The night of my father’s memorial service, two weeks and a day after his slipping away at midnight, my seven and a half year old son Ethan wanted to talk about the birds and the bees. Not quite like that, but it started with a question: “Mom, can a baby die before it’s born?”
Generally a truth teller, I say “Yes” and then my brain whirls, I begin to spit out facts about chromosomal abnormalities and knots in umbilical cords, birth defects and still births. The conversation lopes on to answer his many questions about twins, identical and fraternal and just how do fetal cells know how to copy themselves and divide, and my thanking the powers that be that he hasn’t picked tonight to finally ask how the sperm and egg manage to meet up anyway, since I just wasn’t ready to tackle that yet.
And so it’s not until much later that I realize what it is he really wants to know: how long he’s been in danger, in danger of dying.
And yes, the true answer is “from the moment you were conceived, kid”, but that’s not what you say to a seven year old -- unless you like having him crawl into your bed with nightmares for a week (and then of course you’d be footing the therapy bill twenty years down the road). Clearly, death is on his mind these days.
Ethan has certainly been feeling sad about his grandfather’s long drawn out demise, but it’s not easily apparent. It’s been underground, bubbling below the surface. How like a boy, or a quiet volcano for that matter.
One morning on the way to school, shortly after my father’s passing, he asked me why his stomach had been hurting him for the past few days. Not a big throw-up kind of hurting, but bothering him, nonetheless. I explained how sometimes we feel our feelings with our bodies, and that his sadness about his grandpa dying had gone to his stomach. That made a lot of sense to him, and he then told a friend at school that his stomach was missing his grandfather.
He’s also been drawing on the dead grandfather currency, trying to use “I’m just feeling too sad about Grandpa” as a way to ward off undesired homework, or accountability for bad behavior. He gets mad when I don’t buy it, but as I said, “If you’re not too sad to play Pokemon on the DS with Evan for hours, you’re not too sad to do your writing work.”
Which is not to say his feelings aren’t there, it’s just that they are somewhat diffuse; like me, he had been internally preparing for this day for some time. Although of course, you can never really be prepared to come aground on grief’s shoals.
One place Ethan’s feelings have come out, though, is as an increased overall sensitivity, and thus, I’m afraid, a decreasing tolerance for his autistic twin brother, Jacob.
Jacob was driving Ethan around the bend this morning. He was in a terrible cheerful mood, talking and singing constantly with great abandon and Ethan was making himself hoarse with bellowing “Mo-omm, make him go away!”
And I was being a bad mommy and blithely ignoring it this morning, having one of those days when I just can’t deal, can’t insert myself into the fray.
“When someone says stop, you have to stop” I ineffectively remind Jacob for the thousandth time.
“That’s just the way your brother is, don’t take it personally” I re-remind Ethan, who, like his father, is even capable of taking the phrase “don’t take it personally” quite personally.
“He’s just doing it to drive me crazy” says Ethan, again for the umpteenth time (this being a familiar show tune in our house) to which this morning I reply “Really? Because if that’s true that would be wonderful, that would mean he understood that he was being annoying, and he was being purposeful about it.”
One thing that drives Ethan completely bonkers is Jacob’s inability to parse gender. To Jacob “she” and “he” are interchangeable labels, to be used when referencing people, animals or talking trains. “She’s scared” Jacob will say looking at a favorite picture in his book of Thomas the Tank Engine about to crash through a window. Besides the fact that Jacob still likes the intolerably baby-ish Thomas, this last bit really sets Ethan off – “Thomas is a boy – a boy!!!! You say HE, not SHE! HE! HE!”
The bigger issue, of course, is that Jacob will refer to Ethan as “she” and you just don’t do that to a seven year old boy, unless you’re picking a fight. Which, of course, is the farthest thing from Jacob’s mind.
I guess one of the wonderful qualities of kids like Jacob is their complete incapacity for prejudice, since they do not really notice and place people into groups by surface difference. Jacob takes each person as that person, he doesn’t immediately start to shuffle them into categories when he meets them and thus shape and limit his expectations of them.
I do, we neuro-typicals all do, can’t help it: “male” “female” “my race” “another race” “my kids’ age” “my mother’s age” “younger than me” older than me” “older than me, but looks younger (damn!)”. Everyone neatly plopped into their slots, subconsciously, at first glance. We only drill down to their specificity as we get to know them, if we get to know them.
For Jake it’s all specifics, and he will ask a homeless man on the street the same question he would a King, were he ever to meet one. Which is not to say he doesn’t see or notice differences, he just doesn’t base any expectations upon them.
Someday this will probably change as he becomes more like the rest of us, and I will then find myself missing his sweet autistic innocence. But then if he doesn’t change, that is the more troublesome worry.
He is currently so incapable of deliberate meanness, I fear for him in the rough and tumble world of male adolescence he will all too soon find himself thrust into. We all want to protect our children from the world’s dangers, but children with special needs, how much more fragile, vulnerable they are freezes your heart if you let yourself think too much about it.
So I go about my days right now trying skip lightly across the surface, not to dwell in the deeper places where the whirlpools lie. Until of course, Ethan asks his next killer question, then I’ll just take a big breath and dive.