Nonfiction from Sara Bathum
The Pacific Ocean thunders a few hundred yards beyond the hood of our car during a late November storm. It hasn’t stopped raining for days. I tweak the rearview mirror and watch my son stare quietly out into the gray.
It feels like trespassing, this watching. Stolen, somehow. But I am desperate to understand what’s going on behind those eyes, now reflecting the cement-colored sky. At the same time, I’m frightened he’ll ask the question I cannot answer. The one I’ve asked myself a thousand times.
Before the long drive back home to Seattle, our family made one last stop to let the dog run. As soon as my husband opened the door, she rocketed herself across an otherwise empty beach. My younger son piled out after them, grinning, his pudgy preschooler legs hurrying to catch up.
My older son didn’t want to go out in the wet and wind so we sit silently and watch the dune grass cower against the deluge. Wrinkles appear and disappear on his seven-year-old brow like lines of seafoam on the sand.
He worries too much. He worries like a hundred little tremors preceding an earthquake and then the big one comes. He worries like an endless briar patch, his exposed skin is covered in a thousand little cuts.
I worry too much. I worry like giant hiccups of electricity vibrating along cracked and outdated lines. And this small boy in the backseat is my biggest, most perfect worry.
Suddenly now, in our quiet hidey hole beside a seething sea, seems like as good a time as any to stare that frightening question down.
“Do you remember when Dad and I talked to you the other day about being autistic?” I ask.
“Oh. Yeah.” His whisper is punctuated ever so slightly like a moth hitting a window. Like it hurts just a little.
I take a deep breath. “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask me?” Please say no. Please say yes.
“Oh, no,” he sighs. “Those questions are hard.”
A sheet of rain collides with the windshield and we return to silence.
This time he didn’t ask why. Or why me. When he does, what will I say?
Twentieth century child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, commonly credited for “discovering” autism, described mothers of autistic children as “odd and habitually anxious,” always careful to note their level of education for his files. Having highly-educated female forebears, he insisted, was one of the greatest risk factors for autism.
Both of my son’s grandmothers have advanced degrees. So do I. Both of his maternal great grandmothers graduated from college.
“Just as I suspected,” Kanner would say (rather smugly, I imagine), ticking boxes on his clipboard.
Throughout the last hundred years, other highly-trained “experts” have proclaimed with fancy phrases that I gave my son autism. Mothers of autistic children didn’t so much love and give affection to our kids, the experts insisted, as provided them with “mechanized service of the kind which is rendered by an over-conscientious gasoline station attendant.”
Children like my son, Kanner said, were “kept neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost.” Me, he meant. My womb, my arms, my heart.
Along with his lists of damaging maternal idiosyncrasies, Kanner also noted that autistic children were often “strikingly good looking.” He described this beauty, however, as if it surprised him to find it there, amid all the quirks.
At first my son’s beauty surprised and mystified me, but it doesn’t anymore. His eyes are caves of kyanite, shot through with light. His cheeks rise like soft mounds of unbaked challah bread. His is a pulsing and radiant beauty painted with gold on the inside and the sun rising in his chest.
I remember him as a chubby toddler, padding around the house nearly naked with a cloth diaper clinging precariously to his bottom. He paused by a living room window and was suddenly backlit by the evening sun. His wild, wispy curls transformed into a messy golden halo. A haystack with a perm. A sugar maple tree in full fall glory. His fat rolls disappeared quickly once he truly found his feet but my worry for him never did. It bloomed in my belly. It slicked my skin in circus colors like an oily film.
My mother saw it all and began telling me stories.
My grandmother Charlotte had a nervous breakdown when she discovered she was pregnant with her second child (my mother) and her first daughter was only two months old. When the blues and two toddlers wouldn’t leave her be, doctors prescribed a strong antidepressant called Dexedrine; we would come to understand a generation later it was a kind of speed. Dextroamphetamine was also used by the military as a “go-pill” during lengthy combat operations and nighttime bombing expeditions.
My father’s mother, Margaret, lost her ability to cope—and my dad to foster care for a time—when World War II took her husband away to the South Pacific. She prescribed her own medication through the years: vermouth, primarily.
