment into their lives.
But with this photo I see and offer up hope that persistence pays off. Not always, not when we want it to, but it is hard for me to adequately convey my joy at seeing these fries and knowing that they were not going to cause me the meltdown we once might have had just seeing them ice cold on the ground. My boy looked at them and remarked, “Someone’s been to McDonald’s!” and then danced – literally, with iPod – toward the entrance. Next to the door there is a wisely placed trash can, which he glanced into and noted, a little somber now, “There’s the box.” Some part of him knew and felt the pain of the child whose fries had met the wrong fate.
It was a lively day in the waiting room, with several families with antsy children waiting to be greeted by doctors and therapists. We recognized one clinician as she came out to greet a child. We knew her from work we did as part of a research group a few years ago, and she delighted at seeing our boy. He spoke politely with her and then began to tease me about what he wanted from me in exchange for being brave about having his blood drawn (more research – that’s another post – and the covet du jour was yet another Scooby Doo movie) that day. I saw her look at him, and at me and as she listened to us negotiate I saw on her face a measure of disbelief that this could be the same boy she knew in 2009. She looked at me and lowered her voice and said, “Do you know how lucky you are?” And even though I said yes, later I had to stop and take stock of how far we have come from our french fries in the parking lot days. Our challenging times are by no means gone but they are different, and it is best not to dwell on what they are like now – they will return soon enough.
It’s the end of one crazy week and the start of another. We’ve had almost every kind of moment – panic attacks, unrequited love, dancing for joy, teenage rebellion, violations of personal space, bursts of creativity, and early morning hugs before school that reset our relationship from whatever happened the day before. And today an exchange – scripted, yes, but genuine all the same – that is both typical and necessary following transgressions large and small:
Me: “You need to stop ______, please.”
Him (hands on hips, smirk on lips): “What are you going to do with me?!”
That’s what my Dad used to say to me all the time. The first time he said it I was very small and absolutely horrified, and I heatedly insisted that my feed DID match. Then he took my tiny toes in his hands and pointed out that my big toes were on different sides and that if my feet truly matched they would look exactly the same. Stubborn as I was, I did not like to be teased in this way and for a long time I scowled at him every time he said it. The older I got it became progressively more annoying until – poof! – it it became endearing, one of many stock phrases he could be counted to toss out in the course of a day. And eventually I started saying it to my own kids, and they find me annoying. Surprise.
Last Sunday morning it came to mind when my boy padded into my room and slipped into bed with me, taking up the spot usually occupied by his traveling Dad. As I snoozed on my right side, he lay on his left side playing with his iPod, and he lined up his feet so that the soles of his matched up with the soles of mine. An excellent case of respecting personal space with me, as I jealously guard the few weekend mornings when I can sleep in.
I used to think more than I should have about the matching feet thing – it took me longer than usual to grasp the concept of symmetry, I guess. It bothered me when I was little, because I was the youngest and hardly ever in on the joke and thus took everything so literally (case in point: I thought the guerillas who terrorized the Olympic village in 1972 were men in gorilla suits). Sometimes I still miss the cues and can be gullible, which makes me love living with this boy even more because his syntax and receptive language are all over the place – it can be hard to know when he is being silly and when he is earnest. He relies quite heavily on scripted speech and so some of the mashups that come out are priceless. A few weeks ago after being rude and subsequently scolded he asked, “Did my popping off cook my goose?” The latest favorite happened when he got into the car after a long bike ride with a friend: “Man! I have a splitting butt ache!!”
Our feet might not match, but I think we understand symmetry. And, unlike his mother, he has very nice feet.