Still, if Kanner had shown up on Charlotte or Margaret’s doorstep spouting his schizophrenogenic mother hypothesis bullshit, they would have sent him packing with a pie plate (or vermouth bottle) to the side of his head. Charlotte would have called him a jackass, an epithet she saved for the worst of the worst, like politicians.
The stories help me feel better. A little less lonely. I wrap them close to my chest and hold them there for the moments when worry for my son threatens to undo me.
The summer before he started Kindergarten, the PTA hosted popsicle playdates at the school’s playground to help the incoming kids get to know one another. We didn’t go. It seemed like walking into the belly of the beast, though admittedly we should have at least taken a peek into its dark and drooling maw before it gobbled us both up, sneakers and all. (It didn’t, quite, but it was always lurking.) This wasn’t daycare or preschool. This was Real School and there would be big kids with big opinions.
“Children can be very judgmental, and very quick to judge,” his doctor said. “And once they decide a kid is weird, they aren’t likely to change their minds.”
At our familiar neighborhood park instead, we watched the typically-developing hordes swarm the slides and swings; my usual anxiety was tinged with something new. Fear about whether his Kindergarten classmates—the ones we stubbornly weren’t getting to know—would play with him and be kind to him made me sit down hard on the park bench. I know all parents feel this way to a certain extent. Every time some well-meaning soul tries to tell me this I feel a modicum of comfort, but mostly I want to scream at them until my voice gives out.
I knew my son was worried about those kids on the playground too. Frightened and nervous.
“I’m shy about them, Mama,” he whispered.
“They scare the shit out of me, buddy,” I wanted to whisper back.
I don’t remember what I actually said, standing there holding his hand at the edge of the wood chips.
Recently, in a rare moment, my father sat across the dinner table and told me a story about his mother. To hide the evidence of her excessive drinking, he said, Margaret regularly drove around the outskirts of our small rural town and hucked empty vermouth bottles out the open window of her old Plymouth. Having milked cows and mucked out stalls on the family dairy farm for decades, she probably had quite an arm on her.
“Hey,” I later joked with my husband, “I may be wound pretty tight, but at least I’m not driving around the neighborhood tossing liquor bottles out of the Civic.”
We chuckled but the look he gave me was watchful. It was comforting; someone should be paying attention if I really start to unravel.
I think about Margaret’s pain and addiction now and I am sorry for it. I think about Charlotte and how life felt like more than she could manage without her little go-pills. I know now they would understand me, though they’ve both been dead for 20 years. They would know me and my worries. They would shoo Kanner, aprons flapping, out of my thoughts for good.
Back on the coast, my son and I sit together in silence. The car smells like stale coffee and wet socks. We watch his little brother grab fistfuls of sand and fling them gleefully into the rain. The dog trots nearby, stopping to poke her nose in a pile of kelp. They are both soaked. Happy. Rivulets of wet, sandy joy trickle down their cheeks and jowls.
If I could distill that joy, that complete absence of care, I would drop it onto my son’s tongue like a drug. A medication beyond the power of his psychiatrist to prescribe. A million-dollar compound beyond the power of the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture. I would tilt my head back and drop it onto my own tongue. I would reach back through time and drop it onto Margaret’s tongue. Onto Charlotte’s. May their worry-ridden souls rest in peace.
The women of my family have a proud and time-honored tradition of fretting and brow-furrowing. It is as reliable and unceasing as the tides. We may indeed be odd. We are definitely anxious. And yes, Dr. Kanner, we’ve had the privilege of a good education. Despite all of this, you were wrong. My son’s autism came not from the number of years I spent in school nor the temperature of my uterus, but from somewhere deep down where the roots of our family tree hold tight to the darkness. His worries came from there too, just like his great grandmothers’ did. Just like mine.
When he finally does ask why, I’m still not quite sure what I’ll say or whether I’ll have the answers he needs. Will the stories of women he’ll never know help him feel better too? A little less lonely? Will he recognize his worries—his self—in mine? Above all else, I will make certain he never has to worry about whether he is loved.
Sara Bathum‘s essays have been published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2017, as well as The Mighty